Europe's Rising Intolerance A Product Of Financial Frustration

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People in Europe are still suffering from the after-effects of the global financial crisis. In some European countries, this economic insecurity seems to be what's behind rising support for anti-immigrant parties and policies. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Eric Westervelt about the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, particularly in Sweden and Germany.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

People in Europe are still suffering from the after-effects of the global financial crisis. People are losing jobs, losing benefits, losing confidence in their financial security, as they are in the United States.

In some European countries, this economic insecurity seems to be what's behind rising support for anti-immigrant parties and policies. In Holland and in Sweden, parties on the far-right have made significant gains; in France and Italy we've seen government crackdowns on Roma - or what are also sometimes called gypsy populations.

NPR's European correspondent, Eric Westervelt, joins us from Berlin.

Eric, thanks for being with us.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And let's try and pick this apart specifically. The Netherlands and Sweden - often thought of in the United States as just about the most open, tolerant countries. But what's happening now?

WESTERVELT: Well, it looks like that old image of both countries, Scott, is a bit outdated. In Holland this week, anti-Islam far-right politician Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party came to an agreement with the center-right parties. He's now part of this new coalition government, after Wilders' party got 24 seats in parliament. I mean he's built his support, Scott, politically attacking Islam and Muslim immigrants. He calls Islam a violent ideology, not a religion. He's denounced the Quran as a fascist book akin to Hitler's "Mein Kampf." You know, he was once seen as fringe political figure, Scott, but now he's part of the government and he's already won concessions in a coalition agreement to introduce legislation to ban face-covering Islamic veils, the burqa, and he wants to reduce by half the number of, as he puts it, all non- Western immigrants.

SIMON: And Sweden, Eric?

WESTERVELT: Much like the Netherlands, a far-right anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, has won 20 seats in parliament and now, you know, the mainstream parties in Sweden have to deal with this anti-Islam, anti- immigration party.

SIMON: The crackdown that's been going on in France earlier this year has attracted some attention. President Sarkozy ordered a crackdown on illegal Roma encampments and some deportations. What's been the outcome of that campaign?

WESTERVELT: Well, I think it's really divided many in France. France sees itself as a sort of beacon of human rights and right now there's been an outcry, you know, from, the European Union, from the United Nations, from the Vatican, and the EU is now investigating whether France is in fact violating EU law and is unfairly targeting Roma.

Well, the French government says, look, the EU needs to have a continent-wide plan, some kind of program to deal with Roma camps and child beggars, instead of just addressing the problem piecemeal.

SIMON: And tell us about Germany, from which you've covered this continent.

WESTERVELT: Well, right now, I mean, the economy is doing quite well but anti- immigrant feelings have cropped up big time due in part to a publication of a new book, a controversial new book by Thilo Sarrazin. He was forced to step down, Scott, as a member of Germany's Central Bank after making inflammatory remarks about Muslims and Jews. In his new book he says that Muslim immigrants prefer to live off welfare and that this is undermining Germany's identity and culture and way of life. He also said in subsequent interviews that Jews share special genes, a statement he later backtracked from.

He lost his job, Scott, but the book has become a bestseller here. And the immigration controversy has led to the formation of a new, so far very small, kind of fringe right-wing party here in Germany, modeled on Geert Wilders' Freedom Party. In fact, Wilders is in Berlin today, Scott, to rally German supporters and help inaugurate this new party called Freedom.

SIMON: Eric, can this all be explained by economic reverses?

WESTERVELT: I think that's only part of it, Scott. I mean many of these parties are offering simple, provocative, at times openly racist solutions, but they have tapped into a genuine popular fear of Islam or at least one stereotyped, often inaccurate version of that faith, and a real frustration on the ground with establishment conservative parties, and those establishment parties are now scrambling to adapt and in many cases across Europe they're moving further and further to the right.

SIMON: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Berlin. Thanks so much.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, Scott.

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