Popular Belgian Party Rejects Multicultural Society Anti-immigrant sentiment is spreading across Europe, boosting support for populist, right-wing parties. One of the most successful is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. Backers of the party, known as Vlaams Belang, criticize Muslim immigrants for failing to assimilate.
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Popular Belgian Party Rejects Multicultural Society

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Popular Belgian Party Rejects Multicultural Society

Popular Belgian Party Rejects Multicultural Society

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A number of populist, radical, right-wing parties have emerged in Europe as a result of growing anti-immigration sentiment. One of the most successful parties is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. The Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest Party, traces its origins to pro-Nazi groups in World War II. It's anti-immigrant and also wants separation from the French-speaking part of Belgium.

In the second part of our series on Europe's political move to the right, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from the outskirts of Antwerp.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: This is Vlaams Belang's stronghold. At local elections in October, the party soared. In the small suburb of Hoboken, it reached 41 percent, far ahead of all other parties.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

POGGIOLI: It's lunchtime and this noisy, smoky café is crowded with people. Sitting at the bar, school bus driver Eric Delawer says this working-class town used to vote socialist. But in recent years, with the influx of large numbers of Muslim immigrants, he says the people of Hoboken have turned to Vlaams Belang.

Mr. ERIC DELAWER: (Through Translator) The immigrants don't integrate, they separate themselves from us. I say if they don't adapt to our customs, the only option is to send them back to their home countries.

POGGIOLI: In the nearby marketplace, an elderly woman, Therese Muns, says problems with immigrants and law and order are closely linked.

Ms. THERESE MUNS: (Through Translator) We are afraid to go out at night. You have to watch your purse and your money. They don't have respect for older people like it used to be.

POGGIOLI: It's not just the indigenous Flemish population that's feeling scared. At Koninjlik High School, where most girls wear headscarves, the student body is nearly 100 percent from immigrant backgrounds.

Mr. SAID BOUMAZOUGHE: And no, I don't go anywhere. I just stay here in the neighborhood.

POGGIOLI: Nineteen-year-old Said Boumazoughe was born here of Moroccan parents. He wants to continue his studies and become a teacher, but he feels uncertain about his future.

Mr. BOUMAZOUGHE: The reaction of the people who vote on Vlaams Belang, that makes me scared because I cannot trust them.

POGGIOLI: Said's social studies teacher, Sarah Van Leuvenhaege, says this school is officially called a concentration school. She calls Hoboken's other high school a white school that only has ethnic Flemish students.

Ms. SARAH VAN LEUVENHAEGE (Teacher, Koninjlik High School): I really don't mind teaching kids from Morocco or Turkey, or wherever they come from. But I do mind that my class group is not representative of the Belgian society. I think that is a problem because they are only hearing stories from their own societies.

POGGIOLI: Growing mutual suspicion and the gulf between the Flemish and immigrants' parallel societies are the pillars of Vlaams Belang's propaganda.

Mr. FILIP DEWINTER (Vlaams Belang): We are not in favor of the famous multicultural society.

POGGIOLI: Filip Dewinter is the leader of Vlaams Belang.

Mr. DEWINTER: We don't have a problem with legal immigrants if they are willing to assimilate to our culture, our way of life, our main values. But we can't allow that they come to our country, they come to Europe, and they keep their own culture, they keep their own Islamic religion, which isn't always compatible with our way of life, with our culture.

POGGIOLI: When Dewinter speaks of culture, he means Flemish not Belgian. In fact, the party's other big issue is a demand for a separation from the poorer, less-productive French-speaking part of Belgium, which is seen as more laissez-faire toward the influx of Muslim immigrants.

Mr. DEWINTER: It's bad for our economy. It's bad for our political system. It's bad for our social cohesion. And if we would be independent, well, then we could chose for our own priorities.

POGGIOLI: Dewinter's party was disbanded in 2004 after it was convicted in a Belgian court of inciting racism, hatred and discrimination. But it was reborn under its current name and the same leadership. In Dewinter's office, a large political poster takes up most of one wall. It dates from the 1970s and celebrates all the neo-Nazi and militant ultraright-wing groups of the period. Dewinter says he keeps it because he likes the graphic design but insists his party has softened its rhetoric. In fact, to date, in Flanders one in four vote for Vlaams Belang

Stefaan Walgrave, professor of political science in Antwerp, says the party's base used to be working-class, but it has now become a mainstream organization.

Professor STEFAAN WALGRAVE (Professor of Political Science, University of Antwerp): So it's people from all walks of life, all ages, all education levels, and so on. It's the party with the most representative electorate of all parties in Flanders at the moment.

POGGIOLI: Vlaams Belang is also the biggest political force in Flanders. But it's stigmatized by all the other parties which have formed an unlikely coalition whose only common cause is keeping the far right out of power. But Tuur Van Wallendael of the ruling Socialist Party acknowledges that the establishment boycott does not prevent the pariah's message from getting through.

Mr. TUUR VAN WALLENDAEL (Socialist Party): We've made immigration law more strict. There are no new immigrants coming into this country legally. We simply say no.

POGGIOLI: The government has also stiffened its anti-crime policy, making it harder to get early prison release. Today, prisons are full and three-quarters of inmates are of immigrant backgrounds.

The ruling coalition is also introducing measures to ensure immigrants' integration, such as required language and civic culture courses. This new emphasis on assimilation to Flemish society and culture infuriates Muslim activists.

Lebanese-born Dyab Abou Jahjah founded the Arab European League to defend Muslims' traditions and religious rights. He justifies Muslim immigrants resorting to violent protest when they feel oppressed.

Mr. DYAB ABOU JAHJAH (Founder, Arab European League): When you don't give them that full citizenship, then they flip as citizens should and they throw Molotov cocktail and they throw stones. This is a citizen attitude. A noncitizen attitude is being in your home, in your restaurant and going, yes, Mr. Belgium, that's your country not mine, so you can treat me as second-right citizen.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

POGGIOLI: Raiga(ph) is a small wine bar in Antwerp. During the October election campaign, owner Patrick Gearman(ph) helped organized a protest in which all local bars and restaurants shut down while Vlaams Belang was holding a rally nearby. But Gearman also wonders why there are many Muslim immigrants really do want to adapt to European societies.

Mr. PATRICK GEARMAN (Bar Owner, Antwerp): You can be respectful for other people's views and religious - there's no problem like that. But I do think that when you come to Europe and we had our French Revolution and we made a split between church and state, it should be kept that way.

POGGIOLI: Gearman, like many other European liberals, is feeling squeezed between two extremisms, between angry radicalized immigrants and a mounting right-wing backlash.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow Sylvia will report from France, where the right-wing extremist Jean-Marie La Pen is becoming increasingly popular.

Unidentified Woman: They don't even read his program. What they remember of Jean-Marie La Pen is one thing: the idea that all the problems in France are caused by the presence of immigrants.

MONTAGNE: And that will be the last of three reports on Europe's shift to the right.

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