In Europe, it took the right and the extreme right just hours to turn the terrible events of Paris into political fodder: On Saturday afternoon in France, Laurent Wauquiez, secretary-general of the Republicans, the conservative party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, demanded detention camps for some 4,000 people in France considered potential terrorists by the authorities.
And in Germany, Markus Soder, the Minister of Finance in Bavaria and a leader of the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the sharpest critics of her refugee policy, said: “The era of uncontrolled migration and illegal immigration is over. Paris changes everything.”
At least the second part of his statement is true: Paris will change things.
It feels like the terrorists have flung open a door and burst into a room with a dense, uncomfortable atmosphere, packed with people ready to succumb to hysteria at the slightest trigger. Germany feels attacked, too — and not only because Germany’s Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was at the Stade de France alongside the French President, Francois Hollande, on Friday night. An increasing number of Germans have been feeling “attacked” anyway: Attacked by an “avalanche” of refugees from a different cultural setting, as the Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schauble, puts it these days.
In Germany and elsewhere, the idea that incoming refugees present a security risk is already an established meme among the anti-immigrant right online; they take it as fact that the attacks in Paris would not have happened had Europe shut its doors months ago.
Obviously, this isn’t everyone: Thousands of volunteers still exhaust themselves trying to provide food, clothing and shelter to the thousands of refugees arriving each week. But well before Paris, this mood had begun to sour; the welcome mat of the summer was tattering by fall.
Attacks on refugees
Hate speech in social networks is on the rise. So too is violence. In Cologne, Henriette Reker, a mayoral candidate and a former director of the city’s social-welfare department, where she oversaw refugee assistance, was stabbed and severely wounded by a right-wing extremist during a public appearance in October (she won her race). The number of attacks on group homes for asylum seekers is growing, too.
Politically, the consensus on refugees between the centre left and centre right in Germany, which has set the tone for much of Europe’s policy over all, has given way to sharp disagreements over the right answer to mass immigration, with conservatives fleeing in droves.
Yet, all this is just tinder for the fire that the Paris attacks have lit. For one thing, they will be likely to lead to a further decline in Merkel’s already sinking approval rates. The far right has taken the first shot: On a Facebook page belonging to one leading anti-immigrant group, Pegida, someone wrote “Merkel has got blood on her hands”. Her position in the domestic refugee debate will weaken, as will her leadership on the issue among European Union countries, as she is forced to make compromises at home.
So far, the opposition in Germany is populist and disparate. But the attacks open the door for a major, organised run at the electorate by the “Alternative fur Deutschland”, a right-wing party founded in 2013. The party has profited from the influx of refugees and now has approval rates of about 7 per cent — enough to enter a state parliament in one of the three state elections coming up in March. On Monday, one polling firm, Insa, even saw the party in the double digits, with 10.5 per cent, for the first time ever. Its influence on national policy will rise accordingly.
And in Germany as across Europe, Islamophobia is picking up speed. Last Saturday, Heiko Maas, Germany’s minister of justice and a Social Democrat, wrote online: “We won’t recede. Freedom and democracy are stronger than terror.” The answer from anti-immigrant commenters was quick, brutal and expletive-laced. “Your boundless idiocy and freedom are making this possible,” was a typical reply.
Germany has, until now, been a political and geographic lynchpin in maintaining European adherence to the Schengen agreement, which guarantees open borders across much of the Continent. It will now come under extreme pressure: France, the Netherlands and Spain had tightened border controls by Saturday afternoon, around the same time that Poland announced that it would reduce the number of refugees it had agreed to take.
Whatever we may learn about the actual lives and origins of the perpetrators, whether one or several of them really came to Europe just recently, hidden among hundreds of thousands of refugees, it doesn’t really matter. In the current climate in Germany, facts are fiction and vice versa. Pegida, Alternative fur Deutschland and the rest of the right wing have long made it their mantra that the government and mainstream media are lying to the German population — and many agree.
Germany has grown increasingly anxious and angry for some months. Reason might now decide to leave the room, replaced by the politics of fear. And where Germany goes, the rest of Europe will follow.
— New York Times News Service
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.