Un­likely footholds for E.U.’s far right

Anti-im­mi­grant anger threat­ens to re­make the lib­eral Nether­lands, which holds elec­tions this week

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRIFF WITTE

am­s­ter­dam — Xan­dra Lam­mers lives on an is­land in Am­s­ter­dam, the back door of her mod­ern and spa­cious fourbed­room house open­ing onto a grace­ful canal where ducks, swans and ca­noes glide by.

The trans­la­tion busi­ness she and her hus­band run from their home is thriv­ing. The neigh­bor­hood is boom­ing, with lux­ury homes go­ing up as fast as work­ers can build them, a qui­etly ef­fi­cient tramway to speed res­i­dents to work in the world-renowned city cen­ter, and parks, bike paths, art gal­leries, beaches and cafes all within a short am­ble.

By out­ward ap­pear­ances, Lam­mers is liv­ing the Dutch dream. But in the 60-year-old’s telling, she has been dropped into the mid­dle of a night­mare, one in which Western civ­i­liza­tion is un­der as­sault from the Mus­lim im­mi­grants who have be­come her neigh­bors.

“The in­flux has been too much. The bor­ders should close,” said Lam­mers, soft-spo­ken with pale blue eyes and brown hair that frames a de­cep­tively serene-look­ing face. “If this con­tin­ues, our cul­ture will cease to ex­ist.”

To Europe’s pow­ers that be, the threat looks dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent but no less grave: If enough vot­ers agree with Lam­mers and sup­port the far right in elec­tions here on Wed­nes­day and across the con­ti­nent later this year, then it’s mod­ern Europe it­self —

The face of Geert Wilders, head of the far-right Free­dom Party, is seen on the rem­nants of a poster in the Am­s­ter­dam neigh­bor­hood of IJburg late last month.

de­fined by co­op­er­a­tion, open­ness and mul­ti­cul­tural plu­ral­ism — that could come crash­ing down.

The stakes have risen sharply as Euro­peans’ anti-es­tab­lish­ment anger has swelled. In in­ter­views across the Nether­lands in re­cent days, far-right vot­ers ex­pressed stri­dently na­tion­al­ist, anti-im­mi­grant views that were long con­sid­ered fringe but that have now en­tered the Dutch main­stream.

Vot­ers young and old, rich and poor, ur­ban and ru­ral said they would back the Geert Wilders-led Free­dom Party — no longer the pre­serve of the “left-be­hinds” — which prom­ises to solve the coun­try’s prob­lems by shut­ting bor­ders, clos­ing mosques and help­ing to dis­man­tle the Euro­pean Union.

“They’ve found a very pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive,” said Koen Damhuis, a re­searcher at the Euro­pean Univer­sity In­sti­tute who stud­ies the far right. “By cre­at­ing a mas­ter con­flict of the na­tional ver­sus the for­eign, they’re able to at­tract sup­port from all el­e­ments of so­ci­ety.”

Along the way, Europe’s old as­sur­ances have been swept aside. The far right may ex­ist, the con­ti­nent’s po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment has long told it­self, but a vir­tu­ous brew of grow­ing eco­nomic pros­per­ity, in­creased cross-bor­der in­te­gra­tion and ris­ing ed­u­ca­tion lev­els would blunt its ap­peal. Most im­por­tant of all, the pun­gent mem­ory of the na­tion­al­ist right’s last turn in power would keep it from ever gain­ing con­trol in Europe again.

But, in 2017, ev­ery one of those as­sump­tions is be­ing chal­lenged — per­haps even ex­ploded.

After the transat­lantic jolts of Brexit and Don­ald Trump last year, con­ti­nen­tal Europe is brac­ing for a pos­si­ble string of par­a­digm-rat­tling firsts in its post­war his­tory.

In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen has a cred­i­ble shot at a tri­umph in spring pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. In Ger­many, an anti-im­mi­grant party ap­pears poised to win seats in the na­tional Par­lia­ment this fall. And here in the Nether­lands, a man con­victed only months ago of hate speech could wind up on top when votes are counted in this com­ing week’s na­tional elec­tions.

At first glance, the Nether­lands — a small na­tion of 17 mil­lion that has long punched above its weight on the global stage through sea­far­ing exploration and trade — seems an un­likely set­ting for a pop­ulist re­volt.

Un­like in France, where the econ­omy con­tin­ues to stag­ger nearly a decade on from the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the in­di­ca­tors in the Nether­lands are broadly pos­i­tive: fall­ing un­em­ploy­ment, healthy growth and rel­a­tively low in­equal­ity. By most mea­sures, the Dutch are some of the hap­pi­est peo­ple on Earth.

And un­like Ger­many, where Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel opened the coun­try’s bor­ders to a his­toric in­flux of refugees in 2015, the Nether­lands has been rel­a­tively in­su­lated from mass im­mi­gra­tion. Com­pared with its neigh­bors, the Dutch took sig­nif­i­cantly fewer asy­lum seek­ers dur­ing the refugee cri­sis, and much of the coun­try’s non­na­tive pop­u­la­tion set­tled in the Nether­lands decades ago.

Those dif­fer­ences make it all the more sur­pris­ing that the far right’s mes­sage res­onates here and hint at just how dif­fi­cult it could be to halt the global pop­ulist wave.

For much of the past two years, Wilders’s Free­dom Party has led the polls, though it has re­cently dropped into a vir­tual tie with the rul­ing cen­ter right.

Be­cause of the deeply frag­mented na­ture of Dutch pol­i­tics — there will be 28 par­ties on the bal­lot Wed­nes­day — the Free­dom Party could come out on top with just 20 per­cent of the vote. Even if it does, it is con­sid­ered ex­tremely un­likely that Wilders would end up gov­ern­ing, be­cause other par­ties have spurned him.

But he has al­ready had an out­size in­flu­ence, forc­ing ri­val politi­cians — in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter, Mark Rutte — to shift their poli­cies and rhetoric in his di­rec­tion.

To many Wilders sup­port­ers, the over­all pic­ture of a grow­ing econ­omy with a com­par­a­tively small num­ber of re­cent im­mi­grants is be­side the point. Their rea­sons for back­ing the plat­inumhaired politi­cian — who refers to Moroc­cans as “scum” and ad­vo­cates a to­tal ban on Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion — run much deeper.

“The main is­sue is iden­tity,” said Joost Niemöller, a jour­nal­ist and au­thor who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on Wilders and is sym­pa­thetic to his cause. “Peo­ple feel they’re los­ing their Dutch iden­tity and Dutch so­ci­ety. The neigh­bor­hoods are chang­ing. Im­mi­grants are com­ing in. And they can’t say any­thing about it be­cause they’ll be called racist. So they feel help­less. Be­cause they feel help­less, they get an­gry.”

And to­day, that anger can be found far be­yond the poorer, lesse­d­u­cated, work­ing-class ar­eas where Wilders and his party first gained sub­stan­tial sup­port.

“I hear it on the ten­nis court and at the golf club. Peo­ple don’t want im­mi­grants,” said Geert Tom­low, a for­mer Free­dom Party can­di­date who fell out with Wilders but still sym­pa­thizes with many of his po­si­tions. “One-third of Hol­land is an­gry. We’re an­gry. We don’t want all th­ese changes.”

That is true even in places where lit­tle seems to have changed.

Te­u­nis Den Her­tog, a 34-yearold small-busi­ness owner, lives in a pas­toral town that he said is vir­tu­ally un­touched by im­mi­gra­tion. “I’ve heard there’s a Turk­ish man who lives here — but just out­side the town, thank­fully,” he said.

None­the­less, Den Her­tog said he wants the gov­ern­ment to close the coun­try to new ar­rivals and reestab­lish com­pul­sory bor­der checks for the first time in decades.

“You can see a ve­hi­cle com­ing with a lot of men with dark skin and pick them out,” said Den Her­tog, who grew up poor and one of nine chil­dren but now earns enough to af­ford a com­fort­able, sub­ur­ban-style house for his fam­ily of four. “Other­wise, it’s just too dan­ger­ous.”

Den Her­tog said he typ­i­cally avoids the coun­try’s di­verse, cos­mopoli­tan cities. But Wilders sup­port­ers ex­ist there, too, as Lam­mers — the Am­s­ter­dam is­land res­i­dent — can at­test.

Univer­sity-ed­u­cated, fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful and raised in the cul­tur­ally pro­gres­sive fir­ma­ment of the Nether­lands’ big­gest city, Lam­mers had long staked her ground on the left. Her fa­ther was a re­gional mayor from the Labour Party, and she iden­ti­fied as a sup­porter well into adult­hood.

“I was very po­lit­i­cally cor­rect,” she said. “I be­lieved in the so­cial ex­per­i­ment.”

It was a move up the so­cial lad­der that pre­cip­i­tated her shift across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

In 2005, she and her hus­band bought their home in the Am­s­ter­dam neigh­bor­hood of IJburg, an in­no­va­tive de­vel­op­ment built on a clus­ter of ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands.

Like many who moved to the neigh­bor­hood, Lam­mers and her hus­band did so be­cause the area of­fered big­ger houses at lower prices than could be found in the crammed city cen­ter. And at first, it was every­thing they had hoped.

“It had a vil­lage feel­ing. Ev­ery­one knew each other. They put a tem­po­rary su­per­mar­ket in a tent,” she re­called. “It was cozy.”

But then came a sur­prise. Fam­i­lies of Moroc­can and Turk­ish ori­gin started mov­ing in, part of a so­cial pro­gram to ded­i­cate 30 per­cent of the de­vel­op­ment’s hous­ing to peo­ple on low in­comes, the dis­abled or the el­derly.

Sud­denly, she said, white Dutch res­i­dents had to share their streets, gar­dens and el­e­va­tors with Mus­lim women wear­ing head­scarves and men sport­ing beards. Crime, noise and lit­ter soon in­truded on her ur­ban idyll, she said.

The new­com­ers gen­er­ally spoke Dutch, and many seemed to work. But she faulted them for “not in­te­grat­ing,” the ev­i­dence of which she said could be found in their tra­di­tional dress and at­ten­dance at a mod­est, store­front mosque.

She sug­gested they try church in­stead, though Lam­mers said she does not at­tend. (“Some­times on Sun­day I watch Amer­i­can church on the tele­vi­sion,” Lam­mers said. “They’re very op­posed to Is­lam. I like that.”)

If the new­com­ers have hurt her neigh­bor­hood’s de­sir­abil­ity, it’s not ap­par­ent in the home prices, which have sharply risen. Nor is it vis­i­ble on the streets, which are clean, tidy and, on a mild late win­ter’s day, filled with chil­dren of var­i­ous eth­nic back­grounds hap­pily rid­ing scoot­ers and bikes. But Lam­mers re­mains bit­ter.

“You think you’re go­ing to live in a well-to-do neigh­bor­hood,” she said. “But you end up liv­ing in a so-called black neigh­bor­hood be­cause of the so­cial­ist ide­ol­ogy.”

Among the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of that ide­ol­ogy is one of Lam­mers’s friends, Ron­ald Meu­lendi­jks, a 44-year-old who has been liv­ing on full-time med­i­cal dis­abil­ity since he was 29.

The gov­ern­ment pays him the equiv­a­lent of $1,000 a month and pro­vides him with a steep dis­count on a light-filled, three­bed­room apart­ment in the heart of IJburg — ben­e­fits he said he de­serves as a na­tive-born Dutch­man with a long pedi­gree.

“My whole fam­ily of seven gen­er­a­tions paid taxes,” he said.

Mus­lim im­mi­grants and their chil­dren, by con­trast, are un­de­serv­ing, he said.

“When I see all the refugees get­ting every­thing for free, I get very an­gry. I want to throw some­thing at the tele­vi­sion,” said Meu­lendi­jks, who dotes on his pair of chow­chow res­cue dogs and serves vis­i­tors to his art-filled apart­ment co­pi­ous tea and straw­berry pie. “A gov­ern­ment has to treat its own peo­ple cor­rectly be­fore ac­cept­ing new ones. First, you must take care of your own.”

And if the gov­ern­ment fails, Meu­lendi­jks has dark vi­sions of what’s to come.

“I think Hol­land will need a civil war,” he said, “be­tween the peo­ple who don’t be­long here and the real peo­ple.”

To drive home the point, Meu­lendi­jks has dec­o­rated his panoramic win­dows with five large posters bear­ing the face of Wilders and his party’s cam­paign slo­gan: “The Nether­lands is ours again.”

A pro­nounced nick in the glass — the re­sult of a care­fully aimed rock — sug­gests not ev­ery­one in the neigh­bor­hood agrees with Meu­lendi­jks’s clash-of-civ­i­liza­tions world­view.

Neigh­bors said they did not rec­og­nize the grim vi­sion of IJburg that Lam­mers and Meu­lendi­jks de­scribed.

“Which coun­try you come from or which re­li­gion you have, it doesn’t mat­ter here,” said Iris Schep­pin­gen, 41, a res­i­dent for the past decade who is rais­ing three chil­dren in IJburg. “The chil­dren all play to­gether.”

At a nearby ha­lal pizza res­tau­rant — one of the neigh­bor­hood’s few busi­nesses that ex­plic­itly cater to Mus­lim cus­tomers — the owner said the area was safe and quiet. He said he had never no­ticed a cul­tural clash.

“Nice peo­ple here,” said 49year-old Farhad Sal­imi as his staff of young kitchen work­ers slung pies and sprin­kled top­pings. “Ev­ery­one comes here for pizza. Im­mi­grants. Dutch peo­ple. Ev­ery­body. We don’t have prob­lems.”

The world, how­ever, was a dif­fer­ent story.

A refugee from Iran who moved to the Nether­lands nearly 30 years ago, Sal­imi said he had seen what re­li­gious zealotry and the pol­i­tics of ex­clu­sion did to his na­tive land.

Now, the gray-haired Sal­imi fears, it is hap­pen­ing across the West, even in the peace­ful and pros­per­ous coun­try that had so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally wel­comed him.

The politi­cians are ex­ploit­ing di­vi­sions, turn­ing peo­ple against one an­other for their own gain, he said. Ex­trem­ism is ris­ing. Where will it end?

“Ev­ery­where,” he said solemnly, “is messed up.”

MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In Ger­many, an anti-im­mi­grant party seems poised to win seats in Par­lia­ment, test­ing post-World War II as­sump­tions about the lim­its of na­tion­al­ism.

In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen leads many polls head­ing into spring pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Crit­ics say a Le Pen vic­tory could mean dis­as­ter.

In the Nether­lands, a man con­victed only months ago of hate speech could wind up on top when votes are counted in this week’s na­tional elec­tions.

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: A woman walks through the com­mer­cial cen­ter of IJburg, a neigh­bor­hood in Am­s­ter­dam where the far-right, an­ti­im­mi­gra­tion Free­dom Party, led by Geerts Wilders, has found once-un­likely pock­ets of sup­port.

ABOVE: Par­ty­go­ers cel­e­brate car­ni­val last month in the Dutch city of Breda, a strong­hold for the Free­dom Party.

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