Saturday 1 October 2016

Is streetwise Pegida on the march here?

With Germany's AfD leader Frauke Petry set for electoral gains in her homeland, could the hard-right gain traction with voters here?

Joe O'Shea

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Flashpoint: An anti-Pegida protest in Dublin last Saturday
Flashpoint: An anti-Pegida protest in Dublin last Saturday
AfD leader Frauke Petry.

The "arrival" of Pegida and the new hard-right politics in Ireland has so far been something of damp-squib, a series of social ­media wars and street scuffles.

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Attempts to launch a branch of the populist anti-migrant, anti-Islam movement in Dublin last weekend drew around 1,000 protesters and just a few score of would-be crusaders.

And in the end, the main flashpoints were between militant anti-fascist protesters and gardaí, with Pegida banners or even supporters very hard to locate in the confusion.

However, those who hope that Ireland is too naturally moderate, or somehow immune to hard-right populism, might want to look at what is happening across Europe and think again. In Sweden, Europe's self-declared "humanitarian superpower", the Swedish Democrats (SD) have grown out of the neo-Nazi movement to become the third largest party with 49 seats in Parliament.

Finland has seen a recent wave of neo-Nazi inspired protest and violence, with various groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement targeting Muslims and immigrants.

Hard-right political movements have been on the rise across Europe, from Greece and the Balkans to the suburbs of Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. And in Germany, the New Right has found its telegenic face in Frauke Petry, youthful leader of Germany's main right-wing anti-immigrant party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Together with Marine Le Pen in France and Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, Petry is one the new breed of leaders to emerge as Europe lurches to the right.

At just 40 years of age, articulate, well-educated and very media-savvy, Petry has hardly been out of the news in Germany amidst growing dissatisfaction with Chancellor Merkel's controversial refugee policy.

More than 1.1 million refugees have arrived in Germany in less than a year. And Merkel travelled to Turkey this week to try and work out an agreement to deal with a fresh wave prompted by the latest, Russian-backed offensive in Syria.

Last weekend, as a small group of would-be Pegida supporters tried to organise in Dublin, Petry was causing outrage in Germany by suggesting the country's border police should be allowed to shoot at refugees trying to enter the country illegally.

"People must stop migrants from crossing illegally from Austria [into Germany]," she said in an interview with a German newspaper. "If necessary, they should use firearms. I don't want this, but the use of armed force is there as a last resort."

Petry has been leader of the AfD since last summer. She and her followers orchestrated the ousting of the original party founders, who set AfD up as a broadly anti-Euro group during the height of the Greek economic meltdown.

The AfD now has nationwide support of around 12pc and is tipped to make significant gains in upcoming regional parliamentary elections in three German states.

Petry has an unapologetic, populist message for German voters who are increasingly dismayed by Merkel's "Open Door" policy and are rapidly losing faith in the European Union.

The AfD has been wary of any ties to the hardline anti-Islam movement Pegida - but there are signs that Petry, as leader, is moving towards ever-closer cooperation with the movement which originated in her home town of Dresden.

Pegida and the AfD under Petry use the same language to describe the "liar press" or "traitor" politicians.

One prominent journalist told Petry during a live TV debate that she was the "friendly smile on the face of the hordes that march through Dresden and beat people up… you are the democratic arm of those who bait foreigners and set fire to asylum-seekers' homes."

Her response was to keep smiling and deny that her party is behind any violent street protests or fostering of unrest in the cities.

A mother of four (who caused some scandal last year when she left her husband, a Lutheran pastor, for a fellow AfD politician), Petry is deliberately calm and reasoned in the face of accusations she is the acceptable face of a dangerous new force in European politics.

The leader and the party do not look like neo-Nazis, or at least not like the skinheads in boots and bomber jackets who have been the stereotypical hard-right in Germany since the early Eighties. In her finely tailored suits and with her calmly delivered, carefully pitched arguments, Petry seeks to reassure potential supporters that they are not buying into the toxic hard-right ideology of the past.

But when it comes to her views on emigrants, Islam and greater European integration, Petra and the AfD do not sound so very difficult from Pegida or the raft of other hard-right movements making gains in increasingly uncertain and fractious times.

Indo Review

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