Here’s a recap of what has been going on in Germany’s domestic politics since a new government was sworn in last week. A conservative minister from Bavaria said that “Islam is not a part of Germany.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, ostensibly his boss and a perennial frenemy, replied: “Islam has become part of Germany.”
Another Bavarian heavyweight jumped in. This one was in Ms. Merkel’s previous cabinet and, like the first minister, belongs to the Christian Social Union (CSU): “Islam, in no matter which form, is not a part of Germany.”
The chancellor, drawing a deep breath, was probably thinking: “Lord, help me.”
On it went, in the same general tone. The CSU’s politicians, facing a regional election in Bavaria this fall, have been dropping rabble-rousing soundbites against political correctness and against borderless travel — a cornerstone of the European Union.
Voilà! You’re all caught up on the first ten days of Germany’s new cabinet at work. It makes me miss the past six months of coalition talks and political stalemate.
Germany as a country, admittedly, is looking pretty good. Its economy is booming. Even so, Germany also needs reforms and has other pressing problems. Can it really afford pointless diatribes about whether Islam is, or is not, “part” of it? For the record, upwards of 4 million Muslims call Germany home. The first mosque in Berlin opened its doors 90 years ago. What else do you need to know?
Even the semantics of the discussion are weird. Ever since the new interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who is also the CSU’s party boss, dropped his rhetorical bomb on the very day of his inauguration, English-language journalists have struggled to translate his exact words. Islam “belongs in” Germany? Belongs “to” Germany? Trying to look grown-up, Angela Merkel’s heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, sternly reminded no one in particular that they had actual work to do rather than waste everybody’s time with such nonsense.
But for Bavaria’s CSU, sounding tough on immigration — and in particular, on Muslim immigrants — is more than a pastime. It’s a strategic gambit. The CSU is the “sister party” of Angela Merkel’s CDU. It achieved its poorest result ever in last year’s federal election. Still recovering from that shock, it is now revving up for that Bavarian election in the fall.
It is prepared to do anything to defend its absolute majority in the state parliament in Munich. So the CSU, usually called “center-right” but increasingly just “right”, is desperate to win back disgruntled voters who have defected to the Alternative for Germany. This anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim party, abbreviated as AfD, was one of the big winners of the last election, entering the Bundestag for the first time with 13 percent of the vote. You can expect more anti-Muslim noise to come out of Bavaria in the coming months — not only from the AfD, but also from the CSU.
As a French citizen, I have a bad feeling of déjà vu. Around the time when I moved to Berlin a decade ago, French politics looked quite similar. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy swept into power on a much more right-wing agenda than used to be the norm for his formerly moderate and centrist party. Convinced that his law-and-order bravado had won over far-right sympathizers and helped him get elected, the new president then upped the rhetoric against immigrants and Islam even further.
“When there’s one [Arab], that’s fine. But when there are a lot of them, then we get problems.”
There are other striking parallels between Paris, 2007, and Berlin, 2018. Horst Seehofer, who for the past 10 years was Bavaria’s state premier, has just been named not only Germany’s minister of the interior but also of its “homeland”, a new category. There has been soul-searching about just what “homeland” means. This conspicuous addition to what was hitherto the plain old interior ministry reminds me of Mr. Sarkozy’s creation of a brand new immigration ministry in Paris. (Up until then, immigration had been just a department of the French interior ministry.) Incidentally, that new ministry was officially called the “Ministry of immigration, integration and national identity.” Subtle, ain’t it?
The first immigration — and national-identity — minister, a supercilious right-winger named Brice Hortefeux, was great at dog-whistle politics. In one egregious incident, party members introduced him to a young sympathizer of North African descent as “our little Arab” who, fortunately, didn’t “fit the stereotype.” The minister then chuckled on camera, “There’s always one. When there’s one, that’s fine. But when there are a lot of them, then we get problems.”
This went on and on for years. And what good did it do? Mr. Sarkozy ended up alienating centrist voters, not to mention Muslims and non-white citizens who, like me, didn’t quite buy his lip-service to diversity. He lost the following presidential election, in 2012. In the meantime, the Front National, not to be outdone by Mr. Sarkozy’s rightward lurch, simply turned up its xenophobic rhetoric even more. Instead of shrinking again, it drew even more votes from the conservatives.
Mr. Sarkozy did not learn the lesson. Even though he was no longer president and his party had moved into opposition, Mr. Sarkozy went downright Tea-Party in the following years. I spent six months in Paris in 2013 and was shocked by how toxic the political debate had become. France was polarized and pessimistic beyond recognition.
This brought us to the last presidential election, where Mr. Sarkozy didn’t even secure his party’s nomination. By contrast, Marine Le Pen, the Front National’s leader, almost got elected. Germany looked on in horror as she made it into the second round of the vote last spring. There was a collective sigh of relief in Berlin when she lost after all.
Of course, Mr. Seehofer’s Nixonesque “Southern Strategy” could yet succeed. But I think it’s more likely that, like Mr. Sarkozy’s, it will end in failure. Ms. Le Pen was very adept at turning Mr. Sarkozy’s parroting of far-right catchphrases to her own advantage, by questioning Mr. Sarkozy’s sincerity. For the AfD, which already has 92 lawmakers in the Bundestag and is the biggest opposition party, it will be even easier to expose the phoniness in Mr. Seehofer’s posturing — he is a member of Ms. Merkel’s cabinet, after all.
Mr. Seehofer and his embattled CSU would do well to look at polls that consistently show that nearly one-half of Germans do think that Islam is part of Germany. (Or was it “belong in”?) Granted, that’s not that much, but it’s still a lot more than the 13 percent voting for the AfD. What’s more, three-quarters of Germans between 15 and 29 wholeheartedly agree with this statement, according to a survey published this week.
It is misguided by the CSU to try to cling to power with divisive slogans that antagonize young people and millions of voters with immigrant roots. If it does not change course, the CSU could wreak lasting damage on Germany, just as a Mr. Sarkozy did in France.
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