Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Playing the immigration card, German-style

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Widely viewed as a sensible sort of conservative, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently came out in support of boot camps for young offenders. Indeed, as The Guardian is reporting, Merkel's party, the CDU, proposed last weekend "a swath of tougher laws to crack down on young criminals, including higher sentences and the swifter expulsion of immigrant offenders".

Conservatives everywhere, Germany included, tend to respond to the problem of crime, which they overhype in order to score political points, not by addressing its root causes but by expanding police powers and focusing on punishment. In this regard, Merkel's shift to the right is hardly surprising. She and her party are trying to score as many political points as possible in anticipation of a key upcoming state election and with her own hold on power exceedingly tenuous -- her government is a so-called "Grand Coalition" of the country's two main politial parties, the CDU (the Christian Democrats) and the SPD (the Social Democrats) -- and crime is a good place to start.

The problem, however, is that this isn't just about crime, or youth crime, or tougher punishment. Rather, it's also, and perhaps primarily, about the ongoing and deeply problematic issue of immigration and racism in Germany, a country that has long welcomed foreign workers without fully accepting them. It is easy to become Canadian or American, or even British or French, far less easy to become German. Ultimately, foreigners are foreigners, and remain so even after spending much of their lives in Germany. And while crime may indeed be a problem worthy of serious examination, what is troubling here is that foreigners are being scapegoated, and not just by Germans generally but by the Merkel and other conservative politicians specifically:

The issue was first seized upon several weeks ago by the CDU's Roland Koch, the state governor of the western state of Hesse and a major Merkel ally, who is fighting for re-election in just under three weeks' time and risks losing his absolute majority.

His campaign had seemed to lack direction until just before Christmas, when a pensioner was brutally beaten and called "shit German" on the Munich underground network by two youths -- one Greek and one Turkish -- whom he had asked to extinguish their cigarettes. The incident was captured on CCTV images which were subsequently broadcast across German television networks.

Koch's declaration that "we have too many criminal young foreigners", and that a "zero tolerance against violence" was key to foreign integration, were splashed across the media. He has subsequently threatened Germany's 15 million immigrants with "consequences" if they fail to "play the rules of the game" and adapt to a German way of life, criticising them for everything from
failing to learn German to their "strange attitudes" towards the country's strict waste disposal laws, as well as the "odd" way Muslims slaughter animals "in their kitchens".

And Merkel, for her part, is playing along:

In her statements made at the weekend, Merkel challenged the Social Democrats, her coalition partners, to address the issue of youth crime. "The SPD cannot close its eyes to the fact that 43% of all violent crimes in Germany are committed by people under 21 years of age, and that nearly half of these are by foreign youths," she said.

The debate has created the perception that immigrant crime is on the rise, despite the fact that Federal Crime Office statistics show that crime by non-Germans has been on the decline since 1999 and youth crime as a percentage of all crimes has remained stable at around 12% for 15 years.

In other words, Merkel and Koch are playing politics, much like Bush Sr. was playing politics in 1998 when he unfairly attacked Dukakis's record on crime as governor of Massachusetts. In a country like Germany, however, a country with a historically appalling record with respect to its treatment of ethnic and other minorities (and of non-"pure" Germans generally), to put it nicely, this sort of xenophobic brand of politics is unsettling, to say the least.

As in the past, if not quite so viciously, when the going gets tough politically, many German politicians -- and notably, and noxiously, its conservatives, including its conservative leaders -- play to the country's deepest and most disturbing prejudices, levying blame on the Other, the outsider, the non-German, the foreigner. And they are not alone. American conservatives do it, too, of course, and so do British conservatives, and conservatives elsewhere, and so do many others across the political spectrum throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world -- for such bigotry is hardly restricted to any one ideological segment -- and it is often much worse than what bubbles up in Germany.

Still, it is clear what Merkel and her party, Germany's governing party, are doing, and it is, not to put too fine a word on it, reprehensible. The fact that they are doing it in a country with Germany's past, a fairly recent past at that, only makes it worse.

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