Until last week, the Bernard family had the normal concerns of any middle-class Dutch family – putting their teenage children through university, living a greener life, and paying the mortgage.
By Nick Meo in Rotterdam
Published: 7:00AM BST 14 Jun 2009
Geert Wilders began to see a rise in his popularity after an Amsterdam appeals court decided to try him for anti-Muslim comments in January Photo: EPA
But that has all changed since the European election – and the triumph by Geert Wilders, the right-wing populist and outspoken critic of Islam who in February was banned from entering Britain as a threat to “community harmony”.
To many abroad Mr Wilders, a Dutch MP, appears an old-fashioned racist whose views put him on a par with other far-Right politicians elsewhere in Europe.
Yet in its first ever test of national electoral support among the normally tolerant Dutch, his anti-immigration Party for Freedom which he founded in 2006 won 17 per cent of the votes – making it the second biggest party. That has shaken the country to its core – opening up the real possibility that, through the Dutch coalition system, Mr Wilders could win power at the next general election.
Now, like many others in the Netherlands, the Bernards are desperately worried. “This has the feeling of what happened to Germany in the 1930s,” said Alfred Bernard, 52, a lawyer. “Wilders blames foreigners for everything. People are disoriented because of the economic crisis. Everywhere there is dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians.
“After this I really believe that Wilders could become prime minister in the 2011 parliamentary elections, or at least set the political agenda.”
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Wilders, 45, was frank about that ambition. Asked about the prospect of taking power in two years’ time, he said: “That is our biggest job. We had an enormous success last week and our biggest task is to keep up momentum. I am very confident that we will have an excellent result.
“If my party becomes the biggest party, I would be honoured to be prime minister.”
Sitting in his office in the Dutch parliament building in The Hague, protected from the threat of assassination by 10 armed secret service bodyguards, he summed up his antipathy to the religion of many immigrants to the Netherlands.
“Islam wants to dominate our society,” he said in fluent and only slightly accented English. “It’s in opposition to freedom.
“If people are offended, that’s not my aim. I don’t talk about Muslims but about Islam. Everything I say is against the fascist Islamic ideology.”
To the charge that to many his views appeared to be racist, he responded: “If that was true, we would never have been the second biggest party in the European elections.”
Why, then, did Moroccans and Turks living in the Netherlands so fear him? “As long as they don’t commit crimes, it’s a baseless fear,” he said. “If you adhere to our laws, if you act according to our values, you are free to stay. We will help you to integrate.
“But if you cross the red line, if you start committing crimes, if you want to do jihad or impose sharia, we want you to be sent out of the Netherlands and we will get rid of your permits to stay.”
An admirer of Churchill and Lady Thatcher, he is charismatic as well as combative. Holland’s conventional politicians – mostly dull men in suits – have no idea how to counter his politically incorrect taunts, which outrage the parliamentary chamber but delight his supporters.
He has come a long way since the days when he could be lightly dismissed as an eccentric fringe politician with an extraordinary blond quiff, known mainly for baiting Muslims.
“Half of Holland loves me and half of Holland hates me. There is no in-between,” Mr Wilders said. “This is a new politics, and I think it would have a great chance of success in other European countries. We are democrats. On economic and social issues we are centrist. We want tougher laws on crime and we want to stop Holland paying so much money to the European Union.
“We would stop immigration from Muslim countries and close Islamic schools. We want to be more proud of our identity.”
He admitted that he is frustrated at his image abroad, especially in Britain, a country which he admires. He claimed to believe in freedom above all else and pointed out that he is despised by Holland’s Neo-Nazis, who dubbed him the “blond Zionist” because of his links to Israel – a country which he has often visited and where he counts politicians among his friends.
He is still angered at being banned from entering Britain, where he had been invited to show his controversial 17-minute film linking the Koran with the September 11 terror attacks. Muslim groups were among those who campaigned against his admission, and he dismissed the Home Office ruling as an attempt at “appeasement” of Islam.
Dutch liberals groaned when the British Government refused entry, because they knew Mr Wilders would milk the decision to generate massive publicity at home. He is also being prosecuted in Holland for promoting hate crimes, a case which is thought unlikely to succeed but which has allowed him to pose as a martyr.
In the European Parliament his four MEPs will not ally with the British National party, he said, claiming he had never met a BNP Member. “I understand they talk a lot about blacks and whites. This is disgusting,” he said.
Then a dreamy look of a man convinced of his own destiny came into his eyes as he launched into a fresh tirade about the threat to Western civilisation from Islam. “Samuel Huntingdon was being too positive when he talked about a clash of civilisations,” Mr Wilders said. “It is civilisation against barbarity.”
His conviction explains why families like the Bernards, who know what happened next door in Germany during the 1930s, find Mr Wilders so unsettling.
In the past, the Bernards always had confidence in the post-war Dutch dream of equality and tolerance. But now Mr Bernard and his librarian wife Marjina, also 52, have been forced to ask whether their country is fundamentally changing.
The day after the results were announced, Mrs Bernard joined a mainstream political party for the first time in her life because she thinks that if Mr Wilders is to be opposed, ordinary politics must first be revived.
“It is getting scary,” she said. “He is becoming more extreme. He has made it respectable to speak out against Muslims.”
They live in an airy ground-floor flat in a neat suburb of Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest port with a population of 580,000, about four out 10 of whom are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. On current birth rates, the city is expected to become Europe’s first with a Muslim majority in about 2020. That has put it firmly at the centre of Holland’s anguished debate about race, immigration and Islam – a debate which is apparently being won by Mr Wilders.
The young watch his irreverent attacks on YouTube, relishing the novelty of a politician who can make them laugh. His older supporters are fiercely loyal to a leader who is bold enough to voice what they think, but for years dared not say.
“I voted for him because immigration isn’t working here in Holland any more,” said Ben De Reus, a 40-year-old bus driver from Rotterdam.
“He wants to get rid of the Turks and they don’t belong here,” said an elderly woman supporter in a prosperous southern suburb – wrongly, since Mr Wilders says he would “encourage” repatriation but wants the expulsion only of immigrants convicted of crimes.
Some 15 per cent of the Dutch population of 16.5 million are from ethnic minorities – many from Morocco and Turkey.
Most of the Party for Freedom’s 17 per cent of the vote was cast in Holland’s four big cities, where the immigrants live and where white voters grumble about high crime rates, chaotic foreigners who don’t understand orderly Dutch ways, and Muslim families who refuse to learn the language and fit in.
But it did well in parts of rural Holland too. It polled highest – 39.8 per cent – in Volderdam, a picturesque, overwhelmingly white town surrounded by windmills and tulip fields, where there are no burkhas but tourists queue up to take photos of women in clogs.
His rhetoric has delighted many voters, the ones who fear that their beloved Dutch values are under attack from an alien way of life.
Dutch tolerance has shaped the Party of Freedom to be quite unlike most European Right-wing movements: its election campaigning championed the victims of gay-bashing gangs of Moroccan youths, and Mr Wilders talks often about the threat from Islam to women’s rights.
His success is a sign of how the political landscape has changed. Even Dutch left-wingers now have to admit that there is a problem with Moroccan street gangs are a problem, and liberals wring their hands about the failure of immigrants to integrate since the first were admitted during the 1960s and 70s – many from Morocco and Turkey.
“Everybody assumed that immigrants would go home once they had finished their work here. But instead they stayed and brought their families,” said Rita Van Der Linde, a spokeswoman for the Rotterdam municipality.
The city’s large Moroccan population have found jobs harder to come by in recent years. Unemployed, and often feeling unwelcome, they have become more Islamic and retreated to the security of the mosques in their communities, in the older, scruffier parts of the city where they are isolated from mainstream Dutch life.
“This development has made white Dutch people nervous of them, especially since September 11th 2001,” Ms Van Der Linde said.
Hopes for harmony on the streets have been invested in a new mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a member of the Dutch Labour Party whose parents came from Morocco.
He has broken with multiculturalism by urging immigrants to learn the language and fit in, or get on a plane out. He has also pledged to crack down on Moroccan criminals, using language which Right-wingers say would get them branded as racists if they used it.
But in office he has tried to remain aloof from the fray, leaving the field almost clear for Mr Wilders to argue against immigration, which in reality has slowed to a trickle.
Not everyone believes there is enough substance to the Party of Freedom for it to have a chance of achieving real power.
In a little café in Rotterdam which proudly serves only traditional Dutch dishes, owner Martin Voltuees, 46, said of Mr Wilders: “He has a lot of good one-liners but no solutions. We have always been a culture of immigrants ever since the Jews arrived. The difference is that in the past people brought their skills, but now we have immigrants who just bring their poverty.
“Twenty years ago there were plenty of jobs in Rotterdam in the shipyards, and we needed them. That’s gone now. But you see in Holland black and white, Muslims and Christians, intermarrying, so perhaps these problems are solving themselves.”
Others are less sanguine – not least the Dutch citizens who feel themselves to be under fire.
Omar Kirac, 19, an engineering student at a Rotterdam university whose Turkish parents moved to the Netherlands before he was born, said: “Wilders hates people like me, and of course I hate him. I voted against him – it was the blond people who voted for him.
“We think he could become the prime minister and that would be dangerous for us, and dangerous for the Netherlands.
“Politicians need to focus on the economic crisis, not blame Muslims for everything.”