Merkel tours scene of far-right protest, defends refugee policy

German chancellor visits city of Chemnitz, says neo-Nazi views can’t be tolerated: ‘You can’t show understanding for everything’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a discussion with citizen at the East German city Chemnitz, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Kay Nietfeld, Pool)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a discussion with citizen at the East German city Chemnitz, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Kay Nietfeld, Pool)

CHEMNITZ, Germany (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited a city that was shaken by violent, far-right protests three months ago and appealed Friday to Germans not to cross a line when venting anger about issues such as immigration.

During a two-hour event with readers of the local Freie Press newspaper, Merkel was asked repeatedly about the unrest that put Chemnitz in the headlines. Protesters held an anti-Merkel demonstration nearby.

“There are people who are worried that perhaps there are too many refugees here,” she said. “There are (also) people who have open prejudices against people who simply look different. You have to draw a line between these (two).”

The protests were triggered by the killing in August of a German man that authorities blamed on recent migrants. Far-right groups flocked to Chemnitz, located about 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Berlin, their members mingling with residents expressing their anguish over the slaying.

People attend a demonstration in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, on September 7, 2018, after several nationalist groups called for marches protesting the killing of a German man two weeks ago, allegedly by migrants from Syria and Iraq. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Some in Germany — including members of Merkel’s Union bloc — voiced understanding for the protesters and said they shouldn’t be condemned for the violent actions of a small neo-Nazi minority.

Merkel made clear she thought otherwise.

“The line needs to be drawn. You can’t show understanding for everything,” she said, drawing a parallel with her experience growing up in East Germany at a time when the communist regime’s secret security police had a vast number of informants.

“I decided for myself, you don’t have to go to the Stasi to have a career, however bad the system is,” Merkel said. “And you also don’t need to persecute people because you’ve got a political gripe.”

Last month, authorities arrested seven people on suspicion of forming a far-right terrorist organization calling itself “Revolution Chemnitz” and plotting attacks.

Analysts noted that Merkel’s trip to Chemnitz followed her decision not to seek a fifth term in 2021, freeing the longtime leader to concentrate on her legacy.

Far-right demonstrators light flares in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, on September 7, 2018, after a 35-year-old German was stabbed to death in August 2018. (AFP/Odd Andersen)

“This (visit) to me is a sign of somebody who cares and perhaps wants to rectify impressions that might have been made in 2015 because of her decision to allow migrants to come to Germany,” said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank.

Most Germans initially welcomed Merkel’s decision not to close their country’s borders to refugees fleeing violence in Syria and elsewhere three years ago. The strain on resources and a number of violent crimes allegedly committed by migrants stoked doubts about Germany’s ability to cope with the influx.

Opinion polls have reflected the shift. Merkel’s center-right bloc has lost support, while gains have been made by the nationalist Alternative for Germany party.

Senior Alternative for Germany leaders marched alongside known far-right extremists during one of the Chemnitz protests. The nationalists hope to win next year’s state election in Saxony, where Chemnitz is located and which is currently governed by Merkel’s party.

Chemnitz Mayor Barbara Ludwig, who was thrust onto the front line of a debate on handling anti-migrant sentiment following the summer violence, said Friday that “we’re experiencing a polarization at all levels of society.”

“What happened in Chemnitz even threatened to tear apart the federal government,” said Ludwig.

That threat appears to have ebbed, for now, with Merkel’s party poised to choose a new party chair next month to lead it into the 2021 national election.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s own approval ratings appear to have been boosted by her announcement that she won’t run again.

In a poll published Thursday by public broadcaster ARD, 56 percent of respondents said they wanted Merkel to govern for a full term, compared with 49% in January.

The phone survey of 1,006 respondents took place on Nov. 12 and 13, and had a margin of error of up to 3.1 percentage points.

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