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German farmer protests spark fears of far-right infiltration

German farmer protests spark fears of far-right infiltration

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BERLIN — German farmers commenced a week of planned protests on Monday while officials warned that far-right groups are attempting to co-opt the movement for their own political ends.

The farmers began the day by blocking roads across much of the country in response to a government proposal to revoke key tax privileges; German authorities warned that extremists were attempting to link arms with the protesters to create a groundswell.

“Right-wing extremists and other enemies of democracy are trying to infiltrate and instrumentalize the protests,” a spokesperson for Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser, said in Berlin. The country’s federal police, Faeser added, believe these groups want to foment a “general strike” or even rioting to trigger an “overthrow” of the government.

It would not be the first time far-right groups have tried to gain political sway by latching onto protest movements in Germany — something similar was evident in pandemic-era anti-vaccine protests and in demonstrations against military aid to Ukraine.

The infiltration concerns come after some 100 farmers tried on Thursday to accost Greens Economy Minister Robert Habeck, preventing him from disembarking from a ferry in northern Germany following a private visit to an island in the North Sea. Police described the encounter as “very, very tense.”

The incident caused widespread consternation in Germany, even as public support for the farmers has remained high.

“It is becoming clear that something has started to slip in recent years, which is limiting legitimate democratic protest and freedom of expression,” Habeck said in a video posted on social media. There is a risk, he added, that debate in the country could “become more and more brutal, ultimately jeopardizing the law and the rule of law.”

Joachim Rukwied, president of the German Farmers’ Association that has participated in the protests, condemned the incident involving Habeck and distanced his organization from extremist groups.

“We don’t want right-wing and other radical groups with a desire to overthrow the government at our demos,” he said. “We are democrats.”

Farmers are protesting a plan by Germany’s ruling coalition to phase out a tax break on diesel fuel. Although the government watered down initial proposals to cut farmers’ tax privileges, many remain dissatisfied, saying the government plan threatens the existence of many farmers with low profit margins.

The government was forced to cut costs in its new draft budget for 2024 after the country’s top court ruled in November that some of its spending practices were unlawful, leading to an ongoing budget crisis. Polls show the popularity of the three-party coalition government is at historic lows.

On Monday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz refused to accede further to the farmers’ demands.

Farmers are protesting a plan by Germany’s ruling coalition to phase out a tax break on diesel fuel | Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The government stands by this decision,” he said. “This is our proposal, and I also believe that it is correct and balanced.”

During the Monday protest in Berlin, dozens of tractors blocked the street leading to the Brandenburg Gate.

In a scene that appeared to confirm the warnings of German authorities, four young men attempted to hand out leaflets for a right-wing extremist group called Der Dritte Weg, or The Third Way.

Organizers asked the four men to leave, and police escorted the group away from the protest. But one of the men, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they still back the farmers.

 “Since the farmers support the fatherland, they should be supported in every way,” he said, as police escorted the men from the scene.

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