CHEMNITZ, Germany (AP) — Angela Merkel traveled to Chemnitz Friday to meet with residents, three months after the eastern city was the scene of violent, far-right protests that highlighted divisions in Germany — and the chancellor’s own party — on the issue of migration.
Merkel met with the Niners Chemnitz — a local basketball team — before heading to a town hall-style discussion with readers of the Chemnitz Freie Presse newspaper at which the recent unrest was expected to be a central issue.
The protests were triggered after the killing in August of a German man that authorities blamed on recent migrants. Far-right groups flocked to the city, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Berlin, clashing with counter-protesters in scenes that drew widespread condemnation. Some of the violence was directed at foreigners, but a kosher restaurant was also attacked by masked men throwing stones and yelling anti-Semitic jeers.
Some in Germany — including members of Merkel’s Union bloc — voiced understanding for the anti-migrant protesters, saying they shouldn’t be condemned for the violent actions of a small neo-Nazi minority within the demonstration.
Senior figures in the nationalist Alternative for Germany party also joined the protests, marching alongside known far-right extremists to condemn Merkel’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers into the country in 2015.
The center-left Social Democrats, who are part of Merkel’s governing coalition, meanwhile took issue with comments by the country’s domestic intelligence chief that appeared to downplay far-right violence in Chemnitz. Hans-Georg Maassen was eventually ousted as head of the BfV agency after months of wrangling within the government.
“We’re experiencing a polarization at all levels of society,” the mayor of Chemnitz, Barbara Ludwig, said Friday. “What happened in Chemnitz even threatened to tear apart the federal government.”
In a nod to critics who said the chancellor should have visited the city earlier, Ludwig said “it’s too early to say whether the visit by Angela Merkel will be more than a gesture.”
She called for a greater effort to support the integration of migrants into German society.
Several protests were planned to coincide with the visit, one against the chancellor and others pro-Merkel or promoting multiculturalism and condemning racism.
Jordans reported from Berlin. David Rising contributed from Berlin.