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Paul Henley with guests on the streets of Vienna
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Friday, 4 February, 2000, 17:32 GMT
Haider: View from the streets

demo Anti-Haider protesters take to the roof in Vienna

Paul Henley has been testing the mood on the streets of Vienna for Radio 5 LIVE's Euronews

Austrians are not used to being the centre of the world's attention. They are proud of their nation, but usually quietly so.

It is just that at the moment, the 27% of Austrian voters who invested their national pride in a vote for Joerg Haider and his Freedom Party are commanding more attention than they bargained for.

So how are Austrians reacting to being in the global political spotlight? -- With amusement, bemusement and sometimes defiance.

Joerg Haider: Hero or villain?
What do they say when you ask them what they make of the fact that a man who's praised Hitler's employment policies and called the concentration camps 'punishment centres' is the leader of a party taking seats in their government?

Very often, they shrug and declare simply "that's democracy".

And this is what critics from all over the European Union are having to take on board. "This is OUR country", my taxi driver told me as we sped past the anti-Haider graffiti daubed on the walls of the Vienna parliament building by demonstrators the previous night.

"Those were our elections. This will be our government."

Patriotic mood

Absolutely no-one I met who supported Joerg Haider was prepared to describe him as a neo-Nazi.

"He's a patriot", I was told, "but he is no bigot. And above all he's a democrat, democratically elected".

Certainly, many of Haider's most quotably shocking views are a few years old now, repeatedly apologised for. The Freedom Party these days, it is said, is no threat to anyone's human rights and there are "no echoes of Austria's wartime past".

More than one person told me the rest of the EU should mind its own business. "I wasn't pro-Haider before all this", a middle-aged woman taking afternoon 'Kaffee und Kuchen' told me, "I'm certainly anti-Europe now. Nobody's suffering here. Why can't they leave us alone?".

Opposition growing

Protesters march against rascism
But Haider's opponents are appalled at what is going on. "Yes, it's embarrassing", a man in his twenties told me, "yes, it's damaging our reputation abroad. But what can I do?"

Fifteen-thousand people in Vienna did something on Wednesday. They took to the streets to shout their opposition to the far-right... no small number for a city only the quarter the size of London.

Minority groups do not seem reassured by Haider's claims that they will remain a respected part of Austrian society with him in power.

One man who'd arrived from Cameroon ten years ago told me he felt increasingly unwelcome as a black man in Austria. He said he and his family would watch carefully what happened next and, if necessary, get out.

I interviewed an MP from the Freedom Party at some length. He came across as an old-fashioned gentleman; smart, smiling, eager to please.

On air, he urbanely brushed aside allegations of prejudice. Off air, he turned to our Nigerian guest, implied that he was a drug-dealer and asked why, if he thought he lived in such a difficult country, he didn't just go home.

The phrase 'wolf in sheep's clothing' came to mind.

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03 Oct 99 |  Europe
Profile: Joerg Haider

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