When Rotterdam elected a Muslim as its mayor, it was hailed as a sign of integration and religious tolerance in a European city where the immigrant population is fast outnumbering its indigenous Dutch. But the city whose working-class traditions made it the country's socialist heartland now has the right-wing Freedom Party of Geert Wilders as its main political force, after this month's European elections.
Dutch liberal commentators have been left to reflect on whether they are dealing with a one-off protest vote against the European Union and economic turmoil, with immigrants serving as handy scapegoats, or something more profound and disturbing. Whatever the truth, the performance nationally of Mr Wilders's party - 17 per cent of the vote - translates as four seats in the Strasbourg chamber, prompting him to demand a general election in which few doubt he will make further progress.
By any standards, it was a remarkable result, but not exceptional. Across the North Sea, the equally right-wing, anti-immigration British National Party managed two seats, enough to spread horror among established parties. The Netherlands and Britain were by no means the only countries where the far-Right made significant advances, usually at the expense of the Left. In Hungary, Austria and Denmark, voters also sent far-Right candidates to Strasbourg. But the Dutch electorate made Mr Wilders and his party the most notable winners of polling across Europe.
In case the astute use of "freedom" suggests a wholesome, democratic outlook, it is useful to remember that the leader holds views on Islam considered so extreme - at their most insulting, likening the Quran to Mein Kampf - that he is forbidden entry to Britain. Not everyone who supports the Freedom Party does so exclusively because of its hostility towards Islam and immigrants, but this is clearly a substantial factor. Given a free hand, Mr Wilders would halt Muslim immigration, end the building of new mosques and deport Muslims convicted of crimes to their countries of origin.
During the election campaign, Mr Wilders, who is a member of the Dutch parliament and will not take a seat at Strasbourg, appalled the country's large Turkish population (46,000 in Rotterdam alone) by saying Turkey, as an Islamic country, "should never be in the EU, not in 10 years, not in a million years". He claims disgruntled electors turn to him because they see in him "someone who dares to say what millions think".
Abstention played a large part in polling; as few as 36 per cent of the Dutch electorate bothered to vote. But it might be mistaken to draw comfort from that statistic. "I would say it was quite representative," said Pieter van Os, political editor of Algemeen Dagblad, a daily newspaper regarded with derision by Mr Wilders's party as a beacon of "elitist liberalism". "The result would not have been so different if more people had voted."
Van Os and senior colleagues have been asking themselves whether they have made too much of Mr Wilders's success. But van Os draws comparisons with another populist right-wing politician, Pim Fortuyn, assassinated by an animal-rights activist during the 2002 Dutch general election campaign. "These people attract support by being the voice of the less-educated Dutchman who does not feel represented by other politicians, who feels betrayed by modern society," he said. "Angry readers say we write too much about Wilders, but the people who vote for him are not newspaper readers."
Van Os said the socialists had performed worse in the EU elections than at any time since 1915, and their decline seemed hard to reverse. "The idea that you are in politics to help someone worse off than you is losing ground," he said. "Now, it is more likely that you are there to help your own class." With the Freedom Party now the country's second most popular political group, he envisages a turbulent new era. "The political culture will change. It will get rougher. You can never govern alone in the Netherlands. Wilders would have to make compromises with any partner in government and has said away from the cameras that he will. But his success will take the country to the Right, though it is difficult to see how immigration rules could be tightened further without breaking international treaties."
One man who could shed light on the likely impact of the Freedom Party on Rotterdam city life is its mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, who has made the most of his life in the Netherlands since arriving from Morocco as a teenager 30 years ago. Mr Aboutaleb is reportedly the first foreigner to rise to such a prominent position as mayor of the country's second city. A committed socialist who has served as minister of social affairs, he was applauded for his endeavours in 2004 to preserve calm in Amsterdam after a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist murdered the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in revenge for his work with the political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Submission, a film depicting Islam in a manner offensive to many Muslims.
However, he has adopted a low profile in the aftermath of the elections. "He told me he was not going to give interviews because he felt in his position as mayor that he had to stand above all political parties," said Anja Pels, the city council's spokeswoman. In the context of a Europe shifting markedly to the Right, however, it can at least be understood why voters in the city, with a narrowing ratio of 313,000 indigenous Dutch to about 270,000 of ethnic origins, would seek comfort, however misguidedly, from the far Right. Mr Wilders possesses a charisma that appeals to ordinary people with little political or financial clout; he appears to listen to their concerns, on subjects from crime to EU policies affecting daily life, more than the ruling, right-of-centre Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, the party of the Left.
But why would residents of the twin northern towns of Edam and Volendam, far removed from urban blight, also vote for the Freedom Party? Edam is best known as the birthplace of the cheese of that name. Volendam earns a brisk tourist trade thanks to a pretty harbour, windmills and residents who still favour traditional dress. Neither has experience of large-scale immigration among a combined total population of about 29,000 inhabitants.
At the town hall, an official said Mr Wilders did not even have a sitting member of the council. It was possible, she felt, that people who relied for their income on fishing had been motivated by bitterness towards European Commission restrictions on their work. "We were also surprised so many voted for the Freedom Party," she said. But to explain the unexpected development, "you'd need to know who exactly was voting for them. Were they young people, or older?"
No one from Mr Wilders's party returned messages from The National. Political observers said this was not unusual; "they're not very interested in journalists", said van Os. The same disdain for the media exists within the ranks of the British National Party, roundly condemned by Labour and Conservative political leaders after winning two seats, one in the north-west of England, the other in the Yorkshire and Humber district.
Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, who won one of the seats, prides himself on an ability to tap the discontent of working-class voters fed up with the failings of the conventional Left. Even when anti-fascist protesters pelt him with eggs as he holds court outside the House of Commons, he knows - as some of those vehemently opposed to his party also acknowledge - that such tactics probably play into his hands because they seem aimed at denying him the freedom of expression that is supposedly central to the British way of doing things.
"It is a great moment for democracy," reporters quoted him as telling supporters in Manchester. "Labour has helped to turn this country into a crime-ridden slum with no industry left. The most demonised and lied-about party in British politics has made a massive breakthrough." Labour accused the BNP of exploiting people's fears. David Cameron, the Conservative opposition leader, said it sickened him "and should sicken everybody" that the BNP had achieved electoral success. "It brings shame on us that these fascist, racist thugs have been elected to the European Parliament."
Yet in Britain, there is at least a respectable view that the BNP prospered chiefly from the current unpopularity of the Labour government and its prime minister, Gordon Brown, and general distrust of politicians heightened by the scandal over parliamentarians' expenses. Labour was humiliated, pushed into third place, behind even the anti-EU UK Independence Party. It was the party's worst electoral showing since the Second World War. British governments in mid-term frequently suffer embarrassing setbacks, only to recover if circumstances generally improve; this now seems beyond Labour unless it can find a leader considered less of a liability than Mr Brown.
The difference in the Netherlands is that Mr Wilders and his party, no less obnoxious than the BNP in moderate eyes, give the impression that they are already part of the political furniture. And this leaves the Muslim and other minority communities of Rotterdam - who will collectively, according to official statistical studies, become a majority by 2012 - apprehensive, but philosophical. "People are disappointed with the mainstream parties," said Mohammed Ebraymi, 36, born in Morocco. "Wilders stands against Europe, against the open borders. In a way he is right, the economy goes down because of the crisis. We Dutch are afraid that our jobs will be taken over by cheap labour from Eastern Europe."
Mr Ebraymi was speaking near the converted shop where Muslims of south Rotterdam continue to pray until the new Essalam mosque, a project of the Dubai ruling family's Al Maktoum Foundation, is completed, as is hoped, by the end of this year. "In the end," he said, "we immigrants are Dutch. My son is Dutch. The sentiments Mr Wilders is using are incorrect. He is talking about a tsunami of Islam. He might scare people but you can't judge the whole of Islam by the mistakes of a few."