BERLIN // Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has declared that attempts to turn Germany into a multicultural society had "utterly failed", fanning a heated public debate driven by growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
"The multicultural approach has failed, utterly failed," Ms Merkel said in a speech on Saturday to the youth organisation of her conservative Christian Democratic Union party. Her remarks gave backing to an important political ally, Horst Seehofer, the conservative governor of Bavaria, who said last week that Germany does not need more integration from "foreign cultures" such as those of Turkey and Arab countries.
Ms Merkel added, however, that Islam was a part of Germany, a comment that did not go down well with many delegates at the meeting in Potsdam near Berlin.
"These people will stay here, they contributed to our prosperity," Ms Merkel said. "But it's not acceptable that twice as many of them leave school without qualifications, and it is not acceptable that twice as many of them have no professional qualifications. That will create social problems in the future.
"That is why integration is so important and that is why people who want to have a share in our society don't just have to obey our laws and support our constitution, above all they must learn our language.
"We feel connected to the Christian view of humanity, that is our identity," Ms Merkel said. People who do not accept that "don't belong here", she said.
Ms Merkel's speech is widely seen as a bid to boost flagging support for her party by pandering to growing anti-Muslim fears in the population. Her centre-right coalition of conservatives and pro-business Free Democrats has slumped by more than 17 points to 31 per cent in opinion polls since being elected in September 2009, due in part to its decision to extending the lifetimes of nuclear power stations.
A study released last week on far-right trends in Germany showed that one in three people want immigrants to be evicted from the country. The survey by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, which has close ties with the opposition Social Democratic Party, also found that 55 per cent of people agreed with the sentence: "I can well understand that some people find Arabs unpleasant."
More than 15 million people in Germany - almost a fifth of the population - have an immigrant background, including some four million Muslims, most of whom are descendants of Turks invited by the government in the 1950s and 1960s as "guest workers" to make up for a shortage of manpower after the Second World War.
Many of them live parallel lives in virtual ghettos in the major German cities, and statistics show that the children of Muslim immigrants have higher unemployment rates and lower school qualifications on average than ethnic Germans.
Many analysts say Germany is partly to blame because it has not done enough to adapt its education system to the needs of immigrant children, especially regarding language teaching.
Economists have warned that the harsh tone of the debate and the failure to tackle the education problem will deter the immigration of skilled immigrants Germany will need in the coming decades in light of a chronically low birth rate.
Many immigrants complain that xenophobia is widespread, and that they are labelled as "foreigners" even if they were born in Germany, have German citizenship and speak the language perfectly.
Leaders of the immigrant community said they were feeling increasingly ostracized. The head of the Turkish Community in Germany, Kenan Kolat, told the newspaper Die Welt that he had been receiving threats. "I am afraid. I don't mind tough criticism. But in recent weeks I have been threatened as a ... foreigner, even though I'm a German citizen.
"The abuse has been getting worse over the last few weeks. I'm getting anonymous calls, and abusive emails. At the moment I don't dare to travel on the underground alone. I'm not sleeping well and it's the same for my staff."
Mr Kolat could not immediately be reached for comment.
Unlike Britain in the 1980s or France since 2005, Germany has had no race riots. The trigger for the current debate was a book published at the end of August by Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, who said Germany was in long-term decline because of the rapid growth of an underclass of poorly educated Muslim immigrants. He blamed Islam for their lack of integration, arguing that the religion encouraged them to segregate themselves.
His remarks were condemned by most mainstream politicians including Ms Merkel, and Mr Sarrazin was forced to resign. But the government has changed its position since then in response to surveys showing that a majority of Germans agree with Mr Sarrazin.
Opposition politicians have accused Mr Seehofer of trying to make political capital by criticizing immigration. Jürgen Trittin, the parliamentary group leader of the Greens party, told Bild am Sonntag newspaper: "There has long been a far-right potential in Germany. So it is shabby and it strengthens these forces if a democrat like Horst Seehofer starts making such thinking politically acceptable."
Mr Seehofer told Focus, a German magazine, in an interview due to be published today that integration "doesn't mean living side by side but on the common foundation of the values laid down by our constitution and by our German culture which is characterized by our Christian-Judaic roots and by Christianity, humanism and enlightenment".
He had said last week that immigrants from Turkey and Arab countries had more difficulty integrating than immigrants from other countries. A survey conducted for Focus found that 54 per cent of Germans agree with him.
The general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan Kramer, criticised Mr Seehofer. "All kinds of cultures are being stigmatized, defamed and lumped together. I find that irresponsible and shabby," he told Rheinpfalz am Sonntag, a Sunday newspaper.