STOCKHOLM — Eva Bromster, an elementary school principal, was jolted awake by a telephone call late Thursday night. “Your school is burning,” her boss, the director of the local education department, told her.
In Stockholm and other towns and cities last week, bands made up mostly of young immigrants set buildings and cars ablaze in a spasm of destructive rage rarely seen in a country proud of its normally tranquil, law-abiding ways.
The disturbances, with echoes of urban eruptions in France in 2005 and Britain in 2011, have pushed Sweden to the center of a heated debate across Europe about immigration and the tensions it causes in a time of deep economic malaise...
The riots, now subsiding, have produced less damage than the earlier ones in Paris and London, which also involved mostly immigrants. But the unrest has shaken Sweden, which has a reputation for welcoming immigrants and asylum seekers, including those fleeing violence in countries like Iraq, Somalia and Syria, and regularly ranks in surveys as one of the world’s happiest places.
The riots are not unprecedented here. In 2008 and 2010, immigrants clashed with the police in the southern port city of Malmo. But the past week’s arson attacks in Stockholm, the capital, and the spectacle of teenagers hurling stones at firefighters have left many Swedes wondering what went wrong in a society that has invested so heavily in helping the underprivileged.
While the violence was concentrated in relatively poor districts, most of their residents have been shielded from dire poverty by a welfare system that is one of the world’s most expansive, despite recent cutbacks.
Sweden’s center-right prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, scornfully described the riots as “hooliganism,” while the Swedish Democrats, a far-right party, have seized on the violence to push their anti-immigrant stance and called for the deportation of nonnative Swedes who break the law. “This is not just a police issue,” said Jimmie Akesson, the party’s leader, but “a direct result of an irresponsible immigration policy that has created deep cracks in Swedish society.”
The left, which dominated Swedish politics for decades and devised the cradle-to-grave welfare system, has blamed reduced state benefits and a modest shift toward the privatization of public services for the unrest, pointing to an erosion of the country’s tolerant, egalitarian ethos. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that income inequality had grown faster in Sweden than in any other industrialized nation between 1985 and the end of the past decade, although it remains far more equal than most countries.
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