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BERLIN (Reuters) - Few people outside of Germany paid much attention when a little-known Berlin politician named Rene Stadtkewitz convened a news conference last week and announced the formation of a new "Freedom" party.
But in the German capital, the founding of a movement modelled on the anti-immigrant party of Dutch populist Geert Wilders was a small political earthquake, whose tremors resonated in Chancellor Angela Merkel's office across town.
"Right now we are focussed on building up this new party in Berlin, but if we have success here, I certainly can't rule out extending it nationwide," Stadtkewitz, who was kicked out of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) for his views, told Reuters.
The 45-year-old from the east Berlin district of Pankow, who wants headscarves banned, mosques shuttered and state welfare payments to Muslims cut, is the newest face of a powerful anti-immigrant strain in European politics that is winning over voters and throwing mainstream politicians onto the defensive.
Parties with xenophobic-tinged programmes are not new in Europe. The National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen has been a force in France for years, as has the Northern League, which is part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition in Italy.
But experts say public concerns about immigration have grown in the wake of the economic crisis and politicians across Europe are scrambling like never before to exploit these fears, breaking unwritten post-war taboos along the way.
"What we are witnessing is not a new trend, but a deepening and acceleration of something that was in place," said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri) in Paris. "These politicians are playing with fire, because feelings on this issue run very deep and may not disappear when the economy recovers."
Wilders, who wants to ban the Koran and expel Muslims who commit crimes, has emerged in the span of a few months as arguably the most powerful politician in the Netherlands.
After an inconclusive June election, centre-right parties are relying on Wilders to form a minority government that could give him major sway over policy. If this coalition fails to come together and a new election is held, polls show his Freedom Party (PVV) would be the top vote getter.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken pre-emptive action to prevent similar gains for the far-right National Front, announcing a crackdown on Roma people and criminals of foreign origin that has earned him rebukes from a United Nations human rights body and the European Parliament.
In Italy, which received the most immigrants of any EU country last year, Umberto Bossi's Northern League has wielded huge influence over domestic policy, pushing through tough laws that allow authorities to fine and imprison illegal immigrants, and even punish people who provide them with shelter.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute in Brussels, says more European politicians are realising that by focussing on immigration, they can tap into voter fears about a range of issues -- from the economy and jobs, to globalisation, change and an increasingly uncertain future.
"People in Europe have grown comfortable in the decades since World War Two and now they see that level of comfort threatened," Grabbe said. "The result is that tolerance is no longer held dear as a European value, even in countries that used to be proud of being open and liberal."
One such country is Sweden, where an anti-immigrant party looks poised to vault the four percent hurdle in a September 19 election and enter parliament for the first time.
Inspired by the Danish People's Party, the Sweden Democrats have shed their skinhead image in favour of smart suits and a carefully calibrated message that emphasises support for Israel and women's rights alongside what party leader Jimmie Akesson describes as a "common sense" aversion to Muslim immigration.
If the party does make it into parliament, it could deprive centre-right Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of a majority and force him to consider working with a party he has described as "right-wing, xenophobic and populist".
In Germany, where the collective memory of the Nazis has limited the influence of far-right parties, the emergence of a new anti-immigrant force could have even more serious implications for the political system.
The rise of the new Left party and Greens in recent decades means that six parties now sit in the federal parliament in Berlin, a splintering that has severely complicated the formation of stable coalitions at the federal level.
Were a seventh party, led by Stadtkewitz or a more high-profile anti-immigrant crusader, to make it above the five percent threshold and enter the Bundestag it would shake Germany's political landscape to the core.
"The danger is there," said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling group, pointing to the strong public support for disgraced Bundesbanker Thilo Sarrazin's disparaging criticisms of Muslim immigrants in a recent book which warned of the demise of traditional German society.
"There is a loss of trust in the established parties, a sort of vacuum, that a charismatic person similar to (former Austrian far-right leader Joerg) Haider could fill." (Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome, Patrick Lannin in Stockholm, Keith Weir in London; Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Janet Lawrence)