Just a week ago, Sweden again proved its flair for marketing itself as Europe’s coolest, most progressive nation.
At the Eurovision song contest, the country trotted out all the ubiquitous Swedish clichés. The evening’s flag-clad hostess, Petra Mede, presided over a gay wedding before tearing off her skirt and cavorting in front of dancing (horse) meatballs.
Meanwhile an advertising spot explaining Sweden to those “on the Continent”, as the Swedes say, featured the country’s centre-right prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt. Up north, we learnt, even the prime minister has to wash his own coffee cup. If he leaves his grubby mug in the kitchen, he receives a ticking off from his aides.
Sweden’s Eurovision was packed with this kind of slick marketing. But a week later, after a social explosion in suburban Stockholm, the country's PR facade is cracking.
Nights of riots in the Swedish capital set a new record for urban unrest; dozens of cars were set alight every night on the periphery of Stockholm.
Still, the situation appears to have calmed over the weekend, Swedish police told news agencies. The riots, which were the largest Swedish unrest in decades, ignited the periphery of most of Sweden’s urban areas at their peak.
Images of burning cars and masked teenage immigrant rioters have led many papers to compare Husby, where the police killing of a 69-year-old Portuguese immigrant triggered days of riots, to the French banlieue.
“The immigrants, the youth of the suburbs that surround Stockholm, assert that the police is racist, that officers persecute them, insult them and harass them unfairly,” writes El País’ correspondent in a dispatch from a burned-out Stockholm neighbourhood.
As in so many other places, the teenagers who organised the riots used social networks and word-of-mouth to plan actions and locations, reports Lettera43.
“Around 30 per cent of young people [in Husby, the centre of rioting over the past week]don’t study and aren’t looking for a job,” the Italian magazine adds.
Yet if it is clear who has been rioting and how they are organised, why the riots occurred now is a topic of debate over in the European media. Some blame economic change, others social policy, and still others urban planning.
Indeed, both France and Sweden have tried a similar – failed – approach to social housing, states conservative sociologist Carmen González Enríquez in Spanish daily La Razón.
“Urban planning is partly to blame: Building public housing in a specific area, a phenomenon we might call 'social destabilisation'. Which you can’t hold against Sweden; we have seen it in France too,” González Enríquez told the Madrid paper.
“Although the housing is not designed for immigrants, they are the first to occupy it because they earn less. And, gradually, the local population abandons the area,” she says, blaming “cultural differences” over the use of public space for “conflict” between immigrants and locals.
Conversely, for Austrian broadcaster ORF, Sweden’s problems are far more profound than that. Days of rioting have shown that the nation’s claims to be one of Europe’s most egalitarian nations are in fact bunkum.
“Sweden is regarded as egalitarian. People’s income is openly published and fairly equally distributed,” the Austrian broadcaster’s correspondent says.
“But that does nothing to change the fact that wealth is very unevenly distributed. According to the UN’s GINI coefficient for inequality, even states like Argentina (74) and Turkey (71.2) have more equal distributions of wealth than Sweden (74.2),” the broadcaster reveals.
“An invisible wall runs through Sweden. Those with the right name, who speak the right dialect, who go to the right schools have far less problems,” ORF concludes.
Infrequently reported abroad, Sweden has become more typical of the continent in which it is located in recent years, says France’s Le Figaro.
“Since the 1990s, when it suffered a devastating banking crisis, Sweden has pruned the size of its welfare state, causing a huge increase in inequality,” the Parisian paper explains.
“Immigrants, who constitute 15 per cent of the population, have been the first people affected. Particularly the young among them,” it adds.
Even as it reduced the size of its welfare state, Sweden has been willing to welcome refugees fleeing some of the worst wars on the planet, says French afternoon paper Le Monde.
“Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria. There’s no shortage of crises, which have displaced hundreds of thousands of people to places beyond their frontiers. Generously, Sweden has continued to open its doors,” Le Monde opines in an editorial.
However, the country’s government has been unwilling to fund immigrant education and integration, the French paper adds, because Sweden has transformed itself into a “welfare state-lite”.
“Many of these immigrants are lodged in suburbs that gradually turned into ghettos, many [attend]poorly equipped schools, which perpetuate scholastic failure.”
State cutbacks are not the only social factor to blame for last week’s riots, Austrian daily Kurier writes.
“Day after day, violent unrest rages in Sweden’s impoverished industrial suburbs," says the paper’s correspondent.
“The transition from an old industrial city to a playground for middle class consumers produces winners and losers. From Husby to Stockholm to Malmö: Those who are on the streets are those who have been left behind by social change.“
Still others, such as conservative Catholics, blame Swedish educational reform, and perceived teacher permissiveness, for last week’s riots.
“Over the past few years, we’ve noted the lack of discipline [in Swedish schools]. On the one hand, there’s the feeling that the idea of a child has to be respected. And, at the same time, the teachers have become passive or even victims of the will of the child,” the papal broadcaster Radio Vatican quotes researcher Marta Paterniti, from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, as saying.
And, while there’s been much debate over the social factors behind the Swedish riots, there’s been unanimity on who will likely benefit from the unrest: The far-right.
“Coasting home on these troubles, and the [perceived]failure of integration policies, the nationalist, anti-immigration party, Swedish Democrats, has gained popularity in the surveys,” reports France 24.
“It is now in third place ahead of the elections that will take place in September 2014.”
If that trend continues, those elections may prove even more of a PR disaster for sweaky-clean Sweden than the riots and Eurovision combined.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.