Munich (Germany) (AFP) - Angered by a slew of lockdown measures, purported vaccine plans or alleged state surveillance, thousands took to the streets on Saturday in Germany in a growing wave of demonstrations that has alarmed even Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Initially starting as a handful of protesters decrying tough restrictions on public life to halt transmission of the coronavirus, the demonstrations have swelled in recent weeks to gatherings of thousands in major German cities.
Huge numbers of anti-lockdown protesters, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers or extremists massed across Germany again on Saturday, with more than 5,000 gathering in Stuttgart, at least 1,500 in Frankfurt and around 1,000 in Munich.
"Corona is fake", claimed one poster held aloft in Stuttgart, "Isolation, Masks, Tracking, Vaccine -- that's a no go", cried another.
Police in Berlin made 200 arrests as scuffles broke out, while in Hamburg, conspiracy theorists clashed with anti-lockdown protesters.
The growing demonstrations have sparked comparison to the anti-Muslim Pegida marches at the height of Europe's refugee crisis in 2015, raising questions over whether the strong support that Merkel is currently enjoying due to her handling of the virus crisis could evaporate.
Just as it won popularity by fanning anti-migrant sentiment five years ago, the far-right AfD party is now openly encouraging protesters and repositioning itself as an anti-lockdown party.
A recent poll commissioned by the Spiegel news magazine found that almost one in four Germans surveyed voiced "understanding" for the demonstrations.
The development has shocked the political establishment, with Merkel reportedly telling the top brass of her centre-right CDU party of the "worrying" trend that may bear some hallmarks of Russia's disinformation campaigns.
- 'Vilification' -
Germany in March took unprecedented measures to shut down public life.
While a huge majority of Germans back the action, giving Merkel's government a big boost in approval ratings, dissent is fomenting, particularly online where YouTube videos championing conspiracy theories or quack medical advice are attracting tens of thousands of views.
Seeking to counter absurd claims, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that although he wasn't a medical practitioner, he could safely suggest that the "uncomfortable and cumbersome face mask is more to be recommended than a tin-foil hat".
But protesters bristled at being dismissed as loonies.
Markus Windebrandt, 43, who was protesting in Munich, said the "measures of compulsory mask wearing and social distancing are simply no longer necessary.
"COVID-19 is a serious disease that must be taken seriously but the consequences of the disease must be compared to the negative consequences that these measures may have. There is no medical evidence that wearing the mask works. "
In Dortmund, another protester who would only be identified as Sabine, 50, said she turned up because she was "worried about public freedoms -- under the cover of fighting the pandemic... the exceptional laws go against our basic constitution".
"We want a return to normality and to not have any impediment on our public freedom. If someone is sick, then he or she should be just put in quarantine."
After a public outcry over unruly protests last weekend, the AfD placed itself squarely on the side of the demonstrators.
Party co-chief Alexander Gauland said it was "completely correct that people are exercising their fundamental rights and demonstrating against corona measures."
Any resulting split in society over the demonstrations should not be blamed on the protesters, but on "the sweeping vilification of participants as right-wing extremists, nutcases or conspiracy theorists", he charged.
Sometimes violent in nature, the demonstrations have also been increasingly tinged by anti-Semitism.
Underscoring the increasingly virulent atmosphere, a mock tombstone was found in front of Merkel's electoral offices, apparently to oppose lockdown measures.
- Second populist wave -
"I consider this type of protest to be extremely dangerous," Felix Klein, the government's pointman on tackling anti-Semitism, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
"We must take the emergence of these movements very seriously and cannot hope that with the end of the corona crisis these forces will disappear again," he said.
Spiegel also cited the urgent need for Merkel to get a grip on the situation.
"If she doesn't take counter action now, a second populist wave of anger could break over Germany," it warned.
Time could be pressing.
Hermann Binkert, who heads the polling institute INSA, said the strong support for Merkel's government could quickly melt away when the health imperative recedes.
"When the unifying theme of health fades and the debate focuses on solving the labour market, economic and financial crisis, the consensus ends," he warned.