The Netherlands likes to think of itself as a placid country of hardworking merchants and salt-of-the-earth farmers, where tolerance, prosperity and social conscience go hand in hand.

Today, however, the Dutch are agonizing over values they once took for granted and a system that no longer seems to work.

Six months after the assassination of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn, followed by the election success of the party he formed, his movement is collapsing as swiftly as it rose, leaving some people frustrated and wondering where to turn.

The changes go beyond politics to include issues of self-image as the Dutch find themselves at the crest of some of Europe's most trying dilemmas -- immigration, crime and overburdened welfare systems.

In a country that has been a pioneer of legalizing marijuana, same-sex marriages and euthanasia, and where brothels are taxpaying businesses, old-fashioned themes of family values are being sounded more frequently.

Many citizens are glad that in the last year politics once confined to backrooms can be seen in the open. But some worry that it has changed Dutch norms of respect and decency.

"There is a lot of aggression and violence in our society that nobody wanted to know about because we wanted to uphold the image that we were tolerant," said Thera Wijsenbeek, a social historian. "It has created instability and stirred up emotions. The brakes seem to have been taken off society."

So many cocaine smugglers have been caught recently that there aren't enough jail cells to hold them. People wait so long for surgery that many go next door, to Belgium. Traffic is snarled into an almost permanent rush hour, and bus and train fares are going up 10 percent next year.

Immigrants, when they were needed to overcome a labor shortage, were long welcomed with open arms. No longer. High taxes were imposed to pay for a generous welfare system. Now every fifth worker is on long-term sick leave and the welfare system is buckling.

Compared with life in some industrial European cities, the Dutch still have a lifestyle that harks back to a calmer age. Many bicycle to work, past old gabled houses along ancient canals, and windmills still turn lazily in the countryside.

But a country proud of its sympathy for the developing world now confronts racial tensions that were routinely brushed under the carpet. Youngsters three generations removed from their Turkish and Moroccan immigrant ancestors, speaking fluent Dutch and holding Dutch citizenship, complain of discrimination and are blamed by the self-styled "native Dutch" for the rise in crime.

Although non-Western immigrants and their descendants make up only 10 percent of the population of 16 million, they represent about half the population of the main cities.

When Rob Oudkerk, an Amsterdam city councilor, was caught on camera talking about "rotten Moroccans" (he later apologized), a Moroccan-born Dutch rapper named Raymzter seized on the phrase for an MTV rap song. Wearing a turned-around baseball cap, he hammers out his lyrics in earthy street Dutch:

"They look at me like I flew into the twin towers,

"They want to put us down when they talk about us,

"We didn't do a thing, but they want to hate us."

The May election campaign broke all taboos thanks to Fortuyn, a gay magazine columnist who flaunted his political incorrectness by calling Islam backward and demanding an end to immigration.

He also challenged other cornerstone values of post-World War II Dutch society, such as the welfare state and workers' rights, saying they were bloated beyond reason.

The outgoing Social Democratic government had already begun to change the system. Social benefits were sharply scaled back; student grants were linked to performance; welfare entitlements were tightened and thousands of people were cut off.

Fortuyn was shot by an animal rights activist nine days before the election in the Netherlands' first political murder in 400 years, but his party went on to win more than 1.6 million votes out of 11 million cast, and it joined a center-right coalition government.

However, without the charismatic Fortuyn, whose alleged killer is awaiting trial, the party dissolved into bickering and on Oct. 16 the government resigned.

Building on restrictions the previous government had begun to introduce, the new coalition had set up an Immigration Ministry and appointed Hilbrand Nawijn, Fortuyn's designated successor as party leader, to run it. He proposed locking immigrant families in "departure centers" while their asylum requests were processed, promised to double the number of deportations and set a target rejection rate of 80 percent for newcomers.

But the government collapsed after 87 days, leaving the Dutch with the feeling the immigration question was nowhere near a solution.

Elections for a new parliament are scheduled for Jan. 22.

The Netherlands, the size of West Virginia but nine times as populous, is the most densely populated country in Europe. The Dutch were building dikes and landfills 1,000 years ago. So to many, immigration makes the feeling of crowding seem more acute. Plus, Dutch cultural fixtures such as churches and cheese markets are making way for mosques and stands offering Moroccan spices or whole lambs slaughtered under Islamic law.

Herman Heinsbroek, a Fortuyn follower and economics minister in the outgoing government, said his countrymen must do more to absorb immigrants into the Dutch way of life: "Teach your neighbor how it works here, speak Dutch, explain the ground rules of society."

Heinsbroek said he plans to run in the January elections on a platform of "old-fashioned" standards and values such as tougher policing and respect for teachers and elders.

Muslim women chat at a market in Amsterdam. Although immigrants were long needed to overcome labor shortages, the Netherlands is no longer greeting them with open arms.