Leading article: Uncivilised behaviour

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Italian voters knew what they were getting when they returned Silvio Berlusconi to power in May. The former leader's partners were the notoriously xenophobic Northern League. And, in a pitch designed to pander to the national hysteria over crime, Mr Berlusconi had promised to get "tough" on foreigners, in particular, Italy's 150,000 Romany gypsies.

The new Prime Minister has certainly wasted no time in pursuing this agenda. His government is preparing a Bill that will step up expulsions of illegal migrants. This crackdown has been preceded by police raids to tear down unauthorised gypsy settlements and evict their occupants. And now Mr Berlusconi's Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, is proposing that all of Italy's gypsies are fingerprinted.

This official stigmatising of the Roma appears to have unleashed popular furies. There have been vigilante attacks on Roma camps across Italy, mass house burnings and assaults on isolated gypsies by gangs of thugs.

Last month, the European Parliament censured Italy for its treatment of foreign nationals. But the truth is that Italians themselves will suffer just as much as a result of this spasm of cruelty towards foreigners. Italy relies on migrant labour to fill all manner of jobs, from cleaning to caring for the elderly. It is estimated there are more than a million foreign domestic helpers in the country; most of them have an irregular immigration status and stand to be ejected under Mr Berlusconi's new law.

And then there is the less tangible, but no less significant, damage to Italy's reputation. Every act of popular violence against foreigners, every instance of official discrimination against the Roma, diminishes the country's claim to be regarded as a civilised nation.

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