Protests over Marine Le Pen's visit to refugee island

Michael Day
Tuesday 15 March 2011 01:00

The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa desperately needs more resources to deal with immigrants fleeing unrest in North Africa and arriving in its little harbour by the boat-load. What it got instead yesterday was a controversial visit from the leader of France's far-right, Marine Le Pen.

She said she had come merely to observe Europe's frontline in illegal immigration, but was greeted with protesters shouting, "You're not welcome here" and sarcastic placards reading "liberté, égalité, fraternité".

More than 8,500 migrants have landed on Lampedusa since Tunisia's revolution in January. The tiny outcrop of rock and sand in the Mediterranean – closer to Tunisia than Sicily – has a population of only 6,000 and its holding centre for immigrants has been filled to bursting point for weeks.

Ms Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front party, said she was visiting Lampedusa in her roles "as the leader of a major French political movement and a member of the European Parliament", following Italian ministers' warnings that Italy's southern border was bearing the brunt of a "Biblical Exodus" from North Africa.

She was accompanied by Mario Borghezio, an MEP from Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party. "I only want to see at first hand what's happening in Lampedusa," Ms Le Pen told reporters "There's no intention to provoke."

Lampedusa's mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis, met Ms Le Pen. "As far as racial hatred is concerned, everyone has his own personal style. Her father has his. She has hers. I am not going to judge her as a racist," he said.

But local Democratic Party councillor Giuseppe Palmeri condemned her visit. "We are demanding to know what on earth Lampedusa is doing inviting the leader of France's far-right who again today refused to renounce any of the National Front's anti-Islam or anti-immigrant policies or the death penalty," he said.

"Her visit represents a real provocation for all the people of Lampedusa who believe in the Christian values of hospitality and human solidarity."

Ms Le Pen spoke to two immigrants during a tour of the island's holding centre. "I have a lot of compassion for you but Europe can't welcome you," she said. "We don't have the financial means."

It is unlikely that all the people on Lampedusa share the protesters' views. Angela Maraventano, the deputy mayor, is a member of the Northern League. And in response to the crisis, 100 soldiers were dispatched to Lampedusa earlier this month to prevent the migrants from wandering the streets and to reassure nervous or bewildered locals, who feared for the island's status as a destination for sun-seekers and scuba divers.

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