To Be Absolutely Frank

Immigration Sensation

Can right-wing xenophobia move in a Reaganite direction? Among the heirs of Mussolini?

By 11.7.03

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"ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS OUT," reads the headline of a poster recently plastered on walls all over Rome. Another bit of demagoguery from Europe's far right? Sure enough, at the bottom appear the name and logo of the National Alliance, largest of several Italian parties tracing their lineage to Mussolini's Fascists.

But now read between the lines: "THE VOTE FOR THOSE WHO WORK," the poster goes on to demand; then, in smaller type: "A proposed law to give the vote to those who have lived honestly in Italy for years …" Illustrating the text is a photograph of three smiling people, including a black woman.

A black woman as poster child for the heirs of Mussolini -- what's going on here? To be sure, the gesture is a prime example of Italy's baroque political theater. But it could be the start of something far more significant, for Italy and the rest of Europe.

Last month Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance and vice premier of Italy, made headlines with a proposal to grant resident aliens the vote in local elections. The news was especially surprising because Fini was co-author of last year's draconian immigration law, designed to make it harder for non-Europeans to come and work here.

The two positions are not strictly speaking contradictory. Fini says he simply wants to fight illegal population flows while integrating those who arrive through proper channels. But politics is about more than policy, especially in a country as rhetorical as Italy. If last year's law sent the message that Fini is tough on immigration, this bill sends the message that he is no xenophobe.

On one level, the proposal fits in perfectly with Fini's long-standing strategy to make the National Alliance mainstream. Though he is on record as calling Mussolini the "greatest statesman of the [twentieth] century," Fini has for years striven to wipe off the taint of Fascism, by affirming his commitment to democracy and his support for Israel.

Fini's bill is also a clever tactic in terms of parliamentary politics. No one is more unhappy about the proposal than Umberto Bossi, Fini's coalition partner and collaborator on the immigration law, and a rabble-rousing pain in the neck for everyone on his side of the aisle. Bossi has backed down from threats to leave the government if Fini's bill goes forward, but with his record of alien-bashing, doing nothing would make him look like an opportunist or (far worse, in Italy) a weakling. Whether he stays or goes, Bossi will henceforth be less of a problem for Fini thanks to this bill. (Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia is the largest party in this fractious coalition, clearly just wishes the problem would go away.)

It's easy to be cynical about politicians, but there is likely more to Fini's proposal than image enhancement or partisan maneuvering. The vice premier is clearly someone who thinks in the long term -- of his own career and thus of the policies he espouses.

Fini understands that Italy, whose fertility rate has been below replacement level for years, must come to terms with immigration as soon as possible. If Italians working today want to collect their pensions and be physically cared for in old age, they must let in millions more foreigners. The only question is whether these people will come in under a system that provides for their legal and social integration, or through illicit and dangerous channels that leave them alienated from the society on whose margins they labor.

Italians and other Europeans are understandably anxious about absorbing millions with strange languages, customs and religions. The left preaches the virtues of multiculturalism, but this only aggravates the fear that diversity will undermine community. That's where Fini and his ilk come in. The right, which has credibility when it comes to patriotism and traditional values, is the political force that can make immigration palatable.

Will other European rightists recognize this reality and the opportunity it offers them? In politics, as in fashion, Italy has often been a trend setter. France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far more virulent bigot than even Bossi, is handing over the reins of the National Front to his daughter, who has already toned down the party's anti-immigrant rhetoric. Le Pen's move may be less sincere or substantial than Fini's. And there will no doubt be lots of backlash, in France and elsewhere, if right-wing parties start embracing immigration. But if they really want to govern Europe, that is what they must do.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.