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Italian provincial

The country's tilt to the right raises gnawing questions about the future of its immigrant population.

May 10, 2008

After Gianni Alemanno was elected mayor of Rome last month, his supporters rallied on the Capitol steps, many giving the straight-armed salute and shouting "Duce," the nickname of former fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Though Alemanno had served many relatively quiet years in Parliament before running for mayor, he was once a youth leader of a neo-fascist movement who was charged with (but not convicted of) beating up a leftist and other mischief.

Alemanno is an extremist, but his success comes amid a political resurgence by the right in Italy, whose new government is frequently cited as the country's most conservative since World War II. The rest of Europe is finding that a little unsettling, though the rightward shift isn't unique to Italy; France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries previously dominated by leftists are now led by the center-right.

If the political changes in these countries have anything in common, it's public dismay over immigration. The continent's demographics are shifting dramatically as native birthrates drop and waves of immigrants from North Africa, Turkey and Eastern Europe arrive. Yet it's Italy where the anti-immigrant fervor seems to be reaching its height.

Media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who had been prime minister from 2001 to 2006, was swept back into office last month by allying with some rightist parties that had previously been on the fringes of Italian politics -- notably the neo-fascist National Alliance and the Northern League, whose chief, Umberto Bossi, once suggested that the navy should fire on immigrants crossing the Mediterranean. These parties have publicly rejected the militarism and anti-Semitism of Mussolini's day, but they still embrace ultranationalism combined with a distrust of foreigners that verges on xenophobia. The Northern League favors such policies as kicking the children of illegal immigrants out of schools, banning veils, forbidding construction of mosques and denying citizenship to anyone who doesn't speak fluent Italian.

There's no danger that Italy will threaten its neighbors the way it did in the run-up to World War II, but an internal crackdown on immigrants is all but inevitable. And if policies like the Northern League's go mainstream, the results will be ugly indeed: more alienation, joblessness, economic malaise, rioting, crime and potentially even terrorism. Italy looks like it's about to become a case study in how not to handle a growing immigrant population, something those trying to solve the problem on this side of the pond would do well to watch closely.

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