Love It or Leave It: Xenophobia Goes Mainstream

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It is doubtful that Nicolas Sarkozy has ever heard of the late Texan country singer Ernest Tubb, a rhinestone cowboy with a honky-tonk twang. But last week the French Interior Minister seemed to be humming a French version of Tubb's 1970 classic "It's America (Love It or Leave It)." "If it bothers people to be in France, then it shouldn't bother them to leave a country they don't love," Sarkozy said. It's hardly a new refrain; the far-right National Front has used France: love it or leave it as a slogan for years. Perhaps for that reason, Sarkozy's pronouncement sent shock waves across the French political firmament. Sarkozy — the likely candidate of France's ruling conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in the May 2007 presidential elections — was accused of fishing for votes in the anti-immigrant swamp, where Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers, the leaders of two French far-right parties, have been making inroads.

But while his verbal bravado may raise eyebrows, Sarkozy has plenty of company. Across Europe, immigration policy — whether devised to control legal or illegal flows or the separate issue of political asylum — is no longer seen as a marshy reservoir where far-right fringe parties toss cheap rhetoric to xenophobes. That changed after Sept. 11, and particularly after Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, having suggested that the Netherlands was "full," was murdered in May 2002. Sarkozy's comments primed France for a divisive debate in the French National Assembly this week over a new, tougher law on immigration. In the run-up to last month's regional elections in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke approvingly of more rigorous citizenship tests. "Citizenship cannot just be nodded through," she said. In the Netherlands, right-wing Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk stands a very good chance of winning this month's vote for party leader among members of the VVD party, which is part of the governing coalition. Her take-no-prisoners approach to stanching immigration is the main reason for her popularity.

Even so, for a Continent whose demographic growth depends increasingly on immigration, creating more obstacles for immigrants may bear heavy costs in the future. And demonstrators who gathered on the weekend in France to protest the new immigration law, and in Britain at London's Trafalgar Square for a concert to show solidarity against the ever-bolder presence of the British Nationalist Party (BNP), indicated that even as an electoral strategy, a crackdown on immigrants can be risky.

What's remarkable about the recent posturing is that it implies the already strict measures may not be enough for an anxious public. Two years ago, Verdonk announced she would deport 26,000 asylum seekers who had been in the Netherlands for years. Earlier this year she picked a personal fight with an 18-year-old illegal (and won it on Friday when the girl left the country) who thought she should at least be allowed to finish high school before being deported. Verdonk's policies have made her by far the most divisive minister in the current government and earned her the moniker Iron Rita. While the left abhors her, Verdonk remains a popular favorite on the right. And that's mainly because the inflow of immigrants has slowed under her harsh regimen. The number of asylum seekers to the Netherlands has fallen by more than 80% since 2000; in the last two years, for the first time since the 1960s, more people have left the Netherlands than have arrived.

Of course, that might not be a desirable outcome, even for Verdonk's fans. "In the perception of immigrants, the political climate has deteriorated so far that those who have prospects abroad leave," says Rinus Penninx, an immigration expert at the University of Amsterdam. "And that's not the group you want to lose."

Such complications have been part of the reason Britain's political parties have not been playing the immigration card too obviously, even while the country appears to be inflamed over the subject. Last week Home Secretary Charles Clarke offered his resignation, which Prime Minister Tony Blair refused, when it was revealed that Clarke's department had released 1,023 foreigners back into the community after serving prison terms — including some for murder, rape and pedophilia — instead of considering them for deportation, as the law stipulates. So even though polls show immigration as second only to the debt-ridden National Health Service as a cause of voter concern, Labour is ill-placed to take advantage of the issue. The Conservatives, having focused on immigration last year in their unsuccessful attempt to unseat Blair, are wary of repeating the strategy under new leader David Cameron, who wants to reposition his party as more inclusive and faces an important first test in local elections this week. Only the BNP is making a big push based on immigration concerns: according to one recent poll, 59% of Britons support the BNP position that all further immigration should be halted, though when it was explicitly identified as a BNP stance that number dropped to 48%

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