Europe tightens up on immigration
''I defend France's interests,'' Jean Marie Le Pen says softly. He smiles, and his blond hair and cherubic face disarm a cautious listener. Then he provokes. ''It is legitimate that French citizens be favored over foreigners.'' By now, the words begin to roll off his tongue with force, finally reaching a crescendo. ''We have to throw out all the illegals,'' he shouts, concluding ominously, ''if we don't, it will end badly.''Skip to next paragraph
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A year ago, no one noticed Mr. Le Pen's fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric. Dismissed as fanatic, his National Front Party scored only about 1 percent in the polls.
Today, the same rhetoric is tearing French politics apart. Le Pen is everywhere, drawing huge crowds to his rallies, on the covers of the national newsmagazines, on television - and his party's standing in a series of recent municipal elections is up to between 10 and 15 percent of the vote.
So far, similar national front parties have remained marginal in both West Germany and Britain. But right-wingers in the mainstream parties in both countries have embarrassed their colleagues with racial outbursts. At the recent British Conservative Party conference, for example, an Asian speaker was booed with cries of ''Out, out, out.''
Moreover, in many ways the rise of the extreme right is not the most dangerous aspect of the political debate over immigration.
Even in France, few expect that Le Pen's National Front will overtake the mainstream conservative parties. But Le Pen has succeeded in putting the foreign workers at the center of French political debate.
This success raises the key question: How tough will the established parties have to become to defuse the immigrant issue?
Immigration controls were first enacted in the early 1970s, and today there is a wide consensus that no additional foreigners can be accepted. Both left- and right-wing governments have followed this same policy.
''Open immigration,'' says British Labour Party shadow home secretary Denis Howell, ''is simply not politically acceptable with so many unemployed.''
Today, though, governments are moving beyond simple immigration limits to even tougher, more controversial, rules. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has lowered from 16 to 6 the maximum age at which Turkish children can join their parents in West Germany. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's 1983 Nationality Act makes it more difficult for Asian and West Indian citizens to have a potential wife live in the country.
''WE feel we have to move swiftly to show that we are making progress on the immigration issue,'' explains Mervin Koler of Britain's Conservative Party. ''This calms potential worries.''
The most striking sign of the need to calm worries has come in France. The Socialist government came to power three years ago pledging to liberalize policy for the foreigners. It amnestied 100,000 illegal workers and ended the previous government's attempt to pay immigrants to return home.
Today, this generosity is long forgotten. Under the pressure of the immigrant backlash, the Socialists have copied their tough predecessors and even outdone them. Border crackdowns have been stepped up, with wives and children often refused entry. Well-publicized expulsions of illegal aliens have been enforced, and a new program to pay immigrants to return home was announced. Immigrants will be offered 40,000 francs ($4,600) and retraining in their native countries.
''We are in war against unemployment,'' explains Georgina Dufoix, minister for immigrant affairs, in reference to the tough policies. ''Our measures are visible and efficient? All the better.''
But are such repatriation programs, a remedy also recently enacted by Germany's Kohl government, actually effective? The toughness may satisfy an increasingly irritated public opinion, easily swayed by men like Le Pen who proffer the false equation that ties the numbers of unemployed to the numbers of foreign workers.
Still, past French and German paybacks have had only minimal success, and officials admit that new programs will not resolve the immigrant problem.