Italy is fighting allegations of institutional racism by the editor of a major French newspaper. In a letter published last week in the left-leaning Italian daily La Repubblica, Le Monde's Jean-Marie Colombani accused Italian border police at Venice's Marco Polo airport of "harassing" his 20-year-old adopted son, a French citizen of Indian origin. Guards went through his luggage, questioned him about his private life, and challenged his nationality, he wrote, saying this sort of thing happens every year.
The Frenchman's allegations come on top of the release of a new anti-Islamic book by an Italian war correspondent, which sold half a million copies in a matter of hours last week. The author, Oriana Fallaci, says she is simply giving voice to a growing sentiment here. Over the past 15 years, Italy has seen a massive influx of immigrants from the developing world and commentators say this society, almost 100 percent white half a century ago, is struggling to adapt to rapid change.
Mr. Colombani's letter and Mr. Fallaci's book have thrown a harsh light on the state of ethnic relations here. While other parts of Europe have seen a rise in tension between races, Italy, with its close proximity to North Africa, is a prime gateway for the wave of immigrants entering the Continent. Now a fresh debate over the place of these newcomers is igniting in a country that has long been more accustomed to emigrating than hosting foreigners.
"It is almost as if Italy is also falling into a populist atmosphere that is in fashion, with the same old temptation towards xenophobia," Colombani wrote in La Repubblica.
The open letter offended Italian leaders and members of the public.
"I cannot deny this risk [that Italy is sliding into xenophobia]," Italy's interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, responded in letter published in La Repubblica. "But I see a culture of welcome and respect for others that is still well rooted in our country."
Mr. Pisanu apologized for any isolated incidents but insisted his police forces were not racist, inviting visitors to Italy to report any unjustified excesses or harassment.
Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, of the antiimmigrant Northern League, was more indignant, defending the Italian police for doing their job in times of high security and pitying them for having had the misfortune to "disturb" an intellectual of the "gauche française."
The national media have rejected Colombani's accusation, complaining that racism is not Italy's but Europe's big problem, especially since the global war on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism began. Newspapers pointed out that Israel's Ariel Sharon has recently called on French Jews to move to Israel to escape rising anti-Semitism in France.
But the massive success of a new anti-Islamic tract by Ms. Fallaci, entitled "Oriana Fallaci interviews Oriana Fallaci,"says Europe is being turned into "Eurabia" by immigrants, added fuel to fears that unabashed racism is becoming increasingly acceptable in Italy.
"I say what I think and that is what people think but almost never say," says Fallaci. "They have found someone who gives a voice to their silence." A new edition is being prepared.
Human rights groups say that non-white Italians and immigrants of color are treated with less respect than white Italians.
"We are still at a stage in this country where colored people are considered different and systematically treated, if not as inferiors, as children," says Luciano Scagliotti, a representative in Italy of the European Network Against Racism.
Many of Italy's nonwhite citizens complain they are treated as foreigners. And most, however well educated, have not yet emerged from the ranks of cleaner, factory worker, and farm laborer.
"I think Italy is the most racist country in Europe," says Dacia Valent, who was Italy's first black politician to reach the level of member of Parliament in the 1980s. Despite the rapidly growing nonwhite Italian population, all of Italy's members of Parliament today are white.
People of color have a harder time finding jobs, taking out loans, and climbing the social ladder, says Valent.
"There is not one colored Italian citizen on our football teams. You are unlikely ever to see a black face sitting behind a computer in any office in the country if they are not there to dust it. People of color are seen as the workforce that is here to do the jobs the Italians don't want to do," says Ms. Valent, who is half Italian and half Somali, from a wealthy diplomatic background.
Valent now gathers reports of discrimination for SCORE Italy, the Standing Conference on Racial Equality. In one case, she says, an owner pulled out of the sale of his apartment when he realized the buyer, a doctor, was Ghanaian. The owner argued that the value of his other two flats in the building would go down.
"We have token colored priests, TV presenters, and colored people to make the majority of Italians feel better," Valent says. Black doctors, lawyers, and writers are only ever called upon to join television debates about racism, she argues, never to provide specialist advice in their field.
Experts on racism explain that Italians are not intrinsically racist, but that that the nation is struggling to absorb the recent influx of developing-world migrants. According to the charity Caritas Italy, the number of resident immigrants in Italy has grown to 1.6 million in 2001, up from 649,000 in 1991. There are many more living here illegally or waiting to be registered. Immigrants now comprise 2.8 percent of the population. While the change has been rapid, the numbers are lower than the rest of Europe, according to the figures.
New communities have formed so fast that they have tended to cling to each other and there is little mixing with white Italians, apart from across the shop counter.
Still, there are signs of progress.
"The people, as ever, are way ahead of their leaders and their institutions," Mr. Scagliotti says. As second-generation immigrants are working their way up through the Italian school system, young Italians, for the first time, are growing up with racially mixed classrooms, observers say.
Mixed marriages are on the increase, even though the Vatican, in a document signed by the pope, advises against mixed-religion marriages, especially where the woman is Catholic and the man in Muslim because "there are too many differences."