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Berlusconi's anti-immigration comments spur outcry

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s open rejection of the vision of a multi-ethnic Italy sparked sharp debate Sunday, winning praise from far-right allies and accusations of racism from the left.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends the taping of the television program Porta a Porta ("Door to door" in Italian) in Rome May 5, 2009.REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Berlusconi’s conservative government has won public favour by cracking down on illegal immigration, allowing the premier to go a step further as he defended Saturday a new policy to deport migrants to Libya before they arrive on Italian shores.

“The left’s idea is of a multi-ethnic Italy,” Berlusconi told a news conference. “That’s not our idea, ours is to welcome only those who meet the conditions for political asylum.”

Long a country of emigrants, Italy in recent years has been grappling with an influx of poor African migrants arriving on its shores and Eastern Europeans seeking work, sparking fears over crime and a loss of national identity.

Opposition lawmakers denounced the premier’s comments as racist and told him to accept Italy would inevitably become multi-cultural whether Italians liked it or not.

“It’s not for me or Berlusconi or anyone else to decide, for this will be the century of multi-ethnic societies,” centre-left leader Dario Franceschini said, accusing Berlusconi of using the topic to divert attention from his marital woes and a recession.

“France, Great Britain and Germany are European nations with far more immigrants than us but they’ve worked for integration.”

Monsignor Mariano Crociata, secretary of the influential Italian Bishops Conference, defended multiculturalism as a “value” that already existed in Italy and instead cited poor inter-cultural relations as the real problem.

Even Leftist leader Piero Fassino -- who a day earlier broke ranks with party members by supporting Berlusconi’s new deportation policy -- said the latest comments went too far.

“He’s wrong, and seriously so,” Fassino told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “Let’s just accept with honesty that Italy -- like France and Germany already are -- will become a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious country.”

But Berlusconi’s affirmation -- which made headlines in Italian newspapers and pushed his ongoing divorce drama to the inside section -- was hailed by the Northern League, a junior government ally that says unchecked immigration threatens Italy.

“This underscores a revolutionary change from the past,” said the far-right party’s Roberto Calderoli, recommending honorary party membership for Berlusconi.

Last week, an outcry erupted when a League official jokingly said some Milan subway coaches should be reserved for Milanese.

Immigration has been high on the political agenda ever since Berlusconi took power a year ago pledging a clampdown on illegal immigrants that his government blames for a spike in crime.

“Once upon a time there were just a few of us defending Italian identity, now with the prime minister’s words we are in the majority,” Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said.