The head of France's far right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, criticised yesterday (14 March) what she described as slack controls that had allowed tens of thousands of clandestine immigrants into Europe through Sicily.
Seeking to build on opinion polls that have shown her making big advances ahead of next year's presidential elections, Le Pen travelled to the tiny island of Lampedusa south of the Sicilian mainland, the initial goal of thousands trying to get into Europe from Africa.
"From the moment someone sets foot on Lampedusa they are in Europe and by definition they benefit from all the rules that are applied to illegal immigrants in Europe," she told reporters. "And these rules are lax."
Thousands of immigrants have arrived by boat in Lampedusa from Tunisia over the past few weeks, prompting Italian government ministers to warn that the unrest in North Africa could trigger an exodus "of biblical proportions".
Le Pen, who was met by dozens of protestors holding signs accusing her of racism, said 70% of those arriving in Lampedusa wanted to move on to France.
"I also came to express my solidarity to those who are having to shoulder this problem because the European Union is looking away, is doing nothing at all," she said.
The daughter of former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned France in 2002 by making it through to the final round of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen has attracted growing support since taking over the leadership in January.
At least one recent opinion poll has shown her edging to a slight lead over President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has moved themes like immigration and national identity to the centre of the political debate ahead of next year's election.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)