French far-right leader visits Italian migrant island

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French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was met by a protest on the migrant-heavy Italian island of Lampedusa on a visit Monday that she said aimed to draw attention to the immigration problem.

"I want to draw Europe's attention to what is happening," Le Pen told AFP before flying to Lampedusa, which is closer to north Africa than to mainland Italy and has seen thousands of immigrant arrivals in recent weeks.

"Europen officials are averting their gaze and are trying to play down the risk of migration flows," she said as she prepared for her flight.

Around 100 people turned out at a protest, holding up placards reading: "Lampedusa Is Not Racist!" and "Solidarity with the Asylum-Seekers!"

"Racists go away," chanted the protesters at the rally organised by Askavusa, a local human rights group in Lampedusa.

"I also want to offer my support to the inhabitants of Lampedusa who have had the feeling of being completely abandoned," she said.

"If I listened only to my heart, I would throw myself in the water to save them. But we would all drown because my boat is too fragile," said Le Pen, leader of the National Front and a member of the European Parliament.

Le Pen has been given by recent polls as a favourite in France's presidential election next year.

She was accompanied by Mario Borghezio, a fellow MEP from Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party, part of the governing coalition.

Lampedusa mayor Bernardino De Rubeis met with Le Pen, but local lawmakers from the opposition Democratic Party have condemned her visit.

Lampedusa, which is Italy's southernmost point, has a population of just 6,000 people and is around 140 kilometres (85 miles) from Tunisian shores.

Around 8,000 mainly Tunisian migrants have landed there since Tunisia's revolution in January -- more than the total for the whole of 2010.

© 2011 AFP

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