Among all Europeans, the French have the most positive view of immigration and minorities. Huge majorities of Germans and Italians would give immigrants, legal and illegal, free access to their health care systems. Americans are the most trusted foreigners in Europe.
These startling findings emerged in a study done by a prestigious Italian university just months before riots in France’s suburbs left officials pondering what to do with the country’s restive non-white minorities and immigrants.
The Fifth Report on Immigration and Citizenship in Europe was prepared between June and September by the University of Urbino, one of Europe’s oldest higher education institutions, and by Fondazione Nord Est, an Italian foundation focusing on social policy, economics and immigration.
“The research results seem to contradict the current debate on immigration in Europe, particularly after the recent events in France,” says Ilvo Diamanti, lead investigator for the University of Urbino. “It’s even more surprising considering that the lowest degree of anti-immigrant alarm was found in the metropolitan area of Paris.”
According to the poll, 71.7 percent of French citizens perceive immigration as a positive social and economic phenomenon. Furthermore, 82.1 percent believe that immigrants who pay taxes should be allowed to vote in local elections, while 67.1 percent would let them vote also in national elections.
Contrary to the widely held belief that Old Europe is unflinchingly xenophobic, the study found that countries like Germany and Italy are, in fact, coming to terms with their need for immigrants and with the idea that immigrants should enjoy the same rights and legal protections enjoyed by their own citizens.
In Italy’s urban centers with more than 500,000 residents, less than 30 percent of the population view immigration negatively. In Germany the percentage rises to 32 percent while in France it drops below 13 percent. In general, Western Europeans affirmed that immigrants are assets to the economy, contribute to the cultural diversification of their countries and widen Europe’s cultural horizon.
While 75 percent of Germans would give health coverage to legal and illegal immigrants and their families, 97.1 percent of Italians favor extending free access to their national health care system.
Diamanti believes the French riots resulted more from France’s economic problems and social disparities than directly from anti-immigration sentiments. He believes that economic pressures on the standard of living continent-wide, caused by the introduction of the euro, has fueled fears of invasions by legions Southern and Eastern migrants in search of work, housing and social service.
But Jean Baptiste Su, a correspondent for La Tribune, France’s largest financial daily, takes a dim view of the research, especially in light of the recent riots.
“The revolts have marked a real fracture in race relations across France and strengthened the repressive hand of the government,” Su says. “People are really scared. They have seen cars, schools and houses going up in flames and they don’t like it. And unfortunately, true or not, Muslims have been scapegoated for the chaos that ensued.”
Su believes that although across Europe the riots may lead to the adoption of more tolerant policies toward immigrants, in France “they will be used—for the moment—to curb immigration and stiffen naturalizations laws.”
Jochen Siegle-Kling, a German free-lance journalist and frequent contributor to Der Spiegel, is heartened by the research.
“The study confirms that Europeans have finally awakened to the fact that they need immigrants, both socially and economically, more than immigrants need them,” Siegle-Kling says. “It appears also that they are trying to cope with the necessity to integrate them, expressing good will on a series of fronts ranging form heath coverage to political rights.”
But Siegle-Kling also says the banlieue riots should serve as an “alarm signal.”
“Time is ticking away. Great Britain and Italy should pay particular attention because they’re next in line for a revolt,” he says.
Indeed, in Rome 30,000 people—immigrants and natives—marched in freezing rain to the Parliament to ask for the passage of laws granting equal rights and work permits to immigrants and their families.
“After the French riots Italians are no longer arrogant. They have stopped acting like immigration isn’t their problem,” declared Andres, an illegal immigrant from North Africa who gave journalists only his first name.
The study also disproves the notion that “New Europe” tends to be more modern than the Old one: Significantly more Central Europeans than Western Europeans view immigration as a threat. In the Czech Republic, 61.1 percent see immigrants as a threat to their national security.
In Hungary, 72.3 percent believe immigrants destabilize the labor market, lower the wages and compete for the same jobs sought by the native population. In Poland, only 12 percent view immigrants as an asset to the national economy. Germany emerges as the most trusting of immigrants; Hungary is the least trusting.
The trust question netted another of the most surprising findings. The study appears to dispel the perception that anti-Americanism fueled by anger at U.S. foreign policy has seized Europe. The findings show that U.S. citizens are the most trusted foreigners throughout the continent, with Germany giving them top marks (74.5 percent) and Hungarians (46.9 percent) the lowest. Immigrants from Arab countries are the least trusted—51.1 percent trust them in Germany and only 8.4 percent in the Czech Republic.
Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly magazine. ›