Marine Le Pen, the daughter of France's longtime far-right leader who now heads his National Front party, on Monday advocated turning migrants back to sea before they can reach European shores after she toured a center for illegal migrants on Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa.
A group of young protesters yelled "racist" at Le Pen as she toured the island, where some 8,700 north Africans have fled unrest that has spread from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya since January.
Despite her party's anti-immigrant politics, Le Pen had insisted before her arrival that the visit is aimed at gathering information, not at provocation. Le Pen, 42, who his stumping for next year's French presidential race, has been trying to soften the National Front's image as a xenophobic party.
"Europe is impotent and has not come up with any solution," Le Pen said. Instead of patrolling near European shores, she said Europe's navies "in reality ... should go as close as possible to the coasts from where the clandestine boats departed to send them back."
Europe, she said, cannot handle the influx, which "is adding poverty to poverty, and disorder to disorder."
She warned that the migrants were arriving "in proportions that Italy can no longer handle."
"In truth, we are about to witness a catastrophe," she said.
Her visit comes as at least five new boats laden with migrants are headed to the island. Most of the 8,700 north Africans who have arrived here since unrest in Tunisia started in January say they want to go to France, where many have family.
In Rome, Italy's plight received more sympathy from EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, who, after meeting with Premier Silvio Berlusconi, said that Italy can "count on the political and financial solidarity" of the European Union.
Italy, on the "front line" of the migrant exodus, has a "legitimate worry" about the exodus of migrants from north Africa, Barroso, said, at Berlusconi's side during a press conference.
"Europe is ready to be solidly at the side" of countries "particularly exposed" to the migrant flood from the Mediterranean's southern shore, and "share the costs."
As Le Pen toured the Lampedusa center housing some 900 illegal migrants, about a dozen protesters gathered outside brandishing signs in French and Italian with such slogans as "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood, even for those without documents."
"Madame Le Pen is a xenophobe, racist and neo-Fascist, and we don't want her here," said Giacomo Sterlazzo, one of the protesters.
The island's mayor, however, was more welcoming, saying the emergency facing Lampedusa needed a European response.
"She is coming here to understand what is happening here. As far as racial hatred is concerned, everyone has his own personal style. Her father has his. She has hers. I am not going to judge her as a racist," Mayor Bernardino De Rubeis said.
The mayor told reporters soon after that it was agreed for security reasons that Le Pen would not speak with any of the migrants "because we are in a precarious phase."
Those who arrive in Lampedusa are sent onward to centers throughout southern Italy. During their stay in Lampedusa, each is given three meals and 10 cigarettes a day, plus a phone card to make calls.
Balbaba Mazaui, a Tunisian immigrant, was waiting to call his father in France over the weekend. He said he risked the sea voyage "because there is no work, and also because the police are looking for me."
Italian authorities were dispatching about 100 soldiers this week to help prevent the migrants from wandering through the island, which is also a vacation destination.