Tue, Nov 13, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Denmark's unabashed lightning rod in the immigration debate

By John Tagliabue  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , COPENHAGEN

Karen Jespersen is so new to her job as Denmark's minister of social affairs that she felt compelled to apologize to a visitor that she couldn't identify the painter of the canvases hanging in her offices because she still has her predecessor's furnishings. It was a rare admission, for Jespersen does not often apologize.

Since her appointment to the post in September, she has emerged as a stalwart defender of a country's right to require immigrants to accept its basic values and, inevitably, a lightning rod in Europe's continuing debate over immigration. And for a former student leftist, prominent journalist and former official with the Social Democratic Party, her new role in the conservative government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen represents the latest step in a remarkable personal odyssey.

Jespersen's defenders say that, sooner than most here, she had read Scandinavia's discomfort with immigration laws that overburdened schools and social programs, and even threatened law and order. But her opponents cast her as an opportunist.

"I think that Karen Jespersen chose to leave the Social Democrats when she eyed a chance to gain influence and become a minister in the right-wing government by speaking against the party and the government she was part of," said Henrik Dam Kristensen, a spokesman for the Social Democrats.

Jespersen disagrees, of course, arguing that her migration from left to right grew primarily out of her concern about the impact of immigration on Denmark.

"I think immigration is a benefit for society," she said. "But you have to be very cautious in dealing with it, to keep your basic values."

Most Danes favor immigration, she said, but refuse to surrender the achievements of their society.

"We will keep the equality of men and women and freedom of speech," she said.

Like most of northern Europe, Denmark has been in a quandary over immigration, notably from Muslim countries.

In 2004, the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, who made a short film critical of the treatment of Muslim women, was shot and knifed to death on an Amsterdam street. A year later, the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in an unflattering light, sparking violent protests throughout the Muslim world.

DEATH THREATS

In September, several Danish cities offered asylum to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch parliament and collaborator of van Gogh. She had fled to the US after receiving death threats from Muslim groups but returned to Europe recently, after the Dutch government refused to pay for her protection in the US.

She declined the Danish offers and said she intended to go back to Washington.

Jespersen is hard to label. At 60, she is a veteran of 1960s counterculture struggles, a women's rights advocate, a skilled politician who has sat in Denmark's parliament and has been a minister in Social Democratic governments.

The conservatives, who are expected to retain power in parliamentary elections on Nov. 13, regard her as someone who lends validity to their restrictive immigration laws. The Social Democrats, while denouncing her, realize that her Saul-to-Paul shift reflects in some way the state of the Danish soul, torn between its traditional values of tolerance and the fear that continued, unrestrained immigration will somehow tear apart the national fabric.

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