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Europe

"Dutch-Only" Bid Stirs Angry Debate

As debate rages in Germany over a school banning students from speaking languages other than German, Holland is grappling with its own controversy sparked by a suggestion that only Dutch be spoken on the streets.

Immigrants in Holland demonstrate solidarity after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh

On the heels of a furor over a Berlin school banning its students from speaking languages other than German on school grounds, Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk has sparked a new controversy in the national debate about integration of immigrants after saying this weekend that only Dutch should be spoken on the streets.

"Speaking Dutch in the street is very important. I receive more and more e-mails from people saying they feel 'unheimisch' (ill at ease) in the street," Verdonk said at a weekend congress of her liberal VVD party about integration.

The minister's comment seemed to contradict her own Dutch-only call, since she resorted to using the German word 'unheimisch,' which translates loosely into 'ill at ease' but has no direct translation in Dutch.

"I want to set up a code of conduct about what we as Dutch people feel is important if you live here," she added.

Going too far?

The Dutch Immigration and Integration Minister is also called "Iron Rita"

The 50-year-old Verdonk, who represents a new hardline face of her party with her restrictive asylum and integration policies, also wants to deport 26,000 rejected asylum-seekers as soon as possible and further limit immigration.

The minister, whose plans for obligatory tests of Dutch language and culture paid for by prospective immigrants recently got the green light from the parliament, now wants to set up a code of conduct that will forbid the use of a foreign language in the streets of the Netherlands.

In the country's largest city Amsterdam, which is home to 173 different nationalities and receives some 24 million tourists annually, municipal authorities were quick to dismiss the idea.

"I think this is going too far," Laetitia Griffith, who heads Amsterdam's economic affairs and is a fellow VVD member, said.

"Amsterdam is a metropolis that attracts foreign investors who praise the Dutch tolerance. If I speak Surinamese with a friend in the street and we are not causing a nuisance, then there is nothing wrong with that," Griffith, who is of Surinamese origin, told the Volkskrant newspaper.

Code of behavior controversial

According to the popular De Telegraaf daily, a majority of parliament, consisting of the ruling CDA Christian Democrats, VVD and the opposition right-wing fringe party LPF, supports Verdonk's plans but says it should be up to municipalities to decide if they want to put the code of conduct into place.

Dutch port city Rotterdam recently introduced a similar code of conduct. Rotterdam, where half of the population is of immigrant descent, adopted a code with seven points set up to regulate contact between its inhabitants.

It states that Dutch should be the official language used "in school, at work, in the street and in community centers."

"An informal code will not change people's behavior," progressive Christian daily Trouw wrote Tuesday, recalling that the Rotterdam code says people "should do" something, but does not require the "must do" it.

In The Hague, where the municipality is fighting to keep several international institutions currently based there, authorities are none too taken with the idea, according to Pieter van Woensel, the VVD's local alderman for international affairs.

"I think it is not very likely that it will be a success," he told the NRC-Handelsblad paper.

"No language police"

Confronted with the media controversy about her plans, Verdonk on Monday told Dutch public radio that people would not be forbidden from using their native language if it is not Dutch.

"There will not by a law or some sort of language police," she said. "What is important is that foreigners who want to permanently reside in the Netherlands use Dutch as the language of communication."

Last week the Dutch parliament approved plans to have prospective immigrants take obligatory Dutch culture and language tests, priced at 350 euros ($430). But the government is not making any preparatory courses available beyond a film presenting the Netherlands and providing examples of the tests.

Recently Dutch public television broadcast a program in which various groups residing in the Netherlands sat the tests -- among them native-born Dutch nationals, Chinese restaurant owners and so on.

They all failed.

DW.DE