The mayor of Rotterdam was doing what mayors do. In wellingtons and hard hat last week, he was touring his city's main railway station, an icy, muddy work site, on a fact-finding tour.

But Ahmed Aboutaleb is no ordinary mayor. As the first immigrant mayor in the Netherlands, he is unique. He has taken charge of Rotterdam, Europe's biggest port and a multiracial melting pot. By 2020 more than half the 600,000 people of this city are predicted to be of immigrant origin. Rotterdam is also the place that gave Holland Pim Fortuyn, the maverick libertarian, poodle-loving populist politician accused of Islamophobia by critics and murdered by an animal rights activist seven years ago.

Fortuyn's legacy is a right-wing party with fierce rhetoric about immigrants that still wins a third of votes. No one doubts the high stakes Aboutaleb is playing for, or the high expectations that his unprecedented appointment has engendered: inevitably he has already been dubbed "Obama on the Maas [river]" by one columnist.

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