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Letter from Dakar

When an awkward, mild-mannered geologist called Macky Sall won a landslide over his former boss Abdo

One Thursday morning in March, I watched as a bull was butchered outside the house of Macky Sall in Fenêtre Mermoz. The then Senegalese opposition leader was living in this affluent quarter of Dakar, close to the Atlantic-facing corniche and a regional office for Oxfam. In the alley behind the house, men spread out the skin of the bull in the dust close to an abandoned airport scanner machine. They piled hunks of meat into metal tubs. Inside the house stood a woman of uncertain portfolio, holding a Victoria’s Secret carrier bag.

The departure of Sall’s campaign convoy was scheduled that morning for 11 o’clock. The hour came and went. His press attaché, a slim man with protruding ears, became increasingly uncomfortable. Finally the candidate emerged; cufflinks fastened the sleeves of his gleaming white boubou, or ankle-length robe. Approximately 90 minutes late, Sall’s caravan struck out into Dakar on a mission to win a presidential election.

On 25 March Senegal, a former French possession on the west coast of Africa, held the second and concluding round of its presidential poll. The contest featured Abdoulaye Wade, the octogenarian incumbent and leader of the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS), who had been first elected to the post in 2000 and was reluctant to hand over power. There had been demonstrations against him in the city, an opposition movement had sprung up and some opponents had died in confrontations with the state security services that had turned violent.

The protests in Dakar before the Senegalese election led to speculation that this might be the beginning of a sub-Saharan African spring. I flew in to Dakar just before the run-off. In the first round on 26 February, Wade got 34.8 per cent of the votes, the highest total of any candidate, but not enough to secure an outright win. Macky Sall, a geologist by profession who held various portfolios in Wade’s government before breaking away to form his own Alliance pour la République (APR), was the highest-scoring opposition candidate in the first round, winning 26.6 per cent. The other 12 opposition candidates had formed a coalition with Sall with the intention of ousting Wade.

The vision thing

One afternoon, I absconded from the journalists’ minibus and rode on the back of Sall’s pick-up as his convoy toured the city. We entered Guédiawaye, a working-class suburb of Dakar where concrete-reinforcing iron rods prod out of roofs. A crowd surged on either side.

Sall seemed an uncomfortable campaigner. Bespectacled and in his white boubou, he stood in his truck and waved both fists in the air but his movements were awkward. At one stage, addressing the crowd in the Wolof language, he declared: “Guédiawaye – you have given me a victory in the first round. I know the second round will be a confirmation of what you gave me. I know Guédiawaye has already chosen its side. Victory has been proven, visible and realised. If ever Wade tries to snatch my victory, the population will revolt.”

Despite his anti-Wade rhetoric in Guédia­waye, Sall is in some respects the man’s protégé: he served as prime minister under Wade until 2007, and ran Wade’s successful re-election campaign that year. His break with Wade came after he questioned the actions of the old man’s son, Karim, who many thought was being groomed by his father to succeed him as president.

The next morning I swapped sides. The French-colonial-style presidential palace on what used to be called the Avenue Roume has a gleaming white frontage. Sculptures of lions stand outside. Sprinklers were at work on trim lawns. Soldiers in red tunics stood guard outside the gates.

The presidential stretch Mercedes S600 was parked and waiting. Around the sunroof ran a handrail, rather like the equipment installed in lavatories for the disabled. I noticed a dent, too, on the rear right wheel arch.

On the morning of Friday 23 March, the last day of the campaign, President Wade, dressed in white slippers and a brilliant blue boubou, went out to meet his people. He was officially 85 at the time of the election but many Senegalese believed him to be older. As his convoy passed through Dakar, his supporters chanted “Gorgui”, a Wolof term of respect meaning “elder” that has become a moniker for the PDS leader. A white woman appeared out of the roof of the S600. This was Viviane, Wade’s French wife, standing beside her man.

In the colourful Marché des HLM quarter, Wade addressed a crowd of voters. “The people used to have $500 in a year. Now it’s above $1,000. That’s what the UN says, not what I said. We are not a poor country any more.”

Wade is a complicated figure, one of the last few survivors of the post-independence generation of African leaders. As an opposition stalwart, he fought and lost four presidential elections against the dominant Parti Socialiste du Sénégal before unseating Abdou Diouf in 2000. His record in office was mixed: new roads were built, Dakar was modernised and work began on a new airport. But he was accused of cronyism and nepotism, especially when he appointed his son to a super-ministerial portfolio overseeing international co-operation, air transport and infrastructure.

The most apparent evidence of the eccentricity of the Wade years stands on a hilltop above the Atlantic in Dakar, close to the Mamelles Lighthouse. At 49 metres, the Monument of the African Renaissance is taller than the Statue of Liberty. The gigantic bronze edifice depicts a man holding a child aloft. A third figure, a woman with her skirts blown up as if by the wind, leans towards the man. It cost $27m to build the monument and took a year’s work by North Koreans.

Mamadou Diouf, a Senegalese who is professor of African studies and history at Columbia University in New York, told me that Wade regarded himself as the best leader for Senegal. “It’s also a vision,” Diouf said. “He’s a man who believes he knows everything, and knows everything better than any Senegalese.”

But it was Wade’s actions before the elections that stirred the protests against him. In June last year, he attempted to pass a constitutional measure that would allow him to win the first round of a poll with only 25 per cent of the vote. Anger at this power grab gave birth to a protest group, the Mouvement du 23 juin (M23).

The day before the run-off vote in March, I arranged to meet Alioune Tine, one of the leaders of the M23, at the Pointe des Almadies, the westernmost point in mainland Africa. In a restaurant where the awnings advertised Beaufort beer, the 63-year-old literature professor, dressed in a robe, sat at a table. “The current constitution of Senegal has all the power with the president,” he said. “The National Assembly is very weak, the judiciary is very weak.”

Before the first round of the election, the M23 had failed to force Wade not to stand for a third term. Senegal established a two-term constitutional limit for presidents in 2001. Wade unilaterally decided that the limit should not apply to his first term in office, which started a year before the law was passed. Now the M23 had hitched itself to Sall’s coalition.

The protests against Wade before and during the election were restricted to a small number of events. Senegal does not have the large pools of disaffected and educated young people who were the kindling in the fires of the Arab spring. Yet it would be unfair to write off the movement altogether. Vincent Foucher, a civil rights researcher in Dakar, pointed out that for the first time in Senegalese history people’s participation in the campaign was based on conviction, rather than the expectation of largesse from a party boss. “I think it’s a very significant and important thing,” he told me; “it’s a new thing in Senegalese politics.”

Boo to the president

25 March Election day in Dakar began with lines in the sand – snakes of men and women whom I watched queue in the northern Parcelles Assainies quarter of the city. I failed to find a Wade supporter among them.

“We’ve had enough of him, though we know he’s done some great jobs,” said Gora Gaye, a tailor. “In 2000, in 2007, I voted for Wade, but now our hopes are dashed.”

Later, I went to see Wade vote in the Pointe E neighbourhood close to the seafront. There was tension. A marabout – one of the Muslim leaders who wield significant influence in Senegalese politics – had instructed his followers to come down to the polling station to show their support for the president. The authorities were struggling to control the crowd. Shortly after I arrived, police in black fatigues threw grenades of tear gas or smoke, it was unclear which. The violence did not escalate.

When Wade arrived to vote, he was wearing a white boubou. He had been booed when he voted in the first round, but not this time. Afterwards, he stood up through the sunroof of his car, looking backwards as it drove away, an old man all in white, retreating through the crowd like a piece of stage machinery.

By early evening, results were being announced on radio as they were posted at individual polling stations. It was not looking good for Wade. That night, I went to Macky Sall’s headquarters in the Scat Urbam quarter, home to large housing estates. Crowds had gathered outside. Some people had climbed trees; others were firing rockets; many were dancing. The atmosphere inside the building was party-like, APR and other opposition supporters excitedly massing.

At about half past nine, word filtered through that Wade had telephoned Sall to concede. Then when a rumour emerged that Sall would be at the Radisson Hotel on the corniche, I went over there. By the time I arrived, the French press corps had gathered. After midnight, Senegal’s new president appeared in a tent in the grounds of the hotel and addressed those gathered before him.

“We have shown in the face of the world that our democracy is mature,” Sall said. “I respect also those who voted for the other candidates.
I will be the president of all the Senegalese.”

When the final results were announced on 27 March, they showed that Sall had won a landslide victory, by 66 per cent against Wade’s 34. The peaceful transfer of power in an African election is an undeniable achievement. Overshadowing my time in Dakar were the events in neighbouring Mali. There, on 21 March, junior army officers launched a putsch that ousted the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré.

There is a strong democratic tradition in Senegal; it remains the only nation in mainland West Africa never to have experienced a coup since independence, which it won in 1960. Wade wanted to remain in power. However, unlike Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, who refused to accept that he had lost an election in 2010 to Alassane Ouattara and caused a civil war, he had no choice other than to concede defeat in that night-time telephone call to his opponent. Wade would not have been able to command the loyalty of the military, and Senegal does not have the same kind of ethnic fissures to exploit as in Côte d’Ivoire. It also has a vigorous and free press, and its presidential election underlined the point Barack Obama once made to an audience of MPs in Ghana – that Africa needs strong and open democratic institutions, rather than more strong men.

Simon Akam is the Reuters correspondent based in Sierra Leone

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.

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Matteo Renzi, the scrapper in the swamp

 Italy’s prime minister – “Europe’s last Blairite” – vowed to take on vested interests and smash open the economy. Can he still succeed?


In the summer of 2009, Daniele Caponi graduated from Sapienza University in Rome. His CV looked impressive. He had a degree in languages, and was fluent in four: Spanish, German, English and Italian. But the timing of his entry into the job market was terrible.

The global financial crash the previous year had badly affected Italy’s already weak economy. Prospects for graduates were so bleak that the best work Caponi could find was as a taxi driver. Six years later, the situation remains so precarious – youth unemployment is running above 40 per cent – that Caponi says he is “proud and honoured” to have a job at all.

Intelligent, confident and articulate, Caponi would appear to be precisely the type of person that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has in mind as a beneficiary when he says he wants to jumpstart Italy’s economy by breaking it open to competition – with a war on entrenched interests and an influx of foreign capital leading the way to more jobs. Yet Caponi also embodies forces conspiring to defeat him. As a taxi driver, he belongs to one of Italy’s “closed-shop trades” (which also include chemists and lawyers) that hold back the economy, clinging to privileges and blocking outsiders from entry. For members of these trades, the benefits of the status quo are clear: Caponi makes enough money to wear smart clothes, eat at good restaurants and go trekking in south-east Asia or Latin America every year.

He is not willing Renzi, who has been called “Italy’s Tony Blair”, to fail, but thinks it is inevitable that he will. For the man at the helm of the centre-left Democratic Party, who a year and a half ago – at the age of just 39 – became his country’s youngest-ever prime minister has the task of changing not only Italy’s legislation, but its way of life. It is a struggle of allegiances versus globalisation; gerontocracy versus meritocracy; made-in-Italy quality versus stark economic efficiency – and the rule of law versus the tendency to bend it.

On the day I meet Caponi, he is illegally cramming extra passengers into his car because a transport strike has affected his takings. “You see, Italian politics mirrors Italian people,” he says. “Even me, you find me criticising politics. But look at what happened today. I pulled two rides into one – I did something I was not supposed to do.”


When Renzi took over as Italy’s leader in February 2014, many in the country felt it as a gale of fresh air after two decades of political tragicomedy and economic stagnation dominated by Silvio Berlusconi, whose main interest in power, his many disparagers say, was to protect his media empire and keep himself out of prison. That protracted era of zero growth, from 1994 to this year, left Renzi with enormous problems: more than one in every ten people out of work, chronic dips into recession, and a national debt that is 135 per cent of GDP, against 95 per cent for France, 90 per cent for Britain and 75 per cent for Germany. Add to that one of the rich world’s lowest fertility rates, at 1.39 births per woman – a demographic crisis that prompted the health minister to call this a “dying country”– and it may seem surprising that anybody would want the job of extracting Italy from the bureaucratic and parliamentary mess that Italians call il pantano, “the swamp”.

Renzi, however, seems to relish challenges that are the proper measure of his ambition, which was apparent from an early age. The son of a centre-right municipal councillor, he grew up in Rignano sull’Arno, a quiet Tuscan town outside Florence, where he became a keen Boy Scout. (His official website uses a quotation from Robert Baden-Powell,
the founder of the Scout movement, as its epigraph: “Leave this world a little better than you found it.”) The modest scope of this idealism provides clues to Renzi’s combination of pragmatism and engagement.

His passion for politics began in high school, and as a law student at the University of Florence he co-founded a committee to help Romano Prodi, a Democratic Party stalwart, become prime minister. Around that time, the 19-year-old Renzi appeared on the Italian version of Wheel of Fortune, raking in £20,000. It was a precocious sign of his penchant for games of risk.

His first break in politics came at the age of 24 when he became provincial secretary of the centrist People’s Party. From there, his rise was fast: president of the province of Florence at 29; mayor of Florence, a much bigger job, five years later. As mayor, Renzi shook up the city by cutting back sharply on the number of councillors, increasing the efficiency of public services and boosting welfare spending. As Italy began to take notice, the young mayor already had his eyes on a bigger stage: national politics.

In early 2013, he sensed the moment had arrived. In parliamentary elections, one in four Italians had voted for a comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose populist Five Star Movement proudly stood for little other than revulsion with the ruling elite. It was a turning point in Italian politics. After the Berlusconi era – and a brief technocratic government led by Mario Monti, who imposed austerity to pull the country back from a financial abyss – Italians were fed up with the political class and hungry for change.

Renzi, then still mayor of Florence, blitzed TV and social media with a vision of himself as the saviour of Italy, while his Democratic Party colleague Enrico Letta plodded along at the head of an unwieldy coalition government. Renzi promised to rottamare – “wreck” – the system (from this he acquired the nickname “The Scrapper”). He was bold and passionate and, like Berlusconi, he projected sunny optimism. Best of all, as mayor of Florence from 2009, he was an outsider, untainted by the machinations and scandals of national politics. Many Italians dared to hope again, as Renzi promised a bold reform programme that would generate jobs and revive the economy.

Late in 2013 he won the Democratic Party leadership, and quickly showed his ruthlessness by orchestrating what the Italian press called a “palace coup”, toppling Letta the following February. (A popular cartoon from the time shows Renzi in a relay race, handing his predecessor a stick of dynamite.) Days later, without ever having been even a member of parliament, Renzi was appointed prime minister.


While many Italians began to place their hopes in Renzi, there was also an undercurrent of suspicion about him that still prevails. One reason for this is his opportunism. On a stroll through Rome’s best food market, in the rough-and-tumble Testaccio district, I heard a story about him that went like this.

“A municipal councillor of Florence from the time that Renzi was mayor was once asked by a journalist: ‘Renzi – according to you, is he a capable man?’

“The councillor responded: ‘Yes, he is capable of anything.’”

Indeed, while Renzi purports to be a man of the left he often doesn’t sound like one. Besides smashing open protected sectors and taming the trade unions, he wants to overhaul the bloated and coddled public sector and attract overseas capital, which would inevitably entail foreign corporate takeovers. In the context of the rise of far-left parties in Europe, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and given Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership in Britain, Renzi is increasingly looking like Europe’s last Blairite. (He got to know Blair when he was serving as mayor and Blair holidayed in Tuscany, and they became friends. Last year, Blair told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that Renzi was “the only way forward for Italy’s left”.) Indeed, on 21 September, Renzi appeared to be channelling Blair when he said that Corbyn’s victory was evidence that Labour “delights in losing”.

Yet there are signs that Renzi may not be winning his own battle. Another reason for Italians’ growing scepticism about him is that six months into his premiership the country slipped back into recession. This year, according to the European Commission, Italy is projected to eke out 0.6 per cent growth. By contrast, Spain and Portugal, which also have suffered severe debt and austerity crises, are forecast to grow at 3.1 and 1.6 per cent, respectively.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains stubbornly high despite the passage in the spring of Renzi’s signature “Jobs Act” – a package of laws that aims to generate employment by scaling back job protections and offering tax incentives to companies that hire long-term workers (as opposed to the surging number of people on precarious short-term contracts). And reform means nothing unless people believe it will work. Foreign investment has increased but Italian businesses are clinging to their capital. After rising early this year on the back of the imminent labour reforms, business confidence slumped again over the summer.

Critics say that whatever growth Italy does achieve this year may be due less to him than to another Italian: the European Central Bank chief, Mario Draghi, who has sought to invigorate the eurozone economies with a flood of easy credit. Some economists say that without a cheaper euro to boost its exports, Italy would still be in recession.

Meanwhile, in times of uncertainty, Italy’s business cliques hunker down to their old ways – hostile to hiring young people and preventing newcomers from encroaching on their turf. Renzi is fighting hard to tame these entrenched interests. The problem is that he may be running out of time. His approval ratings have nearly halved, down from more than 60 per cent after he became premier to around 32 per cent today.

“If nothing happens, especially in terms of kick-starting the economy, then people will start saying you’re just hot air,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, an expert on Italy based at the Open Europe think tank.

One might imagine that students here would be among Renzi’s biggest fans, given that he is promoting policies that would help them find work. But on the Sapienza campus, Caponi the taxi driver’s alma mater, I cannot find a single student who believes that Renzi could improve their prospects by the time they enter the workforce. The overwhelming message: once I graduate, I’m out of here.

Beatrice Parsi di Landrone, studying chemistry, shakes her head at the thought of change being possible in Italy. The economy, she says, is built on patronage and favours that keep talent out of the best jobs. She wants to move to England and apply her skills in cosmetics, working for Max Factor.

“You can’t work here unless you have an inside track,” she explains. “For 20 years now, the government has been ruining Italy, even if we’re the best in the world in so many things. Overseas, it’s our brains that make a difference.”

The message on the sweatshirt worn by Mirko Mandarino, a medical student, speaks for his generation: “F**KIN’ PROBLEMS”. He is from Calabria, in the deep south, where people are poorer on average than in other parts of Italy. That makes it even harder for him to succeed in this country, where
many northerners hold southerners in contempt. Under Renzi, the gap between north and south has widened: national GDP fell 0.4 per cent last year but the south suffered a 1.3 per cent decline. “Renzi?” Mandarino says with a chuckle. “He’s an opportunist. A social climber. That’s how he’s gotten to where he is. My future? Outside of Italy. There are no other alternatives.”

Like Parsi di Landrone, Mandarino laments a culture of vested interests that blocks young people from achieving their dreams. “Nobody wants to give up anything,” he says. “They’re clans. The mentality is mafioso.”

Still, he feels sympathy for older Italians who cling to jobs and power. “In Italy, an old person can’t give way to the young, because at his age he wouldn’t find anything else. I have an uncle in Canada. He got fired at age 48. The next month he found a new job. That kind of thing doesn’t exist in Italy.”

Christian Abete, a classics student, sums things up: “We export wine and graduates.”


Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of John Cabot University in Rome, meets me on the terrace of Vanni, a café in the genteel Prati district. Of the dozens of Romans I speak to, Pavoncello is the only one who believes that Renzi will succeed. “I am bullish about Italy,” he says.

The professor presents a heroic narrative of the prime minister, calling him a “revolutionary figure” – and only time will tell whether he is right. But he does make a basic point that it is hard to argue with: “He’s the only game in town. The right is dead. Completely melted. The left continues to be the usual communist left. It’s a disaster.”

It is the disarray among Renzi’s opponents not only on the right, where Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is fighting to regain relevance, but also in the crumbling old guard of the Democratic Party, that may allow him to press forward. “Nobody can stop this avalanche,” Pavoncello says.

That is an exaggeration, as the reform process is moving slowly. The big question is whether the Italian people will have the patience to endure a drawn-out and complicated overhaul – which promises pain to millions who benefit under the status quo – as the economy continues to stagnate. A stumble for Renzi’s party in regional elections in late May signalled threats hovering over his future. Voters are growing hostile to his pro-business ethos, alien to Italian tradition, and his own camp is beginning to bridle under a leadership style often described as dictatorial. Adding to his problems, the xenophobic, anti-euro Northern League’s vote share jumped across the nation, extraordinary for a party that long advocated a divorce between the affluent Italian north and the poorer south.

Pavoncello insists that Renzi has the political smarts and determination to be a transformative figure. But won’t he hit the brick wall of Italians’ cherished way of life?

“What way of life?” he fumes. “People staying at home? Fifty per cent youth unemployment? Taxi drivers who think they’re middle-class? In New York taxi drivers are not middle-class. Here taxi drivers make three, four, five thousand dollars a month. They feel they are shopkeepers. Taxi drivers are not middle-class. They are the bottom of the class! Can you remain middle-class when you have Uber? You can fight. You can try. But the world is going against you.”

Roberto Fabiani, the spokesman for Rome’s main cabbies’ association, who is a taxi driver, too, does indeed come across as middle-class. He wears Ray-Ban aviators, designer stubble and a crisp white shirt as he meets me at the Romana Tassisti headquarters on the outskirts of the city. Like Caponi, he is university-educated and asks why he shouldn’t have a pleasant family life after working a hard shift behind the wheel. He sees Renzi’s argument about reviving the economy by making it easier for firms to fire as being fundamentally at odds with Italy’s communitarian sensibilities.

“This is a philosophy that is molto liberal,” Fabiani says of the Jobs Act programme. “In Italy we have a vision that is very much to the left. Article 1 of our constitution says that Italy is a country founded on work. Translated, that means that every citizen should have the right to a dignified job, not extravagantly paid, but one that allows him to live in a dignified manner. ‘Dignified’ for me means not only to have an income that allows me to live, but also the security to know that I can live my life. If I’m hired, and in three months somebody says ‘you’re no longer needed’, that’s a problem.”

Italy’s commitment to social welfare, with its roots in age-old ideas about community and family, has provided cushions that allow people to live with dignity even in the midst of a sharp downturn. Yet millions of young Italians are living with precisely the indignity of uncertainty that Fabiani finds unacceptable. He is prepared to fight to protect his own. “If this happened,” he says of Renzi’s plan to break open closed sectors, “it would be the end. We’d take a hard position. Until the bitter end.”


There is no country in the world where cliques do not fight hard to keep their privileges. In Italy, however, the instinct is particularly strong; and this may present the greatest challenge of all to Matteo Renzi’s desire for reform. Italy’s historical experience as a jumble of city states and patches of empire has left a structure of allegiances and patronage that poses daunting obstacles to change.

Campanilismo, loyalty to the village bell tower, is central to Italian life. This signifies loyalty not only to your village, but to your trade association, your social circle, uncles and cousins, and, at the highest echelons, your political faction or business cabal.

“I’m not Italian, I’m a Roman,” says Caponi the taxi driver. “This is another thing that we are missing. We aren’t like the French or the Germans or the English, who are French and German and English.”

It’s a spirit captured in a song by the singer Luca Carboni called “Inno Nazionale” – “National Anthem”. You might expect a patriotic paean, but it goes like this:

“I’m too much of a Bologna man,

And you’re much too Neapolitan.

Him? Too much from Turin,

And you guys too stuck in Bari.

And if we’re all too proud,

They’re all too Venetian.”

The song continues in this vein, a hard rap with a techno beat. In its simplicity, this national anthem conveys how the Italian identity is precisely the lack of one. The paradox hits home in the song’s conclusion:

“We were once too fascist, and then

Too don’t-give-a-fuckists . . .

And then became too communist,

As well as too Christian-Democratic.

And even as time passes,

We’re still too ITALIAN!”

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide