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14 May 2001

A sword over Europe

At its torchlit rallies, immigrants to Italy are branded as disease-ridden criminals. Yet the Northe

By Peter Semler

Brandishing torches and placards reading “No to Islam” and “The shadows of a minaret will not fall upon our church towers”, more than 1,500 demonstrators took to the streets of Lodi, a medium-sized town located in the heart of one of Europe’s wealthiest and most industrialised regions. The protesters were voicing their dissent at plans by local Muslims to build a mosque.

The incident was orchestrated by Umberto Bossi’s Northern League party. The town lies just south of Milan, Italy’s financial capital, and the protesters comprised a relatively affluent group of shopkeepers, skilled workers and small businessmen. There was not a skinhead in sight.

In the wake of the general election, on 13 May, the 59-year-old maverick politician and his Northern League are set once again to become a full governing partner in a new centre-right coalition led by the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. The first time around, in 1994, Bossi’s followers scuttled Berlusconi’s government in little more than seven months. Now, not only is the Northern League expected to be given the presidency of the lower house of parliament and an important ministry, but Bossi himself could be named deputy prime minister.

The demonstration in Lodi was not a one-off event of religious and xenophobic intolerance. After the large turnout and apparent success of the rally, the Northern League began holding biweekly anti-immigration marches and torchlit rallies with Bossi as the keynote speaker.

A typical Northern League rally is held in the central piazza of a small provincial town and features a Northern League politician reading out a kind of crime blotter of violent acts recently committed by “illegal aliens”. Incidents such as the attempted rape of a 14-year-old girl by a group of Moroccans or Albanians elicit especially fervid tones from both the speaker and the crowd.

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At one anti-immigration rally in Vigevano, a desolate town once famous for shoemaking, the gathering of about a hundred Northern League supporters ranged from twentysomethings through a middle-aged couple with a newborn infant to a long-haired 80-year-old dressed head to toe in “folkloric” Northern League regalia. The event had all the trappings and excitement of a neighbourhood boot sale. But the friendly small-town atmosphere ended as soon as the crowd lit their torches, held up banners proclaiming “No to Illegals” and began chanting in unison, “Neither blacks nor reds, only Umberto Bossi”.

The Northern League had planned a huge anti-immigration rally in Novi Ligure, after the brutal double murder of a woman and her son in the Piedmont town. But it was forced to cancel the rally when investigators realised that the stabbings were the work of the woman’s 16-year-old daughter and her boyfriend, rather than the local Albanians whom the girl initially tried to blame.

“Thank God the girl confessed, otherwise there would have been lynchings of any poor Albanian who happened to find himself in the wrong place,” a politician from the National Alliance, the reformed fascist party allied with Berlusconi, said.

Roberto Calderoli, the League’s regional secretary for Lombardy and the organiser of the Lodi anti-mosque rally, pointedly refused to apologise for having planned a demonstration that would have tarred an entire community from one ethnic minority. “When the truth emerged we cancelled the demonstration, but the problem of illegal immigration remains unchanged,” he said.

Bossi and the vast majority of League supporters vehemently deny they are racists; they claim they are against only illegal immigration and the crimes that these illegal aliens commit. “People like to call us racists,” Bossi complained, “but ignore the fact that we are the only party that does things for these poor countries: we are sending Aids medicines to a hospital in Romania, we are opening schools in Somalia.”

On orders from Berlusconi to become more respectable, the Northern League has recently taken some pains to tone down its rhetoric, especially in the presence of any foreign press. At the Vigevano rally, upon learning that the New York Times correspondent Alessandra Stanley would be in attendance, the league made sure that no uniformed member of the Padanian National Guard – the league’s volunteer army – would be present at Bossi’s keynote speech.

But while the respectable wing of the party continues to work flat out to counter the league’s image of racism and xenophobia, some senior party members such as Calderoli, Giancarlo Gentilini, the mayor of Treviso, and Mario Borghezio continue to exploit xenophobic feeling with few qualms.

The flamboyant Gentilini, who looks like a character out of a Tintin comic, ordered the removal of park benches and the spiking of bridge and church steps so that immigrants would not be able to loiter. He has also threatened to have it out with clergy who have dared to feed hungry immigrants. The politician, who claims Austria’s Jorg Haider and Rudy Giuliani, the New York mayor, as his “pupils”, does not shy away from vivid rhetoric. He was recently quoted as saying that he would welcome the “return of the use of cattle wagons” to deport illegal immigrants, and lamented that “branding” them is against the law as “they carry every form of sickness: tuberculosis, scabies, hepatitis and so on”.

Borghezio once organised a team of “green volunteers” to cleanse the Italian railway system of reputed prostitutes; they sprayed a group of African women sitting in a train compartment with disinfectant.

Bossi himself, who usually refrains from openly racist statements, was asked in an interview to explain the absence of non-Italians at league rallies. He replied: “That is not true, at a recent rally, there were a few little Negroes.”

The Northern League continually stresses that nearly 80 per cent of northern Italy’s prison population is made up of immigrants, and happily exploits the widespread perception that most crime is committed by foreigners.

Over the traditional late-night dinner that Bossi holds with party militants following any major speech, the provincial secretary for the league in Pavia, Vittorio Braga, confided that the perception of a northern Italy overrun by foreign criminals is based more on “psychology” than reality. “Yes, much of the fear of foreigners and crime is psychological but, because that psychology exists, we must address it,” he said.

Bossi, like many of his followers, is a veritable Jekyll-and-Hyde character. On stage, he spouts a spleen bordering on violence, but the moment he steps off it, he becomes an easy-going charmer, always ready with a joke or mischievous comment. Supporters line up for hours to get his autograph or exchange a quick word with him.

“Bossi is the kindest and most gentle person I have ever known,” said Rosaria, an elderly woman who runs a Northern League bar; she has known him since 1976, a decade and a half before the medical school dropout and drifter took to the public stage.

While there is no love lost between Bossi and Austria’s Haider – whom he refers to as an “old-style Nationalist” – Bossi has taken a few cards out of the Haider deck and he seems determined to dare Europe to impose sanctions against Italy.

In a recent interview, Bossi told me that sanctions similar to those imposed on Vienna last year, following the entry of Haider’s party to a governing coalition in Austria, are impossible because of Italy’s size and importance. Italy, he said, could shut down the entire European Union in the case of a boycott.

Bossi claims that demands for sanctions are just part of a sinister neo-Stalinist plot orchestrated by Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, and the bulk of centre-left national leaders – except for Tony Blair – to create a “Soviet Union” of the west.

While only the Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michel, has openly called for the EU to impose Austrian-type sanctions on Italy, it is understood from sources close to Prodi that Germany, France and Sweden are considering asking the EU to start the sanctions process once Berlusconi’s government comes to power.

According to the sources, both the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, and the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, have privately raised concerns with Prodi regarding Berlusconi’s new government, with particular focus on Umberto Bossi’s Northern League.

But whether Bossi is able to use the race card as a means to blackmail Berlusconi depends on the outcome of the 13 May elections. If Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition wins enough seats, so that Northern League support is not critical for a governing majority, he will not hesitate to unload Bossi and his loyalists at the first whiff of controversy.

However, if the Northern League is successful in its efforts to consolidate a large share of the northern Italian vote, Umberto Bossi will once again hold the sword of Damocles over Berlusconi’s head, and this time over Europe’s as well.

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