Voters in Lombardy, the region of northern Italy that includes Milan, elected a new governor this week, giving a landslide victory to a far-right candidate who said during the campaign that Italy must expel hundreds of thousands of immigrants in order to defend the “white race.”
Attilio Fontana, the candidate of the far-right Northern League, made the remark in January as he tried to explain why his party’s promise to “stop the invasion” of Italy by African immigrants was not racist.
Speaking on his party’s radio station, Fontana said that the league’s promise to deport all 600,000 undocumented immigrants who have arrived in Italy since 2014, mostly from Africa, was “not an issue of being xenophobic or racist, but a question of being logical or rational.”
“We can’t take in everyone,” he argued, “because if we did, we would no longer be ourselves as a social reality, as an ethnic reality. Because there are many more of them than us, and they are much more determined to occupy this territory.”
“We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society should continue to exist or if it should be wiped out,” Fontana said.
After Fontana was criticized by, among others, the leader of the Jewish community in Rome — who observed that it was shocking to hear such language in Italy, 80 years after Benito Mussolini’s fascist government had introduced racial laws — the candidate claimed that his use of the phrase “white race” had been a “slip of the tongue.”
Fontana’s center-left opponent Giorgio Gori helped to publicize the comments, tweeting the audio and commenting that the campaign pitted “those who talk of pitchforks and white race” against those who “talk about training, jobs, growth, and Europe.”
The region, Gori added, would “do better, without hysteria and demagoguery.”
When the final ballots were tallied on Tuesday in Milan, however, Gori was a distant second, more than 20 percentage points behind Fontana.
In Italy’s general election, which also took place on Sunday, no party won enough votes to command an outright majority in parliament, but Fontana’s party exceeded expectations with over 17 percent of the vote and could lead a right-wing coalition government.
This is not the first time that voters in Lombardy, one of the richest regions in all of Europe, have elected a far-right governor. Fontana will take over from a fellow member of the Northern League, Roberto Maroni.
While anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe are often associated with those who have been left behind by the increasingly globalized economy embraced by the European Union, the Northern League started out three decades ago as a party that advocated the secession of the prosperous north of Italy from the poorer south. During this year’s campaign, however, the party dropped the word “Northern” from its logo, and stopped describing southern Italians as “smelly,” to concentrate its ire on foreigners.
Instances of shockingly casual racism among far-right Italians are not new. In 2013, a Northern League senator insisted that it was “an aesthetic judgment, not meant to be racist,” when he said that Italy’s first black minister looked like “an orangutan.” The same year, an exhibition match between one of Italy’s leading soccer teams, AC Milan, and a lower division club had to be abandoned after a black player responded to fans chanting like monkeys when he touched the ball by walking off the field.
In 2015, the revered former coach of Italy’s national team told reporters that the youth squad of another Milanese team had too many non-white players. The coach, Arrigo Sacchi, said that, “to see so many colored players, to see so many foreigners, is an insult to Italian soccer.”
A Pew Research Center survey on diversity published in 2016 suggests that anti-immigrant views are not confined to a fringe of Italians. A clear majority of Italians, 53 percent, said that “having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in our country” made Italy a worse place to live. Only 18 percent told researchers that immigration made Italy a better place to live. In the United States, Pew found very different attitudes, with 58 percent saying that increasing diversity makes the country a better place to live and just 7 percent saying it makes it worse.
The Pew survey also revealed that across Europe, where countries are still largely defined as nation-states, or primarily homelands for one ethnic group, immigration is seen as negative by large portions of the population, despite the relaxation of internal borders in the E.U. and the bloc’s willingness to offer refuge to Syrians fleeing the war in their country.
In an interview last week with the BBC, Fontana said that even though it would be impossible to expel all of the undocumented immigrants immediately, “we have to get started.”
In a sign of how elevated tensions are across Italy, hundreds of protesters marched in Florence on Tuesday, after the authorities ruled out racism as a motive in the fatal shooting of a Senegalese immigrant by an Italian man the day before.
The leader of Fontana’s party, Matteo Salvini, who celebrated with him in Milan on Tuesday, told reporters that he would try to form a coalition government in which he would be prime minister. The Northern League had campaigned as the junior partner in a right-wing alliance led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, but when the votes were counted, Salvini’s party had become the larger of the two.
Salvini, who met with Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and made his party’s slogan “Italians First,” is an enthusiastic supporter of the American president.
The Italian was photographed on Monday beaming at the election result that made his party the largest in the right-wing bloc. He was standing in front of a bookshelf adorned with a “Make America Great Again” hat and a photograph of Vladimir Putin.
Also on the shelf was a copy of a book about the cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party that Salvini signed in Moscow last year on behalf of the Northern League. While it remains unclear what exactly the agreement entails, Salvini, who is pictured on the cover of the book meeting Putin, told Russians at the time that his goal was to work “so that Italy has real parliamentary elections, just as open as in your country.”
Updated: March 7, 1:45 a.m. EST This report was updated to add information about prior instances of racism in Italy, the findings of a Pew survey on global attitudes to immigration and diversity, and tweets praising Donald Trump from Matteo Salvini, the Northern League leader.