Italy’s Populists Turn Up the Heat as Anti-Migrant Anger Boils

Matteo Salvini, center, began his campaign before Italy’s election in March at a Roma camp in Via Germagnano, on the outskirts of Turin, last week.

ROME — The far-right extremist who wounded six African immigrants in a racially motivated shooting rampage in central Italy this weekend was a one-time candidate for municipal office who had kept a copy of Mein Kampf and Celtic crosses in his home. Photographs show he had a neo-Nazi tattoo on his face and, at the moment of his arrest, had an Italian flag draped over his shoulders as he performed a fascist salute.

But the gunman, Luca Traini, ran for election last year not with a post-fascist and nationalist party, but as a representative of the formerly secessionist Northern League. Under its leader Matteo Salvini, whom the gunman described as his “captain,” according to Italian press accounts, the party has rebranded itself, dropping the word Northern to attract voters in central and southern Italy who share Mr. Salvini’s anti-immigrant anger.

Ahead of Italian elections on March 4, there is plenty of it. Perhaps no issue has struck a greater chord with voters than immigration, and perhaps no Italian politician has voiced concerns about immigration more than Mr. Salvini.

In the aftermath of the shooting in Macerata, Mr. Salvini perfunctorily condemned the violence, which had followed the arrest of a local Nigerian immigrant accused of killing and dismembering a teenage girl. Mr. Salvini then argued that “unchecked immigration brings chaos, anger” and “drug dealing, thefts, rapes and violence.”

In Europe’s still precarious political climate, Mr. Salvini poses a whole new threat for a political establishment that is enjoying a reprieve after populist forces were largely beaten back in French and German elections last year.

He is not only a favorite of Marine Le Pen of France, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and nationalist politicians across Europe. Some fear that Mr. Salvini, while now aligned with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a center-right coalition, could eventually join forces with the populist Five Star Movement, which echoes his strong anti-immigrant and anti-European Union message. Together they would be an anti-establishment nightmare.

“The project of Salvini is a national project. His political ideas, his notion of protecting the territory, is seen the same in the north and the south,” said Francesco Zicchieri, a leader of We’re With Salvini, a movement that has acted as the southern and central Italian branch of the Northern League.

Until a few years ago, the Northern League was a separatist party built on antagonism toward Rome (the great thief) and the south (filled with “terroni,” a derogatory term for southerners). The dream was sovereignty for Padania, a mystical northern Italian land imbued with the sanctity of the River Po.

Mr. Salvini, 44, took over the party in 2013 from its founder, Umberto Bossi, who had been weakened by a stroke and corruption scandals. Mr. Salvini has since been an indefatigable candidate for prime minister and an omnipresent media figure, while severing the party from its secessionist roots.

He has used the country’s growing economic discontent, and especially its wariness about immigrants, as a vehicle to reach voters in former enemy territory.

Even as Italy’s center-left government — like other formerly more welcoming European countries — has cracked down on illegal immigration, Mr. Salvini’s message continues to resonate in a country on the front lines of a great migration that has reshaped European politics.

More than 600,000 migrants, many from Africa, have landed on Italian shores in the last four years, prompting a backlash that has fueled the the center right.

Last summer, a candidate of Mr. Salvini’s party shocked Italy by winning in Cascina, a liberal stronghold in Tuscany once liberated by American soldiers in World War II. In the Roman seaside suburb Ostia, supporters of the post-fascist CasaPound party said they would vote for Mr. Salvini in national elections.

“Salvini is a good man,” said Sonia Valentini, 53. “I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

Anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by Mr. Salvini forced the government to drop a proposed law to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants born and raised in Italy.

In September, Mr. Salvini — who has expressed doubt about vaccinations — blamed the death of a child from malaria on migrants who “bring back to Europe” once-eradicated illnesses.

In recent weeks, a candidate for the League in the northern region of Lombardy said on the party’s Radio Padania station that Italy must put an end to migrant arrivals because they endangered the “white race.”

That sentiment is spreading.

After the Macerata shooting spree, Mr. Salvini’s political ally, Mr. Berlusconi, promised to send home Italy’s 600,000 undocumented migrants, calling them a “social bomb ready to explode.” In an Italian television interview he added, “All these migrants live off trickery and crime.”

Mr. Berlusconi was supposed to be the moderating influence on Mr. Salvini.

At a legal assistance center for migrants in Milan, Pierangelo Lopopolo said the fear-mongering had made the tough lives of the people he volunteered to help even harder.

“Salvini is taking advantage of the discontent in the south and the immigrant is the ideal enemy,” he said. “‘Don’t have a job? Immigrants. Pay too much taxes? Services go to immigrants. Crime? Immigrants.’ He repeats it over and over.”

Even some of Mr. Salvini’s old partners in the Northern League think he has gone too far.

“With Salvini, immigration is all about fear. If you take away immigration what does he talk about? Has he ever offered a solution besides throw them all out?” said Roberto Bernardelli, a gregarious hotel owner and old guard Northern League member in Milan who has recently started a splinter party, The Great North.

Mr. Bernardelli, who is currently facing charges of funding the arming of a military tank for separatists, added: “Bossi gave us the dream of independence in the north. When Salvini changes the Northern League to a nationalist league, he is destroying the dream.”

Mr. Salvini, a deeply ambitious politician, has his own dream, and critics say it is primarily for himself, regardless of who gets hurt. He currently has about 12 percent of the vote, but has become a challenger to Mr. Berlusconi as well as a potentially mutinous partner in their leading center-right alliance.

He has shown a capacity for change before. Mr. Salvini, a critic of the European Union despite being a paid deputy in the European Parliament, used to reserve his hostility for Italy’s southerners. In 2009, at the League’s annual festival in Pontida, he sang, “What a stink, even dogs are running away, here come the Neapolitans.”

Traveling to Rome, he once called his train the “Nero Express,” in reference to the emperor blamed for burning down the city.

But this summer he campaigned across Sicily on a slow regional train and spent a recent afternoon headlining a rally in Rome that served to demonstrate his national reach.

Some supporters waved the green leaf on the Padanian flag. Clara Agnoletti showed off a Northern League sign that she had made herself by hand with 4,000 green crystals.

She was for the national expansion but expressed exasperation that Mr. Salvini had eliminated the word Northern from the party’s name. “I’ll put some paper over the Northern,” she said with a shrug.

Behind her, a group of white nationalists who called themselves “Young Identitarians,” held a sign against offering citizenship to Italian-born children of immigrants. Southerners from the region of Puglia held up a pro-Salvini banner.

“Getting rid of the north on the sign allowed a lot of us to get closer to the League,” said Silvano Contini, the southern group’s coordinator. “Because of the immigrants we have come together.”

Mr. Salvini, wearing a powder blue sweater in keeping with his paunchy everyman aesthetic, gave his usual remarks against the euro and radical Islam and in defense of pensioners and the unemployed.

But his biggest applause lines were about immigrants. “I’m sick of seeing the immigrants in the hotels and the Italians who sleep in cars,” Mr. Salvini said to cheers. “This is the racist country.”

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