16 Jul 2013

Can flowers really hide Italy’s race problem?

With the MP who racially abused Italy’s first black cabinet minister promising he will send her flowers to apologise, Channel 4 News looks at the wider issues surrounding racism in Italy.

Senior Northern League figure Roberto Calderoli (pictured bottom), vice-president of the senate, told a political rally at the weekend that Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge (pictured below) had “the features of an orangutan”.

Mr Calderoli is vehemently anti-immigrant, and his party has opposed Ms Kyenge’s calls for Italy to change its citizenship laws to allow children of immigrants born in Italy to obtain citizenship.

Speaking to Channel 4 News (video, above), Italian prime minister Enrico Letta said Mr Calderoli had been “asked to resign.”

“It’s a big problem of course,” he said. “We asked him to resign because it really was a shame for the country, for the image of the country.

“I think his approach was bad, stupid, and absolutely it was necessary for him to resign. This is why I asked him to resign, he is still there, it is a big problem for us.”

Cecile Kyenge (R)

Currently, such children can apply for citizenship only once they turn 18, but bureaucratic problems often interfere.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, calling for Mr Calderoli to resign, said the comments had damaged Italy’s standing abroad.


Mr Calderoli asked the senate to accept his apologies and said he would have resigned had a majority of senate leaders asked for it. But he said no such majority had formed.

He said Ms Kyenge had accepted his apologies and he would follow the suggestion of colleagues by sending her a bouquet of flowers.

“I said something foolish and I recognise that,” Mr Calderoli told the senate. But he added that he should be judged in the senate by his behavior in the senate, not at a political rally.

A senator from Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement today also spoke out in defence of Calderoli’s comments.

Serenella Fucksia said: “What did he say that was so negative? I really don’t understand. I believe that if someone had called Mr Calderoli a pig, no-one would have said they were racist.”

It is not the first time Mr Calderoli has been under fire for racist remarks: In 2006, he was forced to resign as a minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government after he wore a T-shirt on state-run television featuring one of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons that had inflamed the Muslim world.

Roberto Calderoli (R)

Historian John Foot, of the Italian department at University College, London, says the fact that Mr Calderoli does not consider his comments racist “underlines a very deep issue in Italy”.

He told Channel 4 News: “[Offering flowers] is very condescending.

“In any other culture [racism] is a very straightforward issue. In Italy race is seen very differently. No one has a clear idea of what racism is.”

James Walston, a professor of politics at the American University of Rome, believes that “Italy is extremely divided on immigration and racism”.

He said: “All the centre-right leaders called on Mr Calderoli to apologise but none them called on him to resign as deputy speaker of the senate.

“Nor did Grillo’s Five Star movement, and one of their senators endorsed the remark. The centre-right press has sought to justify Mr Calderoli and play down his racism.”

Racism in politics

Mr Calderoli is a member of the Northern League – an important coalition partner in the Silvio Berlusconi governments of the past.

Struggling to recover from a series of financial scandals, the league’s vote was down by half at February’s general election from its showing in recent years, to just above 4 per cent, but its members have kept up anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Former senator Erminio Boso said last week he was happy when a boat of immigrants trying to reach Italy sinks.

Professor Walston said: “By now, it is only the Northern League that is explicitly racist at the top, and even there some of its leaders have condemned Calderoli’s remark.

“But there are still large swathes of the population who don’t see anything offensive in what he said.”

Slow change

However there are signs that things are changing slowly in Italy. Professor Foot said: “Figures like Mario Balotelli are sending out positive messages. Schools and communities are becoming more integrated.”

Professor Walston added: “Calderoli’s remark meant that centre-right leaders were forced to condemn it, even if they shied away from calling for resignation and Kyenge’s very presence in the Cabinet means that Italians are getting used to a black minister.

“Italy is changing, but it still has a long way to go.”