A senior Italian opposition politician who likened the country’s first black cabinet minister to an orang-utan is facing mounting pressure to resign from his post as deputy speaker of the Senate.
Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League senator, telephoned Cécile Kyenge, minister for immigration, on Sunday night to offer his apologies. However, in statements to the media he defended his remarks, made at a political rally, saying he kept a large number of animals and often compared politicians to them.
Mr Calderoli also said at Saturday’s rally that the success of Ms Kyenge had encouraged “illegal immigration” in Italy and that she should be a minister in her native country. Ms Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, came to Italy in 1983 and qualified as an eye doctor.
The centre-left Democratic party, of which Ms Kyenge is a member, on Monday formally called on Mr Calderoli to step down as deputy speaker. Some prominent politicians in Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Liberty party, including Maria Carfagna, a former minister for equal opportunities, also urged Mr Calderoli to go.
The two rival parties formed a coalition government in April under centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta, who condemned Mr Calderoli’s comments on Sunday, but stopped short of demanding his resignation from his post.
“I love animals – bears and wolves, as everyone knows – but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orang-utan,” Mr Calderoli said on Saturday.
No stranger to controversy for his repeated attacks on Italy’s Muslim community, Mr Calderoli has rekindled a fierce debate over racism. Some supporters in the Northern League have spoken in his defence, including one local official in Veneto who suggested on Facebook that orang-utans should feel offended by the comparison. He later withdrew his remarks.
Since her appointment in April as Italy’s first non-white minister, Ms Kyenge has been submitted to a barrage of racist and xenophobic attacks, mostly from the Milan-based Northern League, which for years has campaigned on an anti-immigration platform and is furious at the minister’s promotion of a law that would guarantee citizenship for the children of immigrants born in Italy.
One local Northern League politician, a woman, was forced to resign from the party after suggesting that Ms Kyenge should be raped so that she would experience the pain of such a crime. The remarks were made in the context of news that an immigrant had raped an Italian woman.
Ms Kyenge has responded by saying that Italy is not a racist country but that Mr Calderoli’s remarks had saddened her because of the image they gave of Italy.
James Walston, a professor of politics at the American University of Rome, says the Northern League is exploiting the fear of Italians at losing their jobs to immigrants in times of recession. The number of immigrants in Italy has risen sharply over the past decade, reaching some 5m, or about eight per cent, of the population.
In recent interviews with the Financial Times, many immigrants – mainly Chinese and African – explained why they had decided to leave Italy, first because of the economic crisis, but also because of widespread racism.
A report released by the labour ministry on Monday said the unemployment rate among immigrants was rising faster than that of Italians. The average net monthly wage of immigrants last year was €968, compared with €1,304 for Italians, it said.
“To these people [Italians who fear for their jobs], a woman like Cécile Kyenge would be acceptable if she was a docile house servant on the lines of the 1930s Hollywood stereotype. The fact that she is a successful eye surgeon and now a self-assured cabinet minister is threatening for them,” Mr Walston commented.
Racist chants directed at black football players in Italy during the last season led to high-profile matches being abandoned or suspended. AS Roma was fined €50,000 and ordered to play its first home match in the next season with its main stand empty after its fans hurled racist abuse at AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli, who plays for the national team.