MILAN, Italy – He’s young and hip, and cozy with anti-Semites, but also says he wants to defend the country's Jews from Islamic extremism. Matteo Salvini is the rising star of Italian politics. The 41-year-old secretary of the Northern League – a secessionist party now shifting toward a national right-wing agenda – is currently the country’s most popular conservative politician.
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A vocal critic of Islam and a close ally of France’s Marine Le Pen, Salvini recently organized an anti-immigration protest with an overtly anti-Semitic group. But, he says, “anti-Semites are nuts.”
According to the latest polls, Salvini has an approval rating of 22 percent – meaning that he’s better off today than Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who served as prime minister for nine nonconsecutive years.
A frequent guest on TV shows, Salvini has made a name for himself for his anti-Muslim statements.
“Islam is the only religion that creates problems, in Italy, Europe and in the Middle East,” he says in a telephone conversation with Haaretz. “If Muslims are having a hard time coexisting with the rest of the world, the problem cannot be with all the rest of the world. It must be Islam, and indeed the Koran itself is problematic.”
Recently, Salvini made headlines for having organized an anti-immigration rally in his native Milan, on October 18, with his controversial ally: CasaPound is a neo-fascist group that uses vague rhetoric in order to stay on the right side of the law, operating at the fringes of legality, named after American poet Ezra Pound, a Mussolini sympathizer.
Often compared to Le Pen, who brought about the victory of the far-right National Front party in May's European parliamentary elections, Salvini shares both her popularity and incendiary rhetoric, although he pursues a totally different strategy.
While the Frenchwoman has strengthened her party by putting a respectable, mainstream-ish face to the far right and by distancing herself from the most extremist stands of her predecessors, Salvini aims to turn his Northern League into a major national force by openly embracing an extremist agenda. If the polls are correct, he’s succeeding.
Allied with Eurosceptics
Since he came to power as secretary of his party in late 2013, Salvini has waged war against the euro – blaming it for the recession in Italy – and against immigration, and has forged an alliance with the Continent’s far-right Eurosceptics, including France’s National Front.
“[Marine Le Pen] is a much more far-sighted person than many others. I’m trying to build a new Europe with her,” he explains.
“We both want Europe to defend its workers, its entrepreneurs, its farmers, its cultures and identities. Brussels [the headquarters of the European Union] doesn’t care about these things. Marine Le Pen and I do.”
Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini attends a news conference at the Foreign Press Association in Rome October 7, 2014. Photo by Reuters
Specifically, Europe must be “protected from the invasion of Islamic extremism,” claims Salvini. “I can’t stand people who want to use their religion to impose their way of life on mine.”
Under his leadership, the Northern League obtained 6.2 percent of the votes in the EU ballot in May – not a huge victory, but still success for a party that until recently targeted Northern Italy, which constitutes only about one-third of the country. However, Salvini himself was the second-most popular candidate across the political spectrum in that vote.
“Part of his success is due to the fact that in this political landscape there’s no one else on the right,” points out Ilvo Diamanti, a leading Italian sociologist who has studied the Northern League since its conception, referring to the fact that Berlusconi’s popularity was severely eroded after he was convicted of corruption. “Salvini was smart enough to fill this empty space.”
Some local Jewish leaders have criticized Salvini for his ties with Le Pen, in view of that party’s anti-Semitic leanings in the past.
“It would be a dramatic choice, a big step backward that does not honor the [Northern] League,” warned Riccardo Pacifici, the president of Rome’s Jewish community, referring to Salvini and Le Pen’s failed attempt to form an alliance together within the European Parliament. (They did not succeed because they did not garner the support of the requisite number of parliamentarians.)
The founder of France's National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father), was convicted in 2008 for Holocaust denial, a crime according to French law. He provoked controversy this summer when he suggested, sarcastically, that Jewish artist, singer and actor Patrick Bruel should be put into an oven. However, Marine, who succeeded him as party leader in 2011, has carefully avoided anti-Semitic language and publicly rebuked her father for the “oven joke.”
Italy's Northern League, by contrast, has been friendlier toward Jews. Its official radio station has a program featuring Jewish moderator Leo Siegel. And Salvini himself maintains that his disdain for Muslims does not extend to other religious minorities.
“I have no problems with Buddhist, Protestants, or Hare Krishnas,” he says, adding that he has an “excellent relationship” with Milan’s Jewish community – indeed, he has visited the city’s main synagogue at least twice – and that he admires Jerusalem as “an unique example of coexistence.”
Salvini hints that Italian Jews should share his distrust of Islam: “When I say that only one religion creates problems, I am well aware that Jewish communities are often the victims of these people,” he says, referring to Muslim immigrants.
Neo-fascists on board
However, Salvini seems to be very cozy with the overtly anti-Semitic group CasaPound – an organization that's openly nostalgic for Mussolini, and two of whose members were arrested in 2013 for allegedly planning the rape of a Jewish girl.
Not long after Salvini visited CasaPound’s headquarters in Rome last month, members of that group and the Northern League protested together in Milan against what they perceive as loose immigration policies, and asking for the repeal of the Schengen treaty, which allows free movement of persons within EU territory. According to organizers, about 10,000 people took part in the protest, including 2,000 CasaPound activists – although those figures are likely exaggerated.
Questioned about an alliance, Salvini answers: “I really don’t see what the problem is. I don’t have issues with anyone and certainly not with CasaPound.”
When pressed on the point, he replies that “being anti-Semitic in 2014 means being disconnected with this world. To me, anti-Semites are plain nuts.” He adds that he has agreed to join forces with CasaPound “on a single issue, in the same way as I would accept to work together with CGIL [a left-leaning union] on workers’ rights.”
Italian Members of the European Parliament Gianluca Buonanno (L), Lorenzo Fontana (C) and Matteo Salvini attend a voting session on the EU-Ukraine Association agreement in Strasbourg, September 16, 2014. Photo by Reuters
Salvini tries to divert the conversation by noting that there are also anti-Semites among his political opponents. When pressed on whether those include people affiliated with Italy's left, he insists, “Left-wing activists spray the walls with anti-Jewish slogans that no one else [in Italy] would dare to use” – referring to anti-Israel graffiti that appeared in many locales during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this summer.
"Anti-Semitism is crazy," he adds.
Actually, at last month's joint rally, the Northern League and CasaPound seemed to be at odds – not because of their ostensible opinions about Jews, but because of their views concerning Italy itself: CasaPound members were carrying signs reading “Italy comes first,” while Northern League activists next to them held up signs reading “Italy is shit.”
Transforming the party
Indeed, before Salvini took over and attempted to transform his party into a nationalist force, the Northern League touted a different agenda. When he joined it at age 17, in the early 1990s, it still was a new party whose stated goal was the independence of the north. It saw its enemies not as being the Muslims or immigrants, but rather the Roma Ladrona (roughly meaning "the thievery of Rome"), and the terroni (an ethnic slur for southern Italians).
The Northern League essentially refuted the legitimacy of the Italian state and, molding itself after other European pro-independence movements, claimed to be waging a nonviolent struggle for the liberation of Padania – a term it coined to describe Northern Italy.
Supporters had their own national flag (white with a green, star-like symbol), a soccer team, a self-described “army” called the Guardia Padana (more like a sort of national guard, which was in fact ineffectual), and it even used to have its own parliament, elected via a self-declared “Padania national ballot.” In 1997, Salvini won a seat as the leader of what were called "Padania’s communists.”
The party drew on neo-pagan themes to revive interest in Northern Italy’s ancient roots, as opposed to the Roman heritage of the rest of the country. (The northern part of the country was inhabited by Celts until the second century B.C.E.)
Northern League founder Umberto Bossi even introduced a yearly, pagan-like ceremony involving the use of “holy water” from the Po River, which, according to him, was worshipped by ancient tribes.
Another prominent party leader, Roberto Calderoli, got married in a public “pagan ceremony” involving the mixing of the spouses’ blood.
As a secessionist force, the Northern League also supported other independence movements around the world, including that of the Palestinians – though Salvini himself now says he has mixed feelings about a Palestinian state.
“I firmly believe in the right to self-determination – whether it’s in Scotland, Crimea, Catalonia, Wales or Quebec. People have the right to chose. With Palestine, however, it’s complicated. There is a problem with Islamic extremism, something that obviously doesn’t exist in Quebec,” he notes.
Often ridiculed by the media, the Northern League’s old guard was mostly associated with peasant language and pseudo-Celtic folklore and imagery. But Salvini represents a new era for his party. A native of Milan, the country’s second-largest city, he comes across as well-educated and urbane.
“He is a completely new generation, light years away from the party’s founding fathers,” says Diamanti, the sociologist.
Thus, while still calling for independence of the northern part of the country, the Northern League – and Salvini – began to participate to Italian and EU politics in the mid-1990s. He was elected for one term in the lower house of the Italian Parliament, and for three, nonconsecutive terms at the European Parliament, where he is currently holding a seat.
After joining Berlusconi’s four coalitions, the Northern League gradually shifted its main focus from independence to the fight against immigration, Islam and crime, while never abandoning its secessionist agenda entirely.
When Salvini came to power, after the old guard was swept away by a series of corruption scandals, he established new priorities. “What’s the point of having independence, if [northern] cities are empty because all the shopkeepers are unemployed?” he asks, attributing that state of affairs to immigrants and problems created by the euro.
“Salvini has completely transformed his party – from a pro-independence movement into a right-wing force similar to France’s Front National,” argues Diamanti. “He is riding [the wave of] two fears: on one hand, foreigners; on the other hand the EU. In some way, it is no longer a ‘Northern League,’ but rather a ‘league of scared people.’”