Italy election: 'White race' remark sparks row

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A migrant holds a placard reading 'stop racism' during a demonstration in Rome on 16 June, 2015Image source, Getty Images
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The migrant crisis has divided opinions in Italy and across Europe

Italy doesn't count its population by colour. But it would be fair to say that the country is overwhelmingly white: the National Institute for Statistics reports that more than 92% of the country is ethnic Italian, which is often interpreted in practical terms as white.

It would be hard to find any branch of mathematics to support the claim that Italy's white population is under threat of extinction. But that's what one right-wing politician has claimed, in vivid terms.

On Sunday, Attilio Fontana, a prominent candidate from the right-wing Northern League, settled into an interview ahead of the general election on 4 March. Italian politicians tend to do much of their campaigning via long, occasionally rambling talk show appearances.

Mr Fontana's region, Lombardy in the north, is the leading destination for migrants in Italy. He reflected on this point.

"We can't accept them all," he told Radio Padania, "Because if we had to accept them all, it would mean that we're no longer ourselves… as an ethnic fact. Because they outnumber us, because they are more determined than us to occupy this land."

Mr Fontana, by now fully into his stride, reached his conclusion.

"We need to decide whether or not our ethnic group, our white race, our society should continue to exist, or be wiped out. It's a choice."

Under fire but not quitting

Mr Fontana's description of ethnic Italians as an apparently endangered "white race" has provoked headlines and condemnation. To some, his comments bring back unwelcome memories of the country's fascist past under Benito Mussolini.

"How is it possible in 2018 to have to explain that there is not a white race to defend - 80 years on from the promulgation of [the Mussolini era's] racial laws?" tweeted Ruth Dureghello, the president of the Rome Jewish Community.

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Surviving the deadliest migration route from Libya to Italy

Politicians and activists have called on Mr Fontana to withdraw as candidate for governor of Lombardy. His party rejects the call.

"Forget about it," said the Northern League's leader, Matteo Salvini.

The party has a history of tough, and occasionally deeply offensive rhetoric against migrants or non-white Italians. In 2013, one of its senators, Roberto Calderoli, described Italy's first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, as an orangutan.

For years, such comments were condemned, but also dismissed or even ignored as the words of a protest party which had no hope of forming an actual government.

Image source, Getty Images
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Thousands migrants have arrived in Italy in the past three years - but many don't stay there

But all that has changed. The Northern League now sees its chance to win a share of power in a potential right-wing coalition.

The party has teamed up with Forza Italia, led by the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. They will campaign against the current centre-left government on a single, unifying issue: migration.

Migrants come, but go

This election is the first national vote since 2013. The period since then has coincided with a dramatic increase in migrant and refugee arrivals, both in Italy and in other European countries.

In the past three years alone, more than 450,000 African migrants have made it to this country's shores. Crucially, many of these migrants don't stay in this country - they try to keep going into the rest of Europe.

But the cumulative effect of years of images of migrants landing in Italy is powerful.

"In Italy, you have to bear in mind the criminality of 476,000 migrants," Silvio Berlusconi said during a recent interview, "in order to eat, they resort to crime."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Refugees and asylum seekers hold a banner reading "We're not terrorists" in a protest in Rome

The populist Five Star Movement, hoping to win power itself, has also made critical comments about migrants.

"Italy has imported from Romania 40% of that country's criminals," the movement's candidate for prime minister, Luigi di Maio, posted on his Facebook page in April 2017.

"Tuberculosis, scabies, Aids, cholera are diseases which have been imported," the movement's founder Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog in 2013.

At one town meeting held in Sicily last summer to discuss migration, I heard several residents voice similar remarks. There are clearly votes to be had in questioning how Italy deals with those who land on its shores.

Attilio Fontana calls his own words about Italy's white race a slip of the tongue. But there's no way of taking them back.