Europe

Matteo Salvini: Can Italy trust this man?

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini poses for a selfie during a visit to an estate which was permanently confiscated in 2007 from the mafia Image copyright EPA
Image caption Matteo Salvini has mastered the use of Facebook Live as a tool to convey his often inflammatory message

Standing smoking in his green puffer jacket, Matteo Salvini blended in with his bodyguards and aides.

Politicians in Italy tend to prefer the tailored suit and shirt, the kind that makes them stand out from their supporting cast.

Not so Matteo Salvini. On the occasions he does put on a tie, it is almost invariably loosened at the collar.

Outside the event in Rome, journalists waited politely as Salvini, in the middle of the 2018 general election campaign, smoked and checked his phone.

"Why are you against migrants?" I asked him once he had finished his cigarette.

"I'm against illegal migrants," he corrected me. "Too many of them are dangerous for Italy and Europe."

His words struck a chord with the electorate. Salvini's League party did better than expected at the polls. In June, he was sworn in as deputy prime minister and interior minister in a coalition government with the populist Five Star Movement.

The two parties installed an unknown former law professor, Giuseppe Conte, as a relatively powerless prime minister. Salvini ended up becoming the most powerful figure in the government.

It was the culmination of a political career that began when he was a teenager. He entered politics as a left-wing secessionist, before transforming himself into the leading spokesman of Italy's nationalist hard right.

Salvini joined the Northern League at a time when it wanted independence from the rest of Italy. The party believed that the south of Italy was holding back the more affluent north, and its members enjoyed joking in their chants that southerners were dirty and lazy.

"There's a bad smell /

Even dogs are running away /

Must be that the Neapolitans are arriving /

They have cholera, are earthquake-hit /

They never washed themselves with soap."

In Italy, all political parties operate their own mini-states. Salvini found work in the Northern League's in-house newspaper and its radio station, taking his place on the movement's left wing - a point he advertised by wearing a Che Guevara pin.

Alessandro Morelli is a close friend of Salvini who grew up alongside him and is now a fellow League member of parliament.

"We would always be involved in grassroots politics," he says. "We'd put up posters, set up gazebos, distribute propaganda - we were always close to the people. Even then you could see he had the makings of a leader."

All my relatives started booing. That was my wedding!

Fabrizia Ieluzzi, Matteo Salvini's ex-wife
AFP/Getty

In 1993, at the age of 20, Salvini was elected to Milan's city council. Six years later, with an early eye for a populist gesture, he refused to shake the hand of the visiting Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

"No thanks," he said. "You don't represent me."

Salvini's anti-southern views even overshadowed his own 2003 wedding to Fabrizia Ieluzzi. The couple divorced in 2010.

"It was crazy," she tells the BBC. "My origins are from Apulia, in southern Italy, and he's from the north. For a start, he had four relatives there, and I had 200.

"When we were going to cut the cake he took his shirt off and put on a green one, the colour of The League, and all his friends started chanting [anti-Southern] League songs. And all my relatives, on the other side of the ballroom, started booing. That was my wedding!"

Salvini went on to serve as a member of the European Parliament, but did not want to spend his entire career as a niche politician. A break-up of Italy - the Northern League's main focus - was not likely to happen. He wanted national power, which meant transforming the Northern League into an Italy-wide party. In 2013, when the party was on about 4% in the polls, he won its leadership.

He gradually switched its focus: the principal enemy would no longer be the Italian state. Instead it would be the European Union.

"When the wrong Europe was built, we realised that the enemy wasn't just Rome any more, but it had moved to Brussels," says Alessandro Morelli, the League MP and long-time Salvini ally. "Even further away, even less representative of Italians. For this reason, we realised that Brussels was the political enemy."

Salvini dropped the 'Northern' from The League's name and turned his party into a national movement. But, crucially, he retained the party's style - its easy-to-understand populist message that there were enemies threatening the people. In addition to Europe, he identified a second threat: immigration.

Since 2014, more than 640,000 migrants have landed on Italy's shores - many have since left for other European countries, but others remain.

"He's a chameleon, a politician who changes colour and shape according to his convenience and the political moment," says Matteo Pucciarelli, the author of Anatomy of a Populist: The True Story of Matteo Salvini.

"Today he plays the right-wing sheriff. But knowing him privately, I know that that's not his real nature. That's a character. Some of the stuff he says in public is disturbing and scary, but the human side of Salvini is different. But this doesn't make it OK."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Mr Salvini has condemned what he calls "organised migration that aims at replacing the Italian people". Here, migrants pose with him at a camp in Calabria in July

Salvini demonstrated the two apparently contradictory skills that any successful populist politician needs: a core message, and the willingness to adapt or abandon this message whenever the need arises.

He inherited an Italian political landscape shaped by the country's original populist, Silvio Berlusconi. The former prime minister had made himself his movement's biggest brand. So Salvini decided to do the same. This was a job he appeared to enjoy.

He may well have figured that there was an opening.

At the time, Italy was led by Matteo Renzi from the centre-left, a politician who modelled himself on Clinton, Blair and Obama. There was surely room in Italy for an anti-Renzi, someone who didn't spend his whole time leading seminars about globalisation.

"For better or for worse, Salvini is the guy next door," says his biographer Matteo Pucciarelli. "He's the typical son of Italian parents, accessible, very simple, with whom you can speak about anything.

"He lives in a suburb of Milan in a small flat," Pucciarelli adds. "He likes football, beautiful women, food and taking photographs of sunsets. He's the average Italian."

Surprisingly, no-one else had occupied this space in Italian politics. Matteo Renzi was too much of a pro-globalist. The eternally ambitious Berlusconi may have spoken in an easy to understand way, but a billionaire collector of football teams and romantic affairs was hardly someone you'd have a beer with. Beppe Grillo, the founder of the populist Five Star Movement, was too colourful to be normal. Renzi's eventual successor as prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, was a tinder-dry media-wary aristocrat, who might have been happier talking quietly about the history of frescoes.

Image copyright Oggi
Image caption "Would you trust Italy to this man?" Oggi magazine asked in 2014

The more Salvini acted like a regular, albeit publicity-driven, Italian, the more he connected with the public. He also realised that politicians who spend most of their time talking about enemies also need to show a sense of fun.

In December 2014, he posed half-naked on the cover of the gossip magazine 'Oggi', wearing only the green tie of the League party. The headline said: "Would you trust Italy to this man?"

Not yet, was the answer. But his party was rising in the polls. He continued to present his own phone-in show on the League's in-house radio station, Radio Padania. Given his many years presenting the phone-in, it may be that Salvini has answered more questions from the public than any other serving Italian politician.

The risk is that he is legitimising the worst impulses of this country

Matteo Pucciarelli, Salvini's biographer
AFP/Getty

Like other populists, Salvini took to filming and posting his own videos and publicity stunts online.

In May 2017, he filmed himself spending a night at the Mineo migrant centre in Sicily, the largest of its kind in Europe. The video of him going to bed in a migrant camp attracted attention. It served to highlight the words he would write after his visit: "I'm increasingly convinced that there is an ongoing attempt of ethnic replacement of one people with another people. This is not emergency migration, but organised migration that aims at replacing the Italian people with other people, Italian workers with other workers."

Salvini's assertion refers to a corner of conspiracy theory occupied by those who have long believed that European elites have a detailed plan to replace their own workers with migrants.

"Salvini uses words and ideas that were first developed in extreme right wing circles," says Valerio Renzi, the author of 'Bulldozer Politics: Salvini's League and the European Right', "For example, the fight against the alleged attempt to ethnically replace the European peoples. This is a conspiracy theory. Salvini translates these ideas into television language - ideas that were born in incubators of the extreme right in Italy and Europe."

Salvini sells his message with a mixture of jokes and apocalyptic warnings.

"How many migrants are you hosting at home?" he joked with a co-presenter on Radio Padania, in April 2014. "Do you eat bananas? These days if you don't eat bananas you're a racist."

"150 migrants are coming into Veneto this week, distributed among the region," he told listeners to his phone-in show in Feb 2015. "This is ethnic replacement co-ordinated by Europe."

During the 2018 general election campaign, he called migrants "an army of benefit thieves and criminals".

"The risk is that he is legitimising the worst impulses of this country," says Salvini's biographer Matteo Pucciarelli.

"Up until a few years back, people were ashamed of saying certain things about migrants, of speaking openly about earning the right to shoot a burglar. With Salvini there's total freedom. From a cultural perspective, he has opened the gates to very negative impulses that maybe were always around but weren't visible."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Protesters from Italy's Radical Party protest against Salvini's stance on migrants in Rome

In each country, words and phrases carry their own memories. Salvini's direct language reminds some Italians of the Mussolini era in the 1920s and 30s, when insults were followed by the formalised persecution of minority groups.

In particular, Salvini's suggestion that the Roma communities of Italy be subjected to their own census was a reminder of the 1938 race laws passed under Mussolini.

This is not to accuse Salvini himself of fascism. It's simply to say that his words tap into a long historical memory.

Discussion of these ideas does not happen in isolation. In February 2018, a former local candidate for The League injured six migrants in a drive-by shooting. Migrants, and those who speak out in favour of migration, now fear for their own safety.

Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the lower house of parliament from 2013 to 2018, has become a particular target of Salvini's verbal attacks. Salvini depicts Boldrini, who was once the Rome spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as the symbol of everything he is trying to bring down.

"Every time a migrant committed a crime, or there was a crime, a rape, a robbery, he would refer to migrants as 'Boldrini's resources'," the former speaker tells me. "People were blaming me. It was awful. I received really violent rape and death threats. This campaign had implications on my life. I needed a security detail. You never know when [the threats] are real or not."

"Stop bullying migrants," she urges him. "Start working on the real problems. Try to be competent and reliable. Stop using social media in that aggressive way. Be serious. [Act like] a minister."

Many Italians on the centre-left share Boldrini's thoughts. But it's unlikely to make much of an impact on its target. Salvini's friends say that he's good at disregarding criticism.

"He laughs at all the jokes that circulate about him," says his former wife Fabrizia Ieluzzi. "I never saw him get offended by a joke they make about him. I don't know how he does it, but he's good at letting these things go."

But that's not always the case. Salvini's skin may be thinner than his allies claim. In July 2018, he began legal proceedings against the writer Roberto Saviano after Saviano accused him of aiding the mafia.

The League's leader shares a derision of liberal critics with his growing number of allies in fellow nationalist movements in the West. Salvini has routinely voiced his support for Marine Le Pen in France, as well as for President Trump. He's also been pictured in Red Square in Moscow happily wearing a Putin T-shirt. In 2014, he went to North Korea and declared afterwards: "I'm happy I went. There's a splendid sense of community. There's a lot of children playing in the streets and not with their Playstations."

Shortly after taking office, Salvini announced ambitions to create a pan-European association of nationalist parties, capable of changing the direction of the European Union. This sets him up in direct opposition to France's President Emmanuel Macron, the de facto leader of the continent's liberal movements. The Salvini-Macron competition may come to define the future of the European Union.

Early days are often full of broad promises. Matteo Salvini certainly seems to enjoy the crush of controversy and the attention. He is regularly seen taking selfies with those keen to pose with him.

In previous years, many ordinary Italians would have been extremely reluctant to stand alongside the standard-bearer of a northern-led party which denigrated southerners, Europeans, and migrants. But Italy has changed. For now, this is Matteo Salvini's country. Italy has a habit, however, of rejecting those it once embraced as saviours.

"I don't think it can last in the long term," says Salvini's biographer Matteo Pucciarelli.

"This continuous cycle of launching attacks, diverting attention, creating illusions, changing the perception of reality... It may work to gain consensus to reach government, but it can't last when you're in government."