Analysis: Northern League defiant in wake of senator’s ‘orangutan’ insult

No sign of Roberto Calderoli resigning despite outrage over remarks

Italian minister for integration Cécile Kyenge. She   adopted a dignified tone when asked about the incident.  Photograph: Reuters

Italian minister for integration Cécile Kyenge. She adopted a dignified tone when asked about the incident. Photograph: Reuters


The fundamentally crude and xenophobic nature of the federalist Northern League was highlighted last weekend when a senior party figure, former minister Roberto Calderoli, likened Italian integration minister Cécile Kyenge to “an orangutan”.

Kyenge (49) is originally Congolese, having arrived in Italy in 1983 as an illegal immigrant. She went on to study medicine and had her status legalised.

Her nomination as minister for integration in April in the coalition government led by Enrico Letta was widely welcomed, being seen as original and innovative.

Kyenge, however, has become a hate figure for the Northern League faithful, primarily because she wishes to enact legislation granting the children of immigrants born in Italy automatic Italian citizenship under the Ius Soli (right of the soil) principle.

League supporters also believe that, under her watch, immigration into Italy is destined to increase.

Speaking at a Northern League rally last Saturday night, Calderoli, who is deputy speaker of the Italian senate, said: “Fair enough that she is a minister but perhaps she should be one in her own country . . . At least I console myself when I am surfing the web and I see all the photos of the government. I like animals and when I look at Ms Kyenge, I simply cannot help thinking of . . . how she resembles an orangutan.”

Avalanche of criticism
Although Calderoli attempted to downplay his remarks, calling them an “aesthetic” reflection that was “a bit over the top” and made in the context of a party rally, they prompted an avalanche of criticism.

Letta was especially outspoken, calling on Northern League leader Roberto Maroni to intervene: “This . . . is another shameful page in the annals of our country in relation to [racist] issues like this . . . I appeal to Maroni . . . to close this thing off immediately,” he said.

Although the prime minister did not say so, most commentators presumed that “closure” in this case would come about only if the Northern League called on the senator to resign his position as deputy speaker.

By last night, however, there was no sign of such a resignation.

On the contrary, the party faithful were rallying to Calderoli’s side. When Italian president Giorgio Napolitano called his remarks a “barbaric invasion into civic life”, senior Northern League exponent Matteo Salvini posted a Facebook comment saying: “Napolitano should shut up, that would be much better.”

Veneto local councillor and Northern League member Daniele Stival used his Facebook page to comment: “We are deeply outraged at the offensive expressions used by Calderoli vis-à-vis one of God’s creatures such as the orangutan. It is absolutely disgraceful that a poor defenceless animal should be compared to a Congolese minister.”

Other Northern League figures complained that the minister had herself entered Italy as an illegal immigrant, while listeners to the Northern League’s Radio Padania station expressed impatience with the issue.

One listener complained that “you can’t express your opinion any more”, while another said: “It seems as if everybody is making a huge international incident out of something that, at the end of the day, is very limited.”

In an apparent act of defiance, the central committee of the Northern League yesterday announced that it would hold a day of national protest against illegal immigration in Turin on September 7th.

Even if the Northern League defended its man, the coalition parties were outspoken in their criticism of the senator.

The centre-left Democratic Party called for Calderoli’s resignation, while the speaker of the lower house, Laura Boldrini, said it was “simply unthinkable . . . [that] in any democratic European country, a person with institutional responsibilities could say such things”.

‘Racist aggression’
Senate speaker Piero Grasso described Calderoli’s words as “racist aggression”, while former equal opportunity minister Mara Carfagna of the centre-right PDL called on him to resign.

Kyenge herself adopted a dignified tone when asked about the incident, saying she had not called for Calderoli’s resignation but rather for “a reflection on his public role”.

Unfortunately, neither Kyenge nor Calderoli are new to this type of controversy. Padua councillor Dolores Valandro of the Northern League is facing trial on charges of “incitement to sexual violence” because of a Facebook comment last month in which she had asked: “Is there no one who would rape Kyenge?”

Calderoli has been involved in other “provocative” incidents. In March 2006, he provoked riots in Libya by going on television with a T-shirt reproducing satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

He has also called for Italian navy ships to shoot at immigrant boat people, and he once doused a site intended for a new mosque with pig’s urine.

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