Outrage as Italian senator compares black minister to orangutan

Minister for integration Cecile Kyenge ‘saddened’ by right-wing senator’s slur

Italian minister for integration Cecile Kyenge: “I do not take [Roberto] Calderoli’s words as a personal insult but they sadden me because of the image they give of Italy.” Photograph: Reuters/Tony Gentile

Italian minister for integration Cecile Kyenge: “I do not take [Roberto] Calderoli’s words as a personal insult but they sadden me because of the image they give of Italy.” Photograph: Reuters/Tony Gentile

 

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta has condemned comments made by a senior right-wing senator in which he suggested the country’s first black government minister had “the features of an orangutan”.

Cecile Kyenge, an eye surgeon who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but has Italian citizenship, has faced repeated racial slurs and threats since being appointed minister for integration by Mr Letta in April.

She was once again on the receiving end of offensive comments on Saturday when Roberto Calderoli, a minister under Silvio Berlusconi, told a rally in the northern town of Treviglio that Ms Kyenge would be better off working as a minister “in her country”.

According to the Corriere della Sera, he added: “I love animals – bears and wolves, as is known – but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan, even if I’m not saying she is one.”

The remark provoked horror from the rest of the Italian political class, especially in Ms Kyenge’s centre-left Democratic party. In a statement, Mr Letta said the remarks were unacceptable. “Full solidarity and support to Cecile,” he added.

Ms Kyenge said it was not up to her to call on Mr Calderoli to resign, but she hoped all politicians would “reflect on their use of communication”. “I do not take Calderoli’s words as a personal insult but they sadden me because of the image they give of Italy, ” she told the Ansa news agency.

Mr Calderoli insisted yesterday he had been joking. “ I made a joke, an unfortunate one perhaps,” he said. “I did not want to cause offence and if Minister Kyenge has been offended I apologise but my joke came in the context of a much broader political speech that criticised the minister and her politics.”