By ROBERT MACKEY July 15, 2013, 6:16 pm
Faced with calls for his resignation, a senior Italian senator insisted that it was “an aesthetic judgment, not meant to be racist,” when he said that Italy’s first black minister looked like an ape.
Roberto Calderoli, a leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League, had told supporters on Saturday that whenever he sees photographs of Cécile Kyenge, the Congolese-Italian minister for integration, “I can’t help but think of her resemblance to an orangutan.”
In interviews with Italian newspapers published on Monday, Mr. Calderoli, who is the vice president of Italy’s Senate, cast himself as a misunderstood animal lover whose remarks were harmless. “There was nothing racist about it. I didn’t even mean to be offensive,” he told La Repubblica. “I’m always comparing people to animals.”
Andrew Medichini/Associated PressRoberto Calderoli, the vice president of Italy’s senate and a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, at a news conference in 2011.
In an apparent effort to prove the point that he is an equal-opportunity offender, Mr. Calderoli told Corriere della Sera that he often thought of a heron when he saw Prime Minister Enrico Letta — “the long legs, the paw in the swamp,” he said — and compared the female justice minister to a dog. Asked if he regretted his choice of words with regard to Ms. Kyenge, whose vision of a multicultural Italian identity is at odds with his views, Mr. Calderoli said he was only sorry that “out of a 45-minute speech to 1,500 people, everything is reduced to this question of the orangutan.”
Mr. Calderoli was forced to resign from then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet in 2006 after he ripped open his shirt on live television to display a cartoon insulting the Prophet Muhammad. As my colleague Ian Fisher reported at the time, that stunt prompted anger in Libya, where 11 people were killed when protesters stormed the Italian Consulate in Benghazi and the security forces opened fire.
Later that year, a blogger for La Repubblica recalled on Monday, Mr. Calderoli suggested that Italy had defeated France in the World Cup final because the French team was made up of “Negroes, Muslims and communists.”
In a statement posted on Twitter, Mr. Letta, the prime minister, urged Ms. Kyenge to continue with her work and called the remarks about her unacceptable.
Other members of Mr. Letta’s Democratic Party, including Khalid Chaouki, a Moroccan-Italian deputy, called on Mr. Calderoli to resign, rallying at the Pantheon on Monday and collecting more than 115,000 signatures on an online petition.
Asked, in an interview with Corriere della Sera translated into English, if Mr. Calderoli should resign, Ms. Kyenge replied: “I prefer not to say. But I will say that if he is unable to translate discontent into language that is respectful, however harsh it may be, then he should perhaps hand over to someone who can.”
She also confirmed that she had endured a large number of threats since taking up her post in April. “Every day, through every channel — letters, e-mails, phone calls,” she said. “The worst, including death threats, arrive online. There’s no law yet, and there should be. Instigation to racism is shading into instigation to violence. It’s the same for everyone. I’m thinking about attacks on the Jewish community. We’ve got to work on this.”
On Monday, the Italian edition of The Local reported, “nooses appeared on lamp posts with posters signed by far-right group Forza Nuova in the city of Pescara, where the minister for integration was visiting for a conference on immigration and citizenship.”