On a recent Saturday in Rome, several thousand angry Italians marched through the streets of downtown. They came to protest a bill that would grant citizenship to children born in Italy to long-term resident foreigners.
Sara Polimeno came from the northern Piedmont region to demand a stop to migrants.
“There’s an invasion of Muslims imposing their religion on us,” said Polimeno. “They have different customs and culture and they’re upsetting all our habits. They’re demanding too much. Enough!”
With economic crisis and a massive influx of migrants, extreme right-wing movements have gained ground in much of Europe. Italy is no exception. And seven decades after the fall of Mussolini’s dictatorship, some neo-fascist groups are setting their sights on getting back into Parliament.
At the anti-migrant rally in Rome, protesters carried banners saying “Stop the invasion.” They shouted, “Homeland, employment and identity, we will defend our civilization” — buzzwords reminiscent of fascist ideology.
Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist at Rome’s LUISS University, says pockets of hardcore fascist sympathizers have long existed in Italy.
“This area of nostalgia,” says Orsina, “of ideological persistence of fascism, today has more leeway [and] can use the new issues of migration, identity in order to grow stronger.”
One neo-fascist group riding the anti-migrant wave is Casa Pound — named after the American poet Ezra Pound, a fascist propagandist during World War II.
Casa Pound has spearheaded violent actions against migrant housing and aggressive confrontations with migrant vendors on the Roman seashore in Ostia.
With a population of 230,000, Ostia voted Nov. 5 in a municipal election for its representative in Rome’s City Hall. Casa Pound surged from 1 percent of votes cast four years ago to 9 percent.
Posters urged voters to “send fighters to City Hall” and said, “We put Italians first — first in housing, welfare and education.”
With parliamentary elections next spring, Casa Pound is now aiming for a role on the national stage.
Thirty-two-year-old party leader Luca Marsella explains what it means to be a fascist today.
“It means to love Italy,” says Marsella. “It means giving oneself to the welfare of our nation, to fight for the good of our nation.”
Marsella’s main rival, Franco di Donna, was 71 and recently withdrew from the priesthood in order to run for City Hall as an independent, though he only took 8 percent of the vote.
Some 50 people came to a park in Ostia to listen to di Donna, who for years ran the local Catholic charity, assisting migrants as well as homeless and impoverished Italians.
Di Donna says Casa Pound and other anti-migrant movements are fanning unjustified fears.
“Fears,” says di Donna, “that migrants will steal jobs — jobs Italians reject. And fear that migrants will cause more economic problems — when it’s taxes paid by working migrants that finance many Italians’ pensions.”
One week after the anti-migrant march in Rome, large groups of recently arrived foreigners were joined by thousands of Italians to rally in favor of migrants — under the slogan “Migration is not a crime.”
Laura Marcheselli, 65, came from Florence to take a stand against racism.
“We can’t build walls and close borders, when we were the ones who colonized, looted and destroyed much of Africa,” she says.
Marcheselli says she feels society has become very brutal and the media is working hard to instill fear in people. And she is not very optimistic.
“I fear there are too few of us,” she says with a sigh.
With the arrival in Italy of more than 600,000 mostly African migrants in the last four years, racist incidents and extreme right-wing posts on social media have surged.
The lower house of Parliament has approved a government bill that would ban distribution of propaganda, images and symbols of fascist and Nazi ideologies. Offenders risk up to two years in jail.
Emanuele Fiano, a member of Parliament with the governing Democratic Party, wrote the bill.
“This law doesn’t punish a person who says, ‘I’m a fascist or Nazi,’ ” Fiano says. “It punishes propaganda of ideas that are clearly against liberty and democracy.”
Opposed by right-wing parties and the maverick Five-Star Movement, the bill is now before the Senate. But with just a few months left in this legislature, it’s not certain it can become law before the next election campaign.