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Treviso lion’s roar echoes in immigration debate

March 4, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Treviso, Italy

published on FT on March 4 2009

Giancarlo Gentilini, “Lion of Treviso” and de facto mayor of this  economic dynamo  in northeast Italy, proudly displays a lifetime of  memorabilia in his palatial office, among them a faded but nicely framed  copy of his Mussolini youth league identity card. Now nearly 80 years old and a veteran of the right-wing Northern League  – a key partner in the national coalition government – Mr Gentilini has come to epitomise the approach of Italy’s post-Fascists towards immigrants, as well as gays, drunks and street prostitutes.

Under the “Sherriff” as he also calls himself, Treviso appears an oasis of prosperity and calim. The city of some 80,000 residents is blessed with meandering rivers, fortifications and palaces. Barely a cigarette butt disgraces its winding cobbled streets. Shop windows gleam with luxury goods. But recession is starting to gnaw even at this most productive corner of Italy (the surrounding Veneto region exports 50bn euros of goods a year), so Italians and   immigrants drawn to this “economic miracle” are facing redundancies.

Enrico Pucci, editor of the local daily La Tribuna, reels off a list of lay-offs — Osram (lights), Tesseturi Monti (textiles), Cotto Veneto (ceramics), Lotto (sports shoes) , Plastal (plastics) Ape (small cars). “Many signs of crisis,” he says. For Mr Gentilini, who was elected for the maximum two terms allowed as mayor and then twice as deputy, the future for immigrants is clear. “Immigrants are a resource. As long as we need them for labour we will request them,” he says. “Now we are entering a period of crisis and redundancies are possible. Without work they must go home to their countries.” The Northern League, which controls the interior ministry in Rome, is demanding a freeze on further immigration from non-EU countries. So far, Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire prime minister more attuned to the needs of industrialists, has resisted this, while agreeing to a crackdown on illegals.

A confident man with a hearty laugh who likes signing autographs, Mr Gentilini’s concept of integration rests on the Italianisation of immigrants. So mosques are not tolerated.

“There were never mosques in Treviso. They tried to pray in public places but got sent away. You can’t pray in a car park,” he says. He calls Islam a religion founded on   conquest, in contrast to Catholicism which “turns the other cheek”. Until relations with Islam are resolved at a national level, Mr Gentilini suggests Muslims pray at home, “like we do before going to bed”. (Benetton, the fashion empire based near Treviso that has built its global brand on   multi-ethnicity, disagreed. It provided a basketball stadium for use as a prayer hall during the holy month of Ramadan.)

Immigrants make up nearly 10 per cent of the population around Treviso, one of the highest levels in Italy where the debate over foreigners, jobs and crime has turned into a burning national issue. In Rome this month thugs randomly attacked Romanian workers after alleged cases of Romanians raping Italian women. Politicians deny inciting xenophobia, even while the right-wing press, such as the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale, runs headlines like “Romanians raping again.” Responding to the public frenzy it has stoked, the government is passing a controversial law formalising unarmed citizens’ patrols to back up police.

Mr Gentilini is happy that Rome is copying what he began in the 1990s, patrolling with fellow former soldiers of his Alpini unit, “armed only with a cell-phone into dangerous areas of drug-dealers, prostitutes and gays”. “Treviso is the safest city in Italy. I control the city the way citizens want me to,” he says, boasting that you hardly see a piece of rubbish in the street, let alone a drug pusher, street prostitute or hawker. Immigrants cannot join the patrols, however, because they are not Italian, he adds.

Magistrates in Venice are investigating Mr Gentilini for suspected incitement of racism in a speech he made last year. Newspapers also reported that on this February 14 —  St Valentine’s — he exhorted citizens to have “children of my race, the race of the (river) Piave, that which must command Treviso”. Just rhetoric, he says, asking to be judged on his deeds, which he bases on the maxim Dura lex sed lex – “the law is harsh but it is the law”.

Some in Treviso apologetically insist that Mr Gentilini does not represent all Italians, who have mostly shown considerable tolerance towards the recent influx of foreigners. His bark is more to galvanise voters, they suggest. Federico Tessari, president of the Treviso Chamber of Commerce, says workers are judged by their competence, not ethnicity. And Italians won’t copy the UK refinery workers who recently protested against foreign labour. “We have a free market and 156 different ethnic groups in Veneto.  There is a will in our community to embrace different peoples.” Besides, Mr Tessari is optimistic that the downturn will not turn into the “excessive catastrophe you read in the press”.

Nor is Mr Gentilini going to the extremes of  Lucca, a Tuscan walled city where authorities want to ban “ethnic” (non-Italian) eateries. The law does not give him that authority, says Mr Gentilini, noting that an immigrant (from China) has taken over a café in Treviso’s historic centre for the first time (while also complaining that some Chinese products do not meet  EU norms).

Mr Pucci, the local editor, said the opening of Matteo Hu’s Peace by City café was a “symbolic moment”.

Mr Hu came to Italy 19 years ago at the age of 8 and says he hopes to change the low opinion of Chinese held by some Italians who “are rather mistrustful of us immigrants”. His strategy is top design and quality, sell regional products, employ only Italians and invest locally. He relates no particular difficulties with Mr Gentilini and invited city councillors to his opening.

But they did not come. “Well, it was raining,” Mr Hu says generously.

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