Demonstrations point to frustration with traditional politics, with minister warning parliament of a country in ‘spiral of rebellion’
They blocked roads and stopped trains,occupied piazzas, clashed with police and closed shops. From Turin and Milan in the north to Puglia and Sicily in the south, Italy was hit this week by a wave of protests that brought together disparate groups and traditional foes in an angry show of opposition to austerity policies and the government.
“They [politicians] have brought us to hunger; have destroyed the identity of a country; have annihilated the future of entire generations,” read one poster from the “December 9 Committee”, an umbrella organisation urging Italians to rise up against the euro, Brussels, globalisation and, primarily, Enrico Letta’s government. “To rebel is a duty.”
In a loosely formed movement which has gone largely by the name of I Forconi (the Pitchforks), lorry drivers, farmers, small business owners, students and unemployed people staged protests venting their fury at a political class which they blame for Italy’s longest post-war recession and want to “send home”.
But they were not alone. Alongside them were anti-globalisation groups, members of the Veneto Independence movement, elements of the far right and – for good measure – football “ultras”. Among the sights “rarely seen before”, reported the Turin-based daily La Stampa, were supporters of arch-rivals Juventus and Torino standing “side by side”.
Although the protests had been publicised, especially on the internet, their scale and occasionally violent nature – particularly in Turin, a historic city of protest – appeared to take many by surprise.
In a country struggling to exit a two-year long recession, in which unemployment is at a record high of 12.5% and one in 10 children is thought to be living in absolute poverty, the causes of the unrest are hardly unfathomable.
But what has been made clear by the Pitchforks protests, say analysts, is not just the depth of anger on the streets but a feeling that traditional politics – even after the dramatic election breakthrough of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement – is not responding to their needs.
“These protests show Italy’s massive crisis of political representation,” said Duncan McDonnell, a political scientist at the European University Institute in Florence. “These people don’t feel that anyone’s actually listening to them … It really shows how there are big sections of Italian society that don’t feel represented by anyone – political parties, trade unions, interest groups or business.”
Beyond ousting the current coalition government, the protesters’ goals are unclear, even if popular targets include the euro, the banks, and Equitalia, Italy’s inland revenue.
For many observers, however, the tactics of a minority have overshadowed the movement’s wider aims. Property has been damaged, and some shopkeepers have complained of intimidation from protesters urging them to shut up shop and join in.
In the north-western town of Savona, the staff of a bookshop said protesters had burst into the store yelling: “Close the bookshop! Burn the books!”
The incidents prompted the leader of the original Pitchforks – which started several years ago as a group representing farmers in Sicily – to distance himself from “thuggish and violent” newcomers.
But the leaders of the movement’s various divisions have also provoked criticism. One, Andrea Zunino, while criticising the power that banks have over Italy, told La Repubblica on Friday: “It’s curious that five or six of the richest people in the world are Jews.”
Another, farmer Danilo Calvani, did not do himself or his cause any good after he was filmed jumping in the back of a friend’s waiting Jaguar.
Speaking before parliament on Thursday, interior minister Angelino Alfano warned that the protests could “lead to a spiral of rebellion against national and European institutions”.
But, while condemning the violence, he acknowledged the authorities’ duty to “resolve the problems of social hardship which are at the roots of the protest”.
On Friday, Letta announced that the government had agreed to abolish state funding of political parties, which he said was an important step for the “credibility of politics”.
If it is to have any chance of responding to the unrest, said sociologist Aldo Bonomi, Italy’s political class needs to move from “a debate which is often self-referential” to a “politics that is more in sync with the ways in which society is changing”.
Bonomi added: “This problem will not be resolved on talk shows. It will be resolved by the lowering of politics’ centre of mass to the level of social hardship.”
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