ROME – An extreme-right party's violent exploitation of anger over Italy's coronavirus restrictions is forcing authorities to wrestle with the country's fascist legacy and fueling fears there could be a replay of last week's mobs trying to force their way to Parliament.
Starting Friday, anyone entering workplaces in Italy must have received at least one vaccine dose, or recovered from COVID-19 recently or tested negative within two days, using the country's Green Pass to prove their status. Italians already use the pass to enter restaurants, theaters, gyms and other indoor entertainment, or to take long-distance buses, trains or domestic flights.
But 10,000 opponents of that government decree turned out in Rome's vast Piazza del Popolo last Saturday in a protest that degenerated into alarming violence.
It's the mixing and overlap of the extreme right and those against Italy's vaccine mandates that are causing worries, even though those opposed to vaccines are still a distinct minority in a country where 80% of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
Incited by the political extreme right at the rally, thousands marched through the Italian capital on Saturday and hundreds rampaged their way through the headquarters of the left-leaning CGIL labor union. Police foiled their repeated attempts to reach the offices of Italy's premier and the seat of Parliament.
The protesters smashed union computers, ripped out phone lines and trashed offices after first trying to use metal bars to batter their way in through CGIL's front door, then breaking in through a window. Unions have backed the Green Pass as a way to make Italy's workplaces safer.
CGIL leader Maurizio Landini immediately drew parallels to attacks a century ago by Benito Mussolini’s newly minted Fascists against labor organizers as he consolidated his dictatorship’s grip on Italy.
To some watching the violence unfold, the attack also evoked images of the Jan. 6 assault by angry mob of the U.S. Capitol as part of protests over President Donald Trump's failed reelection bid.
“What we witnessed in the last days was something truly shocking,” said Ruth Dureghello, president of the Jewish Community of Rome.
Premier Mario Draghi told reporters that his government is “reflecting” on parliamentary motions lodged or backed by leftist, populist and centrist parties this week urging the government to outlaw Forza Nuova, the extreme-right party whose leaders encouraged the attack on the union office.
On Monday, upon the orders of Rome prosecutors, Italy's telecommunications police force took down Forza Nuova’s website for alleged criminal instigation.
Hours after the CGIL attack, scores of anti-vaccine protesters also invaded a hospital emergency room where a demonstrator, feeling ill, had been taken, frightening patients and leaving two nurses and three police officers injured.
In response, Rome will see two more marches this Saturday: one by opponents of the Green Pass and another to show solidarity for CGIL and provide what Landini describes as an “antidote to violence.”
Police and intelligence officials huddled Wednesday on how to handle possible violence due to the start of the workplace virus mandate and the twin demonstrations.
Sunday will also see a runoff mayoral election in Rome between a center-left candidate and a right-wing candidate chosen by the leader of a fast-growing national opposition party with neo-fascist roots.
Among the dozen people arrested in Saturday's violence are a co-founder of Forza Nuova (New Force) and its Rome leader. Also jailed are a founder of the now-defunct extreme-right militant group Armed Revolutionaries Nuclei, which terrorized Italy in the 1980s, and a restaurateur from northern Italy who defied a national lockdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dureghello described the “thuggery” in Rome as a “grave, painful phenomenon, organized by those who want to create disorder on one hand and orient consensus” by drawing on prejudice in Italian society. In a tweet, she called for an urgent investigation into "neo-fascist movements and the network that supports them."
Also upsetting Italy's tiny Jewish community have been antisemitic comments by a Rome mayoral candidate selected by Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, Parliament's main opposition party. It recently emerged that Enrico Michetti in 2020 wrote that the Holocaust receives so much attention because Jews “possess banks.” He has since apologized for “having hurt the feelings” of Jews.
In the first round of municipal balloting in Rome, Rachele Mussolini, a granddaughter of the dictator, won the highest number of votes for a council post.
Meloni has long dodged demands by opponents that she unequivocally denounce the legacy of Mussolini's Fascist rule.
On Wednesday, speaking in Parliament, Meloni distanced her party from Forza Nuova while criticizing the Green Pass workplace rule.
“We are light years distant from any kind of subversive movement, in particular Forza Nuova,'' she said. She then accused Draghi's broad coalition, assembled earlier this year to lead the country through the pandemic, of “pretending not to see that Saturday in the street there were people demonstrating their dissent about not having a government (Green) pass and not recognizing their right to work.”
Meloni “lives on ambiguity, she has one foot in the legacy of fascism,″ said Antonio Parisella, a retired professor of contemporary Italian history.
Prevalent in much of Italian society is the idea “that Mussolini did good things," such as the common “myth” that he made the trains run on time and eradicated malaria, said Parisella, who directs Rome’s Liberation Museum.
“The hostility toward the (Green) pass, the aversion to the vaccine” are something that “the post-fascist right well knows how to utilize,″ Donatella Di Cesare, a Rome university philosophy professor, wrote on the front page of the La Stampa newspaper.
Milan anti-terrorism prosecutor Alberto Nobili told Radio 24 this week that in addition to the extreme right demonstrating “under the no-vax symbol," investigators in that city have found that “anarchist groups and extreme left groups” are also trying to exploit public anger.
Elsewhere in Europe, from Slovenia to Greece, some far-right parties have joined forces with the anti-vaccine movement.
In France, the situation is more complicated. Some far-right leaders teamed up with anti-vaccine protesters. But firebrand Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party in France did not call for such protests and she is vaccinated. Many anti-vaccine protesters in France have refused to march with the far right.
Colleen Barry contributed from Milan and Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.