Italy's Prime Minister issued an ultimatum yesterday to the powerful Northern League, saying that racist remarks by one of the party's most senior politicians had shamed the country.
Enrico Letta said the remarks by Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League senator who likened the country's first black minister to an orangutan, were unacceptable.
He told the leader of the Northern League, Roberto Maroni, to get his house in order "extremely rapidly" and said that a failure to do so would lead to a "full-on collision" between the Government and the party. The xenophobic, anti-immigration League is not part of the coalition Government but was once Silvio Berlusconi's key ally and remains powerful. There were growing calls for Calderoli, the deputy speaker of the Italian Senate, to quit after he said at the weekend that Cecile Kyenge, the Congolese-born Minister for Integration, reminded him of an orangutan.
"What is happening is another shameful chapter in our country on this subject. It is shameful and it harms Italy," said Letta.
The row escalated yesterday as the minister was subjected to even more abuse. Daniele Stival, a Northern League councillor in the Veneto region, posted a message on Facebook in which he said that comparing Kyenge to an orangutan was an insult to orangutans. He claimed the remark was a joke but later cancelled his Facebook account.
Police opened an investigation after suspected far-right militants hung nooses from lamp-posts during a visit by Kyenge to the Adriatic port of Pescara for a conference on immigration and citizenship. The nooses appeared along with posters signed by the neo-Fascist Forza Nuova party, one of which read: "Everyone should live in their own country."
Kyenge, who came to Italy 30 years ago and has Italian citizenship, has faced a shocking level of racist vitriol since being appointed to the Cabinet in April.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, she said she received daily threats by email, letter and telephone. "The most terrible are the ones online - there are even death threats. We don't yet have a law on inciting racism, but we need one. I have to remain alert all the time."
Asked why she thought she had been targeted by such vile racism, she said she felt that some Italians were threatened by the "diversity" that had been brought to the country by immigration. "Some people struggle to accept that the country has changed," she said, adding that she did not think Italy was racist overall.