‘I’m a misunderstood animal lover’

Roberto Calderoli caused a media storm in Italy and abroad this week after likening the country's first black minister to an ape. But Cecile Kyenge is not the first person he has insulted, The Local discovers.

'I'm a misunderstood animal lover'
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

So who is Roberto Calderoli and why is he in the news?

He's the man who insists that saying a black politician looks like an “orangutan” is “not racist”. Instead, he said his remarks against Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge were an “aesthetic judgment”.

Calderoli was born in the northern town of Bergamo and is also a dentist. He started his political career with the Lega Lombarda, a precursor to the anti-immigration Northern League. He swiftly rose through the ranks, becoming president in 1993.

But did he apologise for his “aesthetic judgement”?

He did. He admitted he had done “something stupid” and even pledged to send Kyenge a bunch of roses.

In his defense, he described himself as a “misunderstood animal lover”, rather than a racist, whose remarks at a rally in the northern city of Treviglio were made in jest.

To prove his point, he says he's always comparing people to animals. He once likened Anna Maria Cancellieri, the Italian justice minister, to a dog, while Prime Minister Enrico Letta is like a heron, with his “long legs, the paw in the swamp.”

He may have apologised to Kyenge, but he vowed not to resign unless those who voted for him want him to.

Has he ever caused this much trouble before?

Calderoli has become quite famous for doing or saying “something stupid.” In yet another “expression of jest” he ripped open his shirt on live television in 2006 to display a caricature insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The stunt sparked anger in Libya, leaving 11 people dead after protesters stormed the Italian Consulate in Benghazi.

The then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told Calderoli to resign. Calderoli initially refused, but soon gave in to the pressure coming from all parties.

He had a busy 2006. After the football World Cup final, he said Italy had defeated France because the French national team was full of “Negroes, Muslims and communists.”

So was that the end of his political career?

Of course not. Within a couple of years, he was back with the Northern League and is now Vice-President of Italy's Senate.

Is he under pressure to resign after the 'orangutan' remarks?

He is. More than 135,000 people have signed an online petition calling for his resignation and there have been protests in Rome. Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the episode a “shameful chapter” for Italy.

He is also being investigated for defamation by prosecutors in Bergamo.

So what does the future hold for him?

If prosecutors find him guilty of defaming Kyenge, then up to four-and-a-half years in prison. 

Editor's Note:The Local's Italian Face of the Week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Italian Face of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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