Why Matteo Salvini Risks Winding Up Like Marine Le Pen

The far-right League party in Italy, rising in popularity, now faces the prospect of being marginalized by its extremist rhetoric after this summer's gamble by its populist leader backfired.

Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini at a right-wing congress in Koblenz
Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini at a right-wing congress in Koblenz
Flavia Perina*

Fourteen months into governing, the alliance between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League party collapsed on August 20, when the League's leader Matteo Salvini pulled out of the coalition, hoping to capitalize on his rising popularity in a snap election. Instead, the Five Star Movement joined forces with the center-left Democratic party, avoiding elections and sidelining the League in a surprise move that has since been dubbed the August Blitz.


ROME — Who knows if the Italian right has noticed the "French risk" brewing just around the corner: the possibility that its many voters, its hegemony among the working class and much-applauded and influential leadership could all end up being neutralized, cordoned off and isolated exactly like Marine Le Pen in France. Yes, for nearly 20 years now, the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been the consensus candidate on the right, but has never succeeded in leading her party to power because she was frozen out of any possible alliance.

It's a plausible scenario, and maybe even likely. We've already seen it in action during the days of crisis, when a large operation (from European circles, but not only) was undertaken to encourage the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party to open a dialogue, join forces and replace the League-led government.

At this rate, the political arrangement proposed during the "August Blitz," though in many ways an emergency solution, could harden into a bonafide policy of exclusion of any party that alludes to "sovereignism​," a kind of latter-day nationalism.

It wouldn't be a new phenomenon for our country, which under the First Republic (1948-1992) gave us the "Constitutional Arc" model of coalition, uniting Socialist, Communist, Christian Democrat, Liberal and Republican parties — that "no-fly zone" decreed around the old post-fascist MSI party (Italian Social Movement) to prevent them from participating in power.

But even the League, in its secessionist days during the 1990s and early 2000s when it was known as the Northern League, had its "off-limits' moments, remaining cut off from any possible alliance for long stretches of time, even in the municipalities where its voters abounded.

It's clear everywhere that winning and filling town squares is useless.

That's also why it's so surprising to see the new Right, seemingly unaware, continue to dance on the edge of extremism with declarations of war against everyone and everything, risking to wind up isolated and without influence (if not turned into outright pariahs).

Elsewhere, those touting national sovereignty are more cautious. Even Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the icon of new nationalism and chief critic of European Union institutions, has preferred to combat the system he criticizes from within, casting his decisive vote in favor of Ursula von der Leyen as the next President of the European Commission.

Likewise, the ultras of Saxony's Alternative for Germany (AfD), after having nearly doubled their share of the vote, knocked insistently at the door of better-performing parties (unsuccessfully) seeking a regional coalition to lift it out of irrelevance and disperse the sulfurous aura that surrounds it.

It's clear everywhere that winning, being first, and filling town squares is useless if your political passport is of limited jurisdiction — relegating you to the realm of opposition and perennial protest, chaining you to the role of champion of societal discontent. So-called "de-demonization" is a primary goal for everyone: Le Pen has tried incessantly over the past decade, going so far as ousting her father, changing the party's name, and putting a 20-something at the top of the party list in the latest European elections in her quest to succeed.

So it's curious that in Italy we're going in the opposite direction, without taking into account the lessons of experience: ambiguity on certain foundational principles of democracy, verbal arrogance, word plays with xenophobic or sexist undertones might reap votes and fill rallies, but they also inspire considerable alarm and can lead to sudden defensive reflexes, and reactions strong enough to bring together sworn enemies like the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party — with the blessing of the rest of the world.

On talk shows, we can call it a conspiracy, a maneuver against the people, the work of a faceless and powerful cabal, but we should be more lucid in our reasoning: The danger is very real that one can conquer voters by riding on extremism, only to end up politically and permanently marginalized.

*Flavia Perina, former editor of the Secolo d'Italia daily, served as a member of Italy's lower chamber of Parliament from 2006 to 2013, representing center-right parties.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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