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'Sardines' Pack Italy's Squares as New Protest Movement Gathers Force

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6 days ago Giovanni Legorano
a group of people standing in front of a crowd © Marcello Coslovi/Associated Press

VERONA, Italy—Thousands of people packed a central square of this city Thursday night in the latest rally by self-styled “sardines,” a grass-roots protest movement that is targeting Italy’s rising far-right politician, Matteo Salvini.

The sardines want to prevent the possibility that Mr. Salvini’s nativist League party could take power in Italy. Their strategy is to organize quiet flash mobs that cram the piazzas of Italian cities, like the eponymous fish. Their gatherings have disrupted Mr. Salvini’s own campaign efforts to win over Italian towns, one piazza at a time. There are almost 40 sardine protests planned across Italy in the next few weeks.

People from different walks of life gathered Thursday in Verona carrying handmade placards depicting colored, even sparkling, sardines. Their main complaint is against the climate of hatred that they say Mr. Salvini is fostering in the country.

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Mr. Salvini held his own rally in Rome on Thursday at which he gave a caustic speech peppered with criticism against incumbent politicians, urging non-European migrants to leave the country and demanding that Italy shut its ports to seaborne asylum seekers.

The dueling rallies took place ahead of a crucial regional election in January. If Mr. Salvini’s party were to win in Emilia Romagna—a wealthy northern region that’s a traditional stronghold of the Italian left—the sardine movement fears the shock from that win could bring down the national government, which in turn would trigger national elections that might sweep the league into power.

“We didn’t want to wake up the day after the [regional] election and wonder: How could it happen that the League won here?” said Andrea Garreffa, one of the four organizers of the sardines’ first rally, which took place two weeks ago in Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna.

“It all started because we were worried that people are becoming resigned to a political climate based on hatred and fake news, and that they were indifferent about the regional elections,” Mr. Garreffa said.

The sardines’ problem, though, is that they’re not standing for election themselves, and they’re not backing any specific party, just opposing Mr. Salvini. And while the sardines are expressing many Italians’ unease about the rise of the far-right, no other parties appear to be benefiting.

Italy’s national government is a fractious coalition of the center-left Democratic Party, which is struggling for popularity, and the ideologically eclectic 5 Star Movement, which could once pack the piazzas of Italy itself but whose populist fire has largely burned out.

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The Democrats have ruled Emilia Romagna throughout the post-World War II era, making the affluent region the strongest bastion of the Italian left. But ahead of January’s election, their candidate for regional governor is running neck-and-neck with a candidate from the League, according to opinion polls.

For the Democrats, a “defeat in Emilia Romagna would be a symbolic event of extreme importance,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, managing partner of Turin-based political consulting firm Quorum. “Until a few years ago it wasn’t a conquerable region.”

The League’s growing electorate, in Emilia Romagna and across Italy, is partly a response to Mr. Salvini’s tough rhetoric against immigration. But it also reflects many Italians’ disillusion with mainstream parties such as the Democrats, which have failed to lift Italy out of its long economic stagnation. Over the years, Italian voters have turned to a series of would-be saviors—from former premier and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi to the 5 Star Movement—that promised national renewal but struggled to deliver.

Now, many Italians are ready to give Mr. Salvini a try—while others are alarmed by him.

With Italy splitting into pro- and anti-Salvini camps, the sardines’ young organizers initially wanted to gather a flash mob in Bologna that would match the crowd at a nearby rally by Mr. Salvini. But their counterprotest easily outsized Mr. Salvini’s, and a national movement took off.

Mr. Salvini has responded to the sardines with jokes. Recently, he posted on social media a photo of fried sardines and a separate one showing the League’s party emblem modified to show a cat eating a fish.

But he has refrained from criticizing the grass-roots movement with his typical acerbic rhetoric. “The more people participate [in politics], the better. As long as they are peaceful,” Mr. Salvini said in an interview on Italian TV Tuesday. “I don’t understand why the gatherings of the sardines are democratic and my gatherings are those of hatred.”

At Verona’s rally, a number of sardines said they wanted to show there are many Italians who disagree with the anti-immigrant atmosphere that they say Mr. Salvini is promoting.

“We are fed up with all this hatred, all these loud insults. It’s dangerous,” said Tatiana Montecchi, a participant who held a large placard that read, in English, “A sardina a day keeps Salvini away.”

Mariagrazia Zecchinello, a 42-year-old psychologist, said the sardines’ rallies are also meant to push other parties to be more vocal in opposing Mr. Salvini. “They gave him too much space,” she said.

Groups of sardines sang protest songs from the 1960s and partisan-resistance songs from World War II. Some participants, using a megaphone, read out articles of Italy’s constitution about the right to seek asylum.

“We need to protect the fundamental rights of people,” said Valeria Padovani, a 38-year-old teacher.

Write to Giovanni Legorano at giovanni.legorano@wsj.com

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