Italian ‘sardines’ take on Salvini

Protesters attend a demonstration held by "the sardines", a grassroots movement against far-right League leader Matteo Salvini, in Reggio Emilia in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, November 23, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Italy has had many colourful political symbols over the years, including oak trees, olive trees and daisies. Now, a new one has suddenly swum into view and is posing a problem for far-right leader Matteo Salvini.

The humble sardine is the emblem of a nascent movement that is challenging Salvini’s League party and looking to halt his seemingly inexorable rise to power – initially in the wealthy northern region of Emilia-Romagna where regional elections are set for January, and then further afield.

“We want to show we can defeat the dragon of populism with ideas, with our brains,” said Mattia Santori, 32, one of four young Italians who dreamt up the so-called 6000-Sardines group. 

The movement was born this month at a rally in Emilia-Romagna’s capital, Bologna. Santori and his friends hoped to draw 6,000 people, but more than double that showed up, packed like proverbial sardines in the main square.

A few days later, some 7,000 people defied driving rain to hold a similar rally in Modena, while on Saturday up to 8,000 people, many brandishing sardine placards, crowded into the elegant centre of Reggio Emilia to stand up to Salvini.

The sardines are not a political party and have no intention of becoming one, but say they want to stir Italians, challenge the League’s abrasive, anti-migrant message that dominates social media and try to instil common decency in public debate.

“Finally people have come to their senses and are saying enough is enough,” said Gaia Landini, 30, who works in education and attended the Reggio Emilia gathering.

“There is so much hatred out there on social media. The League thrives off creating conflict and we have to stand up and shout ‘No’,” she said.