Why has this Italian politician’s neighbourly photo prompted such a furious backlash?

Everybody say ‘controversy’! Facebook

Italy has been experiencing a resurgence of xenophobia recently. Migrants and Roma have been violently attacked by gangs, and people claiming to be “ordinary citizens” have organised marches in racially mixed neighbourhoods to stir up unrest.

Against this backdrop, Enrico Rossi, the left-leaning president of Tuscany, has turned what appears to be a rather mundane photograph into a bold political statement.

In the photo, Rossi stands flanked by a family of men, women and children. It’s a Sunday afternoon in Florence. “Let me introduce my neighbours” reads the description posted on Facebook. His neighbours are Romanian Roma.

Tense times

The picture was taken just a few weeks after Matteo Salvini, the new leader of the anti-immigration, anti-EU Northern League, paid a controversial visit to a Roma camp in Bologna to see how “tax money was spent”.

Salvini has made regular verbal attacks on Roma and migrants, a core part of his party’s attempt to rebrand itself as Italy’s answer to the French Front National. The steady rise in his approval rating would suggest that it’s working.

Meanwhile, the right is campaigning against Roma and new migrants at a local level too. In Rome, a crazy-train coalition of right-wing extremists, centre-right politicians and members of the mayor’s own Democratic Party is using immigration to fuel public anxieties in an attempt to force the mayor Ignazio Marino to resign.

But the animosity doesn’t stop there. Some of the same people who’ve been at the forefront of campaigns against undocumented migrants and Roma have now been accused of making money out of them as part of a sprawling inquiry into corruption in Rome.

The inquiry has exposed a network involving high-profile officials and mafia. They are suspected of bribery, extortion and corruption. So far 37 people have been arrested and 100 others investigated. The charges include making millions of euros by taking money meant to help support Roma and migrants. Officials have even been caught bragging about how exploiting migrants and Roma is more profitable than the drug trade.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Given all this tension, it is perhaps not surprising that Rossi’s neighbourly photo went viral. The picture attracted more than 6,000 Facebook comments, including from Salvini himself. Most were negative; many were violent and openly racist. (That said, there were 5,000 likes as well.)

Various accusations were levelled at the president in the comments. Many fell back on stereotypes about Roma: why, they asked, was the head of the region hanging out with foreigners, benefit scroungers, parasites, criminals? Why wasn’t he standing up for law-abiding taxpayers?

No matter if this Roma family includes children regularly attending a local school, and adults who work and have no criminal record; the people in the photo are not accepted as neighbours – they are dehumanised, and their real biographies trampled.

It is admirable that Rossi has held firm on his position despite the storm around the photo – even senior members of his party have voiced disapproval. He’s replied to a number of the comments made about the photo on Facebook. With just a few months to go before a regional election, it’s certainly bold to cause such a stir.

Given the current climate in Italy, his decision to fight this particular battle could affect his political career and electoral future – but at least for now, he doesn’t seem to care. One thing is certain: this particular photo will be plastered on leaflets and billboards everywhere as the next election approaches.