Italy's Matteo Salvini Hopes To Lead Nationalist Wave In European Parliament Elections Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister, leader of a far-right party and Europe's rising populist star, counts President Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon as one of his biggest fans.
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Italy's Matteo Salvini Hopes To Lead Nationalist Wave In Upcoming European Elections

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Italy's Matteo Salvini Hopes To Lead Nationalist Wave In Upcoming European Elections

Italy's Matteo Salvini Hopes To Lead Nationalist Wave In Upcoming European Elections

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Europeans vote this week to elect a new European Union Parliament. Eleven populist party leaders from across the continent rallied on Saturday in Milan. They vowed to win new seats and wrest control from EU bureaucrats. Their host was Italy's deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, he is a rising populist star in Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NESSUN DORMA")

LUCIANO PAVAROTTI: (Singing in Italian).

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Predicting victory, Luciano Pavarotti's voice soared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Salvini. Salvini. Salvini.

POGGIOLI: Matteo Salvini stood before a cheering crowd of thousands, clutching a rosary. He insisted, in this square, there are no racists, no fascists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTEO SALVINI: (Through interpreter) The extremists are those who led Europe into insecurity and poverty - Merkel, Macron and Soros.

POGGIOLI: One of Salvini's biggest fans is Donald Trump's former strategic adviser, Steve Bannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BANNON: Italy is the center of that. Italy is the most important place in the world politically right now because the League, the rise of Salvini.

POGGIOLI: Salvini's party, called simply the League, has shared governing power with the Five Star Movement since June. Since then, the 46-year-old's popularity has soared. As interior minister, with the slogan, Italy first, he banned NGO rescue ships from Italian ports to keep out illegal migrants from Africa. He's a fan of Putin's Russia and a master of social media. And Salvini channels phrases coined by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Critics say Salvini legitimizes words and behavior that were taboo for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Italian).

POGGIOLI: Last month in Milan, men wearing black hailed the dictator near the spot where partisans strung up his body after they executed him. In Sicily, a schoolteacher was suspended for her students' project comparing fascist laws against Jews to Salvini's anti-migrant decrees. Commentators wonder if Italy is entering fascism 2.0.

CLAUDIO GATTI: Salvini is selling fascist derivatives. He's not selling fascism, although he clearly winks and says things that those who need to understand understand.

POGGIOLI: Claudio Gatti has written a book called "Salvini's Demons." While today's neo-fascist activists are few, says Gatti, their message resonates with many.

GATTI: People interested or willing to listen to authoritarian, xenophobic, even racist in a moment of great anxiety, despair, unemployment - those people are a significant number.

POGGIOLI: A recurrent Salvini theme is the great replacement conspiracy. Here he was in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALVINI: (Through interpreter) An effort at ethnic replacement is underway. Well-financed organizations are importing thousands of new farm slaves, paid three euros an hour, to erase Italians living here. This is a lucrative attempt at genocide.

POGGIOLI: Gatti says these dog whistles echo the white supremacists' anti-Semitic chant in Charlottesville and the anti-Islam manifesto for the New Zealand mosque attacks that killed more than 50. Some Italians are reacting. Hundreds of students staged a rally at Rome University last week under the banner, fascism is not a point of view.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Italian).

POGGIOLI: They chanted, fascist scum, go back to your sewers; you, too, Salvini. Police in riot gear kept a group of right-wing demonstrators at bay, while students sang the anthem of Italy's World War II anti-fascist partisans, heralding perhaps a new resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in Italian).

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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