ROME (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Italy’s anti-euro Northern League filled one of the biggest squares in Rome on Saturday, accusing the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of selling the country out to faceless powers in Brussels.
Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, who called the rally, took aim at a series of targets, ranging from illegal immigrants and Romanian truck drivers to tax authorities, banks and big business.
“The problem isn’t Renzi, Renzi is a pawn, Renzi is a dumb slave, at the disposal of some nameless person who wants to control all our lives from Brussels,” he told the rally at the Piazza del Popolo, called just over two months ahead of regional elections in May.
Italy’s centre-right opposition has been in disarray for the past year, riven by faction-fighting and unable to mount a consistent challenge to Renzi, whose centre-left Democratic Party holds a commanding lead in opinion polls.
However, 41 year-old Salvini has overseen a resurgence of his party since taking over as leader a little over a year ago, focusing on attacking immigration and the euro in a drive to broaden its appeal beyond its base in northern Italy.
Bluntly, even crudely spoken at times, he has articulated a growing frustration at austerity policies many in Italy believe have been dictated by Brussels at the expense of ordinary citizens struggling in the long economic slump.
“Europe is what’s allowing our truckdrivers to be squeezed out by Romanian contracts, Romanian wages and pensions that can be used to come and work in Italy because that’s what Europe wants - a race to the bottom,” he told supporters who also heard a message of support read out from Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front.
With 78-year-old former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi struggling to hold his squabbling Forza Italia party together, Salvini has taken over his mantle as the highest profile leader on the right.
He is more popular than any political leader apart from Renzi himself and opinion polls show the League challenging or even surpassing Forza Italia as the largest party of the right.
As well as immigrants and the EU, his attacks have also been directed against Italy’s business establishment, ranging from the head of Fiat Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne to employers lobby group Confindustria and business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
“Italy isn’t Marchionne and it isn’t Renzi. Italy is millions of tradesmen and small businessmen,” he said.
Reporting by James Mackenzie