Italy's 'Sardines' to pack Rome for anti far-right rally
Italy's 'Sardines' anti far-right rally AFP

Tens of thousands of members of Italy's youth-driven Sardine Movement are due to rally in Rome on Saturday, in their bid to further shake up the country's politics and battle xenophobia.

The "Sardines" have become a symbol of protest against the far-right firebrand leader Matteo Salvini, who served as interior minister and deputy prime minister in Italy's previous coalition government and cracked down on immigration.

The movement is only a month old and started in Bologna when a rally organized by four unknown activists to denounce Salvini's discourses of "hatred and division" drew a crowd of 15,000, surprising everybody.

Since then, they have staged several mass rallies singing the anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao, drawing tens of thousands in Milan, Florence, Naples and Palermo.

"The first was against Salvini and then it became a reaffirmation of democracy: we are anti-fascist, pro equality, against intolerance, against homophobia," Mattia Santori, one of the movement's founders, told AFP.

Organisers said more than 100,000 people have pledged to attend Saturday's rally which starts at 3:00 pm (1400 GMT) in the immense San Giovanni Square.

Santori said the march was a "challenge" to Romans to prove their democratic credentials.

Santori, 32, a researcher in economics, and the other co-founders -- Andrea Garreffa, a 34-year-old tourist guide and Roberto Morotti, a 31-year-old engineer, want to make politics "cool."

The movement's representative in the Italian capital is Stephen Ogongo, a 45-year-old journalist of Kenyan origin.

He set up the Facebook page of the Roman chapter of the Sardines announcing the rally about 15 days ago.

"The following day, there were 10,000 people who wanted to join in," he said. "The next day 20,000."

- 'We are tired of hatred' -

As it is a spontaneous movement, Ogongo will not hazard any guesses about Saturday's turnout.

"The important thing is to see many people take to the streets to say 'we are weary of this culture of hatred. We will no longer tolerate language that is racist, fascist, discriminatory or sexist.'"

Ogongo received threats and insults when he made Facebook erase racist messages from an account bearing Salvini's name with the title Prime Minister.

He said Salvini had successfully "allowed the worst forms of racism" to flourish.

Many Sardines also rally against climate change, the mafia and poverty.

The idea is to have "a new energy in a form that is freer and more spontaneous" than a political party, Santori said, adding that there would be no "hierarchy" in its ranks.

The next targets of the Sardines are the small towns which are "fragile territory" and susceptible to "simplistic ideas and populism".

The Sardine Movement was a response to the growing strength in the north of the right-wing coalition led by Salvini's League.

In late October, the League won a historic victory in regional polls in central Umbria, which had been led by the left for half a century.

Salvini is now campaigning hard to try to capture another leftwing stronghold, the wealthy northeast region of Emilio Romagna.

Regional elections there are set for January 26 and the polls suggest the League's candidates are running neck and neck with the current centre-left governor.

Salvini has said he wants to conquer the regions one by one to bring down the current coalition between the Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party and force early elections.