ROME (AP) — The leader of Italy's Northern League brought his anti-Europe, anti-immigrant agenda to Rome Saturday, filling a vast square in the capital with thousands of his supporters and positioning his regional movement for a bid to become a national right-wing force.
Flocking from the north, Matteo Salvini's supporters rallied in Piazza del Popolo. Police blocked streets leading to the square, determined to keep marchers in a counterdemonstration from clashing with Salvini's supporters.
The Northern League once was a stalwart ally of conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi. But as Berlusconi struggles to stay influential following a tax fraud conviction that forced him out of Parliament, Salvini has been eyeing new allies, including from the far-right.
Salvini's railing against the European Union prompts comparisons to French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
With some opinion polls finding Salvini next in popularity among Italians after Premier Matteo Renzi, he has been dubbed "the other Matteo."
Salvini told his supporters Renzi is the "foolish servant" of Brussels, which "wants to control the lives of all of you." Salvini pitched for a "different Europe, where banks count for less, and citizens and small businessmen count for more."
In upcoming regional elections, Salvini could capitalize on the growing strength of other right-wing movements in Europe, especially after the recent attacks by Islamic extremists. Libyan-based smugglers bring boats full of migrants and refugees to Italy. Another League leader at the rally, Mario Borghezio, said unemployed immigrants "should be all out" of Italy.
Corriere della Sera commentator Aldo Cazzullo wrote that while the League had long scorned Rome as "the enemy," now its enemy "is Europe, Germany, the common currency, international finance." He said boosting Salvini's popularity has been Europe's failure to deal with "the impoverishment of the middle class, waves of migration, the war on the Mediterranean's other shore."