When one mentions labour strikes and violent demonstrations in city suburbs, the European country many would think of is France, with its formidable trade unions and strife in the banlieues. But this past November, it is Italy wracked by such tensions and protests and unlike its northwestern neighbour in the past, the issues are interlinked.  Stubbornly, high unemployment, proposed government reforms and prejudice towards immigrants has produced a (Molotov) cocktail that exploded across the length of the country.

The jobless rate among the youth is particularly dire at around 42 per cent (the overall national rate is 12 per cent) and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s solution to sluggish economic performance and low productivity is to loosen the labour laws – giving firms the flexibility to dismiss lazy or inefficient employees – producing no small amount of consternation among the trade unions.  Also, the government’s acceptance of Eurozone-imposed austerity packages has led to cuts in education funding, angering students and their affiliates.

Protesters fought running battles with riot police in Milan and Padua (a far cry from when such armed officers from Turin sided with anti-European Union agitators in December 2013). Likewise, Naples, Genoa and Turin were convulsed on a similar scale and some enterprising campaigners scaled the Colosseum, climbing up restoration scaffolding to hang a banner reading, ‘No Jobs Act and privatisation of public services’.  The marches in Rome began with eggs and firecrackers being hurled at the economy ministry.

These have been termed ‘social strike’ protests and the composition of the demonstrators is disparate, ranging from union members and students to people demanding greater social housing, migrants and refugees. The rally in Milan was staged by Italy’s biggest trade union, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), and its metalworkers’ arm, FIOM, held a coordinated strike across northern Italy.  Transport strikes further paralysed the country with disruptions to buses, trams, trains and even flights at Rome’s Fiumicino airport.

The ongoing recession has also heightened racial tensions with some accusing refugees and immigrants as responsible for their economic pain.  Italy, along with Spain, Greece and Malta, is inescapably on the EU front-line receiving those arriving by boat from North Africa.  In the last 12 months alone, roughly 150,000 have made it to Italian soil (of whom the authorities know), a substantial proportion rescued by the Italian navy and coast guard until the Mare Nostrum humanitarian operation was ended by the EU members’ common agreement on November 1.

In the working-class Roman neighbourhood of Tor Sapienza, distant from the fashionable boutiques and restaurants at the heart of the capital, long-term neglect has crystallised around a reception centre for refugees called Un Sorriso (A Smile).  After being repeatedly attacked by local residents in early November, with stones, flares and other missiles hurled, windows smashed and rubbish dumpsters set alight, 36 teenage migrants had to be evacuated from the building after the authorities said the area was no longer safe for them, despite the presence of riot police to hold back the lawbreakers.  Despite this warning, 17 of the evacuees returned to the centre, saying they had nowhere else to go.

Tor Sapienza has around 16,000 residents, less than half of whom are Italian citizens.  When the Mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, visited the neighbourhood after the fracas, residents chanted ‘clown’ at him.  Italian commentary believes that some of the perpetrators of the violence have connections to the far-right, noting the shouts of ‘Viva Il Duce’ – a reference to Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, even though he was in charge when the Great Depression of 1929 hit and was also responsible for leading his country into humiliating disaster during World War Two.  The frustrations of those who feel marginalised make them easy targets for extremist rabble-rousers.  As a local teacher said, ‘It is a war between poor people’, adding, ‘It is not right that the institutions intervene in the suburbs only in emergency situations’.

Not that the victims were prepared to be voiceless.  In an open letter to Italians, the migrants, many of whom risked their lives in the hazardous Mediterranean crossing, wrote: ‘In these last few days we have heard many bad things said about us – that we steal, that we rape women, that we are uncivilised.  These words are very hurtful – we did not come to Italy to create problems, least of all to fight with Italians.  We are truly grateful to them – we were saved in the middle of the sea by the Italian authorities.  We are here to build new lives’.  That said, government officers are not above grubby ‘pass-the-parcel’ political games, encouraging migrants to seek residence and employment in other EU countries.

No matter what other success Renzi may achieve in his tenure as premier, he is unlikely to be able to regenerate ‘left-behind’ areas like Tor Sapienza or reduce incipient tension to anything less than simmering.

By Alexander Plumb

Protests Correspondent, Europe