As It Happens

Italian lawmaker being sued for calling far-right party racist says she won't back down

An Italian lawmaker who has been compared to a monkey by her political peers and had bananas thrown at her during a rally is being sued for calling the country's popular far-right party racist.

Cécile Kyenge made the statements in 2014 when a party official posted imagery comparing her to an orangutan

Cecile Kyenge, an Italian MEP and former integration minister, says she will not back down from statements that the country's popular League party is racist. (Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press)

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An Italian lawmaker who has been compared to a monkey by her political peers and had bananas thrown at her during a rally is being sued for calling the country's popular far-right party racist.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is suing Cécile Kyenge, a member of the European Parliament, for allegedly defaming his League party. 

Kyenge made the comments during a debate in 2014 while responding to photoshopped images posted on social media by Fabio Rainieri, then the party secretary for the Emilia-Romagna region, depicting her as an orangutan. 

Kyenge, who is currently taking legal action against several other Italian politicians over alleged racist slurs, says she stands by the statement. 

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

How did you feel when you found out that you were being sued for calling Italy's ruling party racist?

It was a surprise for me because I did not think I had defamed the party. But with xenophobic parties we must expect everything.

As I understand it, this is not the first time that the Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has tried to sue you. He's done this two previous times. Why was this attempt successful? 

I don't know.... I trust the judges, and so I am very calm. And I know that my place is there because what we are seeing now in Italy with this process, it's incredible. And I want to defend not myself, but everybody.

Italy's Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini has tried three times to sue Kyenge for defamation. A judge allowed the most recent case to proceed, arguing that Kyenge's statement can be construed as an insult to all League members. (Luca Bruno/Associated Press)

Do you also stand by your claim, despite being sued? 

Many members of the League has already been condemned for racism. 

I remember, for example, my colleague, Member of European Parliament [Mario] Borghezio, who was sentenced to have qualified me as a monkey.

And the same must be said of [Sen. Roberto] Calderoli, ex-vice-president of the Italian Senate, who qualified me as a monkey. And he's on trial in another court with me. 

I just want to know how you feel and what you thought [about] the fact that you had these elected politicians calling someone like you, a peer of theirs, a monkey — and calling you that publicly?

It's very sad.

And the first institution that was supposed to protect me is the government, the Italian government. It's not the same because they give me only bodyguards.

Why do you need bodyguards? What kind of threats are being made against you?

Every hotel where I went when I was in Italy ... many people who wait for me ... want to attack me.

They want to attack me not only because I am a black woman in [politics], but because I am a symbol of migration.

And they want to attack me not only with verbal attacks, but with harder action. And this is very dangerous for me.

In some occasions, I have received physical attacks.

Kyenge, seen here in kitchen in a refectory for refugees at the Astalli Center in Rome in 2013, is a critic of the ruling party's anti-immigration policies and an immigrant herself. (Alessandro Di Meo/EPA)

You were once even at a public event, I understand, where people threw bananas at you. I'm wondering what kind of reaction that got from Italians?

It was a shock for Italy and many people in Italy.

The fact that the League party last march, it got so many votes, I'm wondering what that tells you?

I think that it's very dangerous because migration and the policy about migration must be changed.

Today in Italy, we want a dialogue. We want something to prevent conflict ... because conflict in Italy today and racism, they are rising up.

Why do you think that is? Why are so many Italians supporting this party with its polices?

They are supporting Salvini because they don't have work and, you know, in this year, we have a crisis, an economic crisis, in Europe. 

We don't have solutions about work, about employment, without money. And this is very dangerous because people say if we don't ... have policy and employment, we want to vote for another solution.

And today in Italy the other solution is Salvini and populism, and it's not a good solution.

But the alternative is there. We can work together to change many policies. 

What do you tell your [daughters] about the attacks that you are facing?

It's difficult to explain them, but my daughters are very intelligent. 

My daughters say every day to me that I must do my work, and if I'm in the right way, everybody can one day understand.

They are strong. They are very strong. They encourage me.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.