MILAN — Ask the hundreds of protesters who donned orange high-vis jackets and gathered in squares across Italy over the past week why they’re there and you’ll get as many different answers.
Some are angry with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Others are worried about vaccines, which they say inject mercury into people’s veins, or the judiciary system, or 5G wireless technology. Some say the country’s lockdown measures have left them struggling to make ends meet.
What unites them is a sense of anger — and a charismatic figurehead, Antonio Pappalardo, a former carabinieri known to his followers as “the general.”
At a rally in Rome to mark Italy’s Republic Day on June 2, Pappalardo wore a bright orange tie and energetically led the crowd in chants of liberta, liberta, liberta! The former general drew on a mix of populist and nationalist catchphrases. He promised to give power back to the people. He insulted the government. And he railed against “fake news” and criticism from politicians and high-profile figures including Vasco Rossi, one of Italy’s most famous rock stars.
In the crowd, people shouted, “no to Bill Gates’ vaccine” and “5G is killing us all,” and hugged each other at the general’s insistence that COVID-19 is not a real threat. Few wore masks, and Pappalardo called out those who did, saying, “I cannot look a woman in the face without knowing if she’s beautiful or ugly.”
“I am ashamed of them and their lack of respect for all the victims, for those who have lost loved ones” — Cristina Longhini, pharmacist
Pappalardo, who is 73, served briefly in the Italian parliament in the early 1990s, then stood in a number of elections in the 2000s before he founded the Gilet Arancioni, or Orange Jackets, last year.
The inspiration for the movement struck Pappalardo in 2019 after a meeting with Didier Tauzin, a former French general with close ties to France’s Yellow Jackets movement. “When we met, we said that together we could revolutionize Europe,” Pappalardo told POLITICO.
It took a pandemic, but the combustible mix of frustration and fear across a broad cross-section of the Italian population has put Pappalardo on the political map.
The Orange Jackets have three main goals, he said. First, unseat the Conte government, which he accuses of having destroyed the country economy by confining Italians’ to their homes for months “without reason.”
Second, take Italy out of the European Union and ditch the euro. And third, spread the message that COVID-19 — which Pappalardo dismisses as no more than a “bad flu” — is being used as an excuse for abuses of power.
The fledgling movement has been met with harsh criticism from across the political spectrum.
“I am ashamed of them and their lack of respect for all the victims, for those who have lost loved ones,” said Cristina Longhini, a young pharmacist from Bergamo whose father died of COVID-19.
“According to the Orange Jackets, are we crying over something that didn’t happen?” she said. “Our lives have been destroyed.”
In Milan, which also saw Orange Jacket protests this week, the left-wing mayor Giuseppe Sala called the rally “an act of irresponsibility” while the city is still in a “difficult situation.”
Denying the pandemic should be a crime, Luca Zaia, the far-right governor of Veneto, said in a television broadcast this week, likening Papparlardo’s statements to Holocaust denial.
“I am for freedom of thought, but there is a limit beyond which you cannot go,” the League politician said.
Far-right leaders Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, the head of Fratelli d’Italia, have trod a little more carefully. Just hours before Pappalardo took the stage in Rome, they had appeared on the same square to protest the Conte government, drawing on much of the same anger that is mobilizing people to put on orange jackets.
Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, has made clear that her party has nothing to do with the movement, but speaking to La Repubblica made sure to note “we understand the strong social unease of the people.” Salvini, meanwhile, has condemned rebukes of President Sergio Mattarella, saying people should be “ashamed,” but stopped short of linking those statements to the movement itself or speaking out against it.
For his part, Pappalardo says he’s not seeking acceptance from any party, and that the only thing that interests him is giving voice to the people.
“People are enthusiastic, and finally someone is saying the things that everyone is thinking,” he said. “They treat me worse than a mobster, worse than [Mafia boss] Toto Riina, especially the communists, but I’m stronger than ever.”