ROME — The vice president of Italy's Senate rejected calls for his resignation Tuesday for making a racist slur against Italy's first black Cabinet minister, but said he was sorry and would send her flowers to make amends.
Roberto Calderoli, a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, has been criticized by Italy's president, premier and a host of ministers and lawmakers for comparing the Congolese-born integration minister, Cecile Kyenge, to an orangutan.
Premier Enrico Letta's Democratic Party called for his resignation, and the premier himself warned the League to put an end to such racist attacks or risk a political confrontation.
Kyenge has been targeted by racist slurs from the Northern League ever since she was named integration minister in Letta's government in April. One Northern League politician has called her a Congolese "monkey," while another has said she deserved to be raped.
Calderoli told a League rally over the weekend that when he thought of Kyenge, an orangutan came to mind.
Calderoli on Tuesday asked the Senate to accept his apologies and said he would have resigned had a majority of Senate leaders asked for it. But he said no such majority had formed. Letta's Democrats don't control the Senate.
He said Kyenge had accepted his apologies and said he would follow the suggestion of colleagues by sending her a bouquet of flowers.
"I said something foolish and I recognize that," Calderoli told the Senate. But he added that he should be judged in the Senate by his behavior in the Senate, not at a political rally.
Kyenge declined once again to respond to the insult, stressing that she has a political responsibility. She acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that she has become a "lightning rod" in Italy's racism debate, but that she doesn't take the attacks personally.
"It is clear that my path has not been an easy one. It has been difficult in terms of integration, and for professional affirmation, and for even the possibility to study," she said. But she urged those who have issues with race to "translate your discomfort into a different language, not a violent one, but a message that might improve the system."
Kyenge immigrated to Italy in 1983 to study medicine. She married an Italian, had two children, and while working in Modena as an eye doctor, became active in local politics.
Her 17-year-old daughter, Giulia, seems to be following in her mother's footsteps: She was recently interviewed by an Italian blog for the children of immigrants, called "Yalla Italia," in which she made clear her thoughts about racism.
"Racism is pure ignorance," Giulia said during a break at an Italian multi-cultural festival where she worked as a cook earlier this summer. "In the end, someone who is racist is someone who doesn't know, but likes to judge without knowing what's going on."
The interview was conducted prior to the Calderoli attack.
It's not the first time Calderoli has been under fire for racist remarks: In 2006, he was forced to resign as a minister in Silvio Berlusconi's government after he wore a T-shirt on state-run television featuring one of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons that had inflamed the Muslim world.
Calderoli is vehemently anti-immigrant, and his party has opposed Kyenge's calls for Italy to change its citizenship laws to allow children of immigrants born in Italy to obtain citizenship. Currently, such children can apply for citizenship only once they turn 18, but bureaucratic problems often interfere.
Italian commentator Beppe Severgnini said Calderoli's comments were clearly aimed at rallying the League's base after the party has weathered tough times following poor electoral showings and a party funding scandal involving the family of League founder Umberto Bossi.
"It's a dangerous calculus," Severgnini warned on the front page of Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper Tuesday. "If leaders are allowed to compare a woman of color to an orangutan, their followers will feel authorized to judge people by the color of their skin. They'll feel justified when they diminish them with a joke or offend them with a comparison or humiliate them with a look."