Anger over coronavirus crisis in Italy fuels anti-establishment Orange Jackets movement

Nick Squires
Former police general Antonio Pappalardo claims coronavirus is part of a vast global conspiracy - Getty

In a bright orange blazer and equally lurid orange tie, he looks like an ageing Butlins host, but Antonio Pappalardo is the leader of a fiery new political movement in Italy that has emerged from the coronavirus emergency.

The Orange Jackets, who model themselves on the Yellow Jackets or Gilets Jaunes of France, were established last year but languished in obscurity until this week, when they held a series of protests in cities across Italy.

Their arguments coalesce around a mishmash of anti-establishment conspiracy theories regarding the supposed perils of 5G wireless technology, opposition to vaccinations and profound scepticism over the danger posed by coronavirus.

They are drawing strength from the despair and anger of many Italians, who lost their jobs or saw their businesses fail during Italy’s tough three-month lockdown.

Mr Pappalardo, 73, an ex-general with the Carabinieri police who briefly served as an independent MP in the 1990s, insists that Covid-19 is an invention.

Former police general Antonio Pappalardo, founder of the Orange Jackets protest movement, addresses supporters in Milan - Shutterstock

Notwithstanding the fact that the virus has killed more than 33,500 people in Italy, bringing heartbreak to so many families, he maintains it is a vast conspiracy dreamt up by world powers to terrorise the masses. The virus is no worse than 'flu and only affects people aged 80 and over who are already suffering from other illnesses, he maintains.

He has called for the government to resign, arguing that it should have eased the lockdown much sooner.

“Covid does not exist. It's an invention, a huge bluff. They want to terrorise us, to shut us up at home and install a new world order,” he said this week.

The big threat to the world is not the virus but “deadly electromagnetic radiation - too many radars, too many antennae,” he said.

His claims are forcefully rebutted by scientists, who say he is peddling a dangerous falsehood which could persuade Italians to let down their guard and trigger a new wave of infections.

Orange Vest supporters refused to wear face masks when they took part in this week’s demonstrations and many were fined by the police for contravening public health regulations.

The Orange Jackets model themselves on the Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Jacket movement in France - AFP

Prof Andrea Crisanti, a leading virologist who helped quash the virus in the northern region of Veneto with an aggressive programme of testing and tracing, said the movement was highly irresponsible.

“They will give the virus a second chance. They are showing disregard for all the efforts made so far,” he said.

Denying that Covid-19 existed was “madness,” he said.

The Orange Jackets - who call themselves Gilets Arancioni, a strange hybrid of French and Italian - are also deeply Eurosceptic and want to see Italy ditch the euro in favour of a new lira.

“We need to start printing a new currency,” Mr Pappalardo told Corriere della Sera newspaper this week. He made some decidedly eccentric claims during the interview, saying that “in the Vatican I'm considered a genius illuminated by God.”

Such statements have earned him the ridicule of mainstream politics. Carlo Calenda, the head of a small centre-Left party, called the former general “a cretin” this week. “It’s hard to believe he became a general in the Carabinieri.”

It is unclear how much support the Orange Jackets have. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, they were a tiny, marginal movement.

In regional elections in Umbria in October, they won just 0.13% of the vote. They had hoped to take part in the European Parliament elections last May but could not muster enough support to field a candidate.

The Orange Jackets have been fueled, in part, by anger and despair over the economic impact of the virus in Italy - AFP

But the catastrophic economic and social impact of the coronavirus crisis may now help to swell their numbers, despite their outlandish theories.

With their anti-EU, anti-vaccination stance, they are occupying a similar political space to the Five Star Movement when it was founded a decade ago.

Five Star lost its anti-establishment lustre after entering into a coalition first with the hard-Right League party and then, when that government collapsed last summer, with the centre-Left Democratic Party.

With the Italian economy forecast to contract by up to 13% as a result of the coronavirus emergency, the country is about to be hit by a “tsunami” of hardship and that could see the Orange Vests’ appeal grow, said Francesco Galietti, a political analyst.

“EU money has been promised but it will be too late – shops and factories and businesses will be dead by then,” said Mr Galietti, the head of Policy Sonar, a think tank.

“There is a storm brewing but we may not see the full effects until the autumn,” he told The Telegraph.

That is when the Orange Jackets could profit from the anger and frustration of ordinary Italians. “They are making lots of noise now because they want to be ahead of the curve. But we’ll have to wait to see how this all plays out.”