For the throngs who have crammed squares across Italy in the past month to protest at far-right politics, the massing of youthful demonstrators known as the Sardines is a way to make their voices heard.
For Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant League and the focus of their ire, the crowds mark the first time he has come up against a nationwide grassroots campaign that rivals his own formidable ability to dominate Italy’s news agenda.
This Saturday, thousands are planning to gather in Piazza San Giovanni, Rome, with protesters holding cardboard cutouts of the eponymous fish as they express a message of tolerance and antiracism at a time of deep disillusion with the mainstream parties.
“The people who are joining us have woken up and feel alive as never before. We are rediscovering our integrity as a society,” said Juri Antonozzi, a founder of the Sardines group in Rome.
The movement was triggered by regional elections in the wealthy northern region of Emilia Romagna, due in January, where Mr Salvini has a chance of seizing control in the longtime stronghold of the Italian left. Polls show that the League and the incumbent centre-left Democratic Party (PD) are neck and neck.
The first Sardines protest took place last month in the region’s capital, Bologna, after four friends took to social media to organise a flash mob to counter the League’s election campaign launch. Thousands of young people squeezed like sardines into the city’s main square, instantly giving the movement its name.
Mr Salvini himself has put on a brave face, quipping last week that “the Sardines make me happy” and making light of the intention of Francesca Pascale, the youthful girlfriend of 83-year-old ex-prime minster Silvio Berlusconi — an ally of Mr Salvini — to join the Sardines. The League’s social media machine has responded to the publicity generated by the protests by posting images of cute cats eating the fish.
But while the movement has generated significant media attention, it remains unclear whether it will have any tangible political impact.
So far its spokespeople have remained steadfastly unaligned to any mainstream political party, instead voicing a general antiracism and pro-inclusiveness sentiment that focuses more on general opposition to the League, rather than outlining policy positions.
While the Sardines explicitly oppose Mr Salvini, they have not formally endorsed the PD in Emilia Romagna, and their vocal disdain for the League may not be enough to tilt the contest.
“It is an important movement in the sense that there are thousands of people taking to squares. This is a deep emotion that is a precondition for political involvement. But then how do you transform this into a real political movement?” said Giovanni Orsina, director of the LUISS School of Government in Rome. “When you finally do this you are forced to take sides on specific issues, and in that moment your support instantly goes down.”
For many Sardines protesters, the gatherings are more about a public demonstration of Italy’s tolerance in the face of Mr Salvini’s daily anti-migration rhetoric than a coherent political programme.
“Lately, being racist and hating minorities has stopped being a taboo and some people felt free to disrespect others,” said Stephen Ogongo, a Sardines protester from Rome.
“Finally, a group of regular people sick of this attitude gathered and decided to do something about it. We simply can’t accept this. This is why we are flocking to the piazze — because we are people who want to live in a country where such a language and behaviour are not permitted.”
But some analysts believe that although the Sardines have no clear political programme, the fact the movement has engaged young Italians in politics means it potentially poses a threat to Mr Salvini.
Erik Jones, professor of European studies and international political economy at the School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, said the movement had spread across Italy precisely because it was not aligned with any established party.
“They have managed to mobilise young people who were previously disengaged from politics,” he said. “The key question now is if this participatory politics in the squares will be channelled into electoral politics.”
Until this happens Mr Salvini is likely to remain relaxed about the threat the Sardines pose to his political fortunes.
“If I was Mr Salvini I would probably be quite happy about the Sardines,” said Mr Orsina. “He knows he is a divisive person, and the fact they mobilise mostly against him is in a way a demonstration that he is the centre of the Italian political system.”