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Italy’s Politics Go to the Beach

ORBETELLO, Italy — The girls, tanning their arms and tattooed ankles, looked up from their phones to sift through the caftans hanging from the Moroccan peddler’s cart. The fathers and sons kicking around orange balls paused to check out the sun hats that a Bangladeshi had balanced on his head. Mothers, fresh from cooling their legs in the sea, were implored by their children to consider the plastic sand buckets and inflatable flamingos that a Senegalese had spread at their feet.

For decades, migrant beach peddlers — disparagingly called vu cumprà or “wanna-buys”— have sidestepped cat-walking musclemen to march right into the familiar fabric of the Italian beach holiday. Heat waves and economic downturns made their jobs harder. Now, so do politics.

Exasperation in Italy over the migrant crisis prompted the rise of a hard-right, populist government, and the crackdown it imposed took many forms, from blocking aid ships carrying rescued asylum seekers to a much-lesser-known program called Operation Safe Beaches.

Introduced by the anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the operation earmarked millions of euros for seaside communities to patrol the beaches for unlicensed peddlers, especially those trafficking in counterfeit goods.

“At last,” Mr. Salvini said at a rally at a Sabaudia beach. “We will make sure that Italians can spend a quiet week under the beach umbrella, after having worked a whole year, without having a vu cumprà annoy them.”

Mr. Salvini may be gone, a casualty of political overreach that caused him to stumble out of power and trigger the formation of a new, more liberal government, but many of his hard-line policies remain in place, including Operation Safe Beaches.

Up and down the shore, the peddlers still lug their stores of dresses, bathing suits, blankets, charm bracelets, umbrellas, necklaces, fishing rods, fake tattoos, inflatable toys, counterfeit bags and sneakers, and whatever else they can fit in their carryalls. But now they need to look over their shoulder.

“It’s really hard,” said Gueye Diayua, 29, who arrived from Senegal five years ago and was walking the Giannella, a strip of soft beach bordered by pine woods in southern Tuscany, selling African-themed books for a few euros.

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Peddlers like Mr. Diayua are among the few African and South Asian immigrants that many Italians interact with in a country where integration lags far behind other Western countries. The rise of hard-right politics in Italy has added a strange layer to an already odd relationship in which migrants, often fully dressed in pants and long sleeves and hats, spend the day pitching scantily clad Italians on the beach.

The Italians mostly ignore them.

For some, the peddlers are part of the scenery, as incessant and harmless as the waves lapping on the shore. For others, they are a painful reminder that Italians, who migrated en masse in search of economic opportunity a century ago, have failed to welcome and find legal work for the immigrants. And for those more in line with Mr. Salvini, the peddlers represent lawlessness and an insidious connection between migration and the mafia, as well as annoyances to shoo away.

Many peddlers seem to have noticed the change. They have become particularly wary of the police. Some turned on a dime at the sight of a camera to melt away into the canopy of beach umbrellas. Others ducked into the dunes.

“This year is tougher than last, because there are more and more crackdowns from police,” Fatima Diop, 33, said on the Giannella beach as she earned €5 to adorn a girl’s blonde hair with pink, turquoise and blue braids.

Orbetello, which includes the Giannella beach, received €40,000 from the Safe Beaches funds. The police put up fliers warning sunbathers not to buy goods from unlicensed peddlers, confiscated about 1,000 items and cruised the beaches in small dune buggies. They warned that Italians who bought illegal goods faced fines as high as €7,000.

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Yet the peddlers keep coming.

Mr. Diayua said he found the sand lighter and easier to walk on at Giannella, and so he had taken a two-and-a-half-hour train south from Pisa that morning with scores of other peddlers. Together with more migrants traveling north from Rome, they walked the familiar path past abandoned buildings and camper lots, by the Simply supermarket and to the pine woods shading the beaches.

Some wondered whether, in the face of the crackdown, it was worth it.

On Ansedonia, a popular beach north of Rome, Kabir Zemron, 49, stood next to his cart, its umbrellas hanging with floral and monochrome sundresses, watching Carlotta Robbiano, 26, a district manager for the lingerie chain Calzedonia try on a purple pareo.

“Are you sure it’s only in this color?” she asked.

A few days earlier, Mr. Zemron had more options, but the police had confiscated an entire cart of goods in a sweep, and he said he could not afford to pay the €5,000 fine to get them back.

“I’ve stayed put here for years,” said Mr. Zemron, who came to Italy from Morocco nearly 30 years ago. ”I don’t go around bothering anybody.”

Farther south, on the beach of Capalbio, a redoubt of the left-wing leadership and liberals whom Mr. Salvini excoriated as do-gooders, sympathized with the peddlers’ plight.

“Every year, we buy a little something,” Sara Francescangeli, 66, from Terni, said as she greeted a Senegalese man known as Jimmy Jim. “He’s our friend since forever.”

This is the sort of thing that drives some right-wing lawmakers crazy.

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“It’s a problem,” said Senator Daniela Santanchè, a member of the right-wing Brothers of Italy who owns a beach club in Tuscany. “It’s an open market. The problem is that people also buy things, which is illegal because they don’t pay taxes. At our club, we hired two security guards to make sure they don’t bother people.”

In 2017, Ms. Santanchè was photographed looking unbothered at her club, Twiga Beach, as she lounged on a beach bed and inspected the merchandise of three African peddlers.

“I look, but I don’t buy,” she told the newspaper Il Tirreno at the time. “Clear?”

Francesca Trevisan, the mayor of Scarlino, said her town, which has about five miles of beaches, some of them secluded nature reserves and others densely crowded, badly needed the Safe Beaches funds.

In late July, she said, about ten Senegalese peddlers pushed around two police officers who were loading confiscated counterfeit goods into their patrol car. Tourists intervened and called more police officers, who arrested three men.

“We cannot go on like this,” Ms. Trevisan said.

Yet it seems that is exactly what is happening.

Col. Antonio Del Gaizo, an official for the financial police, said that while some of the peddlers were independent, seeking to save money and enter the legal job market, many trafficked in counterfeit goods and operated under the control of organized crime and the Italian Mafia.

“These are people in a state of need,” Colonel Del Gaizo said. “And so they are exploited.”

On Ostia beach outside Rome, Mustafa Nguer, 30, who arrived in Italy a few years ago from Senegal, said he did not understand why politicians and the police were cracking down so hard.

“It’s better to do this than to rob and steal,” he said as he carried a bag full of apparently counterfeit sneakers, a pair of which dangled by the laces around his neck. “It’s not that we want this work, walking up and down the beach every day.”

Anna Momigliano contributed reporting from Rome.

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