Milan's flashy international expo was beset by violence on opening day as demonstrators clashed with Italian police on Friday. Police responded with tear gas on Friday as protests against the event overshadowed the start of the global fair, which the government had hoped would lift a gloomy national mood.
Dark clouds of smoke from burning cars filled the center of Milan as groups of protesters, wearing masks, threw stones and faced off against lines of police in riot gear.
The demonstrations came just hours after a glitzy opening ceremony at the Expo site where Prime Minister Matteo Renzi welcomed the start of a six-month-long showpiece of culture and technology. The theme is sustainable food production.
Thousands of police have been deployed to counter the threat of violence. Renzi has been counting on the event to reinforce fragile signs of economic recovery after years of stagnation and recession.
“Today it is as though Italy is embracing the world,” he said at the opening, which featured an overflight by jets trailing the colors of the Italian flag. “All you experts who kept saying ‘We’ll never do it’ — this is your answer,” he said. “I like to think that tomorrow begins today.”
Instead, the glittering center of Milan was transformed into a battle ground, with sirens and periodic bangs from flash bombs and firecrackers occasionally eclipsing the shouts of protesters.
With 10 million tickets sold, officials are counting on at least 20 million people attending, and hope overall revenues will top $10.75 billion, half from foreign visitors drawn to Milan.
Yet the event was already tarnished by a corruption investigation that saw several top officials arrested. It has also been plagued by cost overruns and construction hold-ups. Many parts of the site were not ready for opening day.
The fair, which is the successor to the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, mobilized a wide range of left-wing protesters, from anti-globalization and environmental activists to students and anti-austerity campaigners, who see the lavish event as a symbol of waste and corruption.
Pope Francis, speaking via a televised link-up, referred to the irony of a global mega-spectacle dependent on corporate donations being devoted to sustainable development and feeding the poor.
“In certain ways, the Expo itself is part of this paradox of abundance, it obeys the culture of waste and does not contribute to a model of equitable and sustainable development,” he said.
The real focus of the event should be “the faces of the men and women who are hungry, who fall ill and even die because of an insufficient or harmful diet,” he said.