ROME - Illegal immigrants in Italy earning a few coins by washing windscreens at traffic lights could face up to three months in jail after Florence launched a crackdown and other cities said they might follow suit.
Many cities are already taking action against what is seen as "imported" behaviour such as tourists taking off their shirts or eating hamburgers in the piazza in Venice, or getting drunk in public in Rome -- something image-conscious Italians avoid.
Foreigners are also blamed for much of the street crime in a relatively safe country. Most people wielding sponges on street corners are Romanian gypsies, often young women and children.
But word got round quickly in historic Florence that city hall had introduced new rules enabling police to bring charges against window-washers, confiscate their equipment and start prosecutions that could end in fines and a prison sentence.
Florence police chief Alessandro Bartolini personally led the first patrol which resulted in 15 people being charged.
"There are no more on the streets. Word has got around, apparently," Bartolini said.
Rome's Mayor Walter Veltroni, who has taken action against illegal gypsy camps and now vows to clean up rowdy nightlife and public drug-taking and drinking in popular neighbourhoods like Trastevere, said window-washers are so pushy "that people are virtually ravaged at every traffic light and street corner".
"People must realise that behind the window-washers there is exploitation of minors, which is a crime. Like prostitution this is a racket that must be smashed," Veltroni told reporters.
In Verona, Mayor Flavio Tosi, who has previously taken action against people eating sandwiches in public, said he would monitor the experiment in Florence: "If the new regulation manages to deter the window-washers, we will adopt it too".
Some civic groups in Florence applauded the rules which city officials said acted on complaints of window-washers "becoming more aggressive, especially to women alone in their cars".
The city's public safety officer Graziano Cioni stressed that the aim was "not to punish beggars or poor people" but to combat "arrogant and violent" behaviour against motorists.
However, leftist groups in the city called the new measure excessive and regional Communist party chief Niccolo Pecorini termed it "unworthy of Florence's hospitable traditions". (Reuters)