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Italy Opens Expo 2015 Launch Amid Doubts, Protests

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Italy opened the Milan Expo on Friday, torn between hopes the showcase of global food, culture and technology will lift a gloomy national mood and fears it will be overshadowed by scandal, delays and protests.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, counting on the Expo to reinforce fragile signs of economic recovery, says the event will be a test for the future of Italy after years of stagnation and recession.

“Today it is as though Italy is embracing the world,” he said at the opening ceremony. “All you experts who kept saying ‘we’ll never do it’, this is your answer,” he said.

But the event, on the theme of sustainable food production, has already faced a corruption investigation that saw several top officials in the organizing body arrested, cost overruns, and construction hold-ups that meant large parts of the site were not ready for opening day.

Planned demonstrations by anti-Expo campaigners, who see the event as a bloated symbol of waste and corruption, and fears of security incidents following an unrelated gun attack in a Milan courthouse last month have also dampened the mood.

Officials say the problems will be forgotten once the six-month-long exhibition gets underway.

With 10 million tickets already sold, they are counting on some 20 million people attending, and hope overall revenues will top 10 billion euros ($10.75 billion), half from foreign visitors drawn to Milan.

But the fair, which follows the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, has also rallied a range of protesters, from anti-globalization and environmentalist activists to students and anti-austerity campaigners.

Pope Francis, who spoke via a televised linkup to the opening ceremony, referred to the irony of a global mega spectacle 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 protagonists 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.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators, grouped under the umbrella label NoExpo, are expected to take to the streets of Milan on Friday in protest against an event many see as a symbol of big business interests hiding behind a cover of green sustainability. Around 4,000 police have been assigned to counter the protests.

Expo 2015 will feature interactive technological displays on the theme of “Feeding the Planet”, with national pavilions from 54 countries presenting educational exhibitions and samples of local cuisine.

Cultural events, futuristic architecture, a “supermarket of the future” and dozens of restaurants fill the site, which, critics note, required more than 1 million square meters of farmland on the outskirts of Milan to be concreted over.

In all, more than 140 countries are taking part, with 54 national pavilions. China, an increasing presence in Italian after a string of high-profile business acquisitions, is particularly well represented.