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20 October 2003

The man who would be Duce

The leader of Italy's authoritarian right has turned liberal. A new ally for Blair? By Hilary Clarke

By Hilary Clarke

Italy’s downtrodden army of Moroccan tomato-pickers, Filipina cleaners and Egyptian pizza chefs have found an unexpected ally in a man who just ten years ago was singing the praises of Il Duce and making fascist salutes.

“I can’t believe it,” screamed the front page of the Marxist-leaning newspaper Il Manifesto, following the announcement on 8 October by Gianfranco Fini, the deputy prime minister, that he was in favour of granting immigrants some voting rights. Umberto Bossi, leader of the xenophobic Northern League and a partner of Fini’s National Alliance in Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing governing coalition, said he thought Fini had gone mad. If so, there is method in his madness.

The votes-for-immigrants proposal, which could be presented to the Italian parliament this month, marks the culmination of Fini’s ten-year strategy to turn his party, deeply rooted in Italian fascism, into a respectable, conservative, pro-European political force. When he first tried to visit London in 1995, the Anti-Nazi League held protests, joined by Labour politicians including Peter Hain and Denis MacShane, and stopped him speaking at a meeting in Chatham House. What will British anti-fascists say now?

Fini is a slippery character. As Berlusconi has been condemned internationally, he has worked quietly behind the scenes. As Berlusconi was ridiculed for making a joke about Nazis at the European Parliament and for his claim that Mussolini wasn’t that bad, Fini kept his head down, ingratiating himself with the political establishment in Italy and abroad.

The first victim of Fini’s conversion to the immigrant cause will be the overtly racist Bossi. If, as expected, the Italian parliament approves the legislation, Bossi will have to leave the government or face mass desertion from his electoral base of xenophobic pensioners in Lombardy.

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Few people will be sorry to see the back of Bossi (apart from Berlusconi, whose own position in the coalition will be weakened if he loses such an important ally). Fini won’t. His support comes from southern Italy and he has long been at odds with Bossi’s northern separatism.

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As to Fini’s party, not all agree with him on extending the franchise to non-citizens, but only a handful of diehard racists are likely to leave over it. In any case, the new law will give the vote to only about 150,000 people, and only for local elections. They will have to have been legally resident in Italy for six years.

Polls show 70 per cent of Italians to be in favour of immigrant suffrage in administrative elections. Many Italians have parents and grandparents who were immigrants and the Catholic Church has lobbied for immigrants’ suffrage for some time. Cooks, cleaners, nannies and private care workers are an essential part of middle-class Italian life in Rome and Milan, where “Filipina” is synonymous with “cleaning woman”. Fini has praised Italy’s army of domestic workers for “their services to the Italian family”. To reward them, his immigration bill granted amnesty to 360,000 illegal entrants.

No one should be deceived. Despite having learnt to move tactically in order to reach his goal, Fini still harbours deeply authoritarian views. He oversaw, for example, police operations during the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in 2001, when Italian military police tortured some demonstrators and threatened women with sexual violence. One song the police reportedly sang as they beat up protesters was the fascist colonial marching song “Facetta nera“.

Fini must have hummed the words to that song – “Little black face, you will be Roman,/Your flag will be the same as the Italian one” – as he thought up the immigrant voting coup. He sang it when he joined the fascist movement in 1969, aged just 17. Under the watchful eye of Giorgio Almirante, one of Mussolini’s generals, he rose to become general secretary of the fascist Italian Social Movement, and then the National Alliance. Once asked whether he considered his 28 years of fascist militancy a mistake, he replied: “No . . . a movement like the ISM was useful to Italy, to have a political formation which fought the demonisation of a part of our history.” Berlusconi once said the only fascism Fini has ever seen is at the movies. None the less, Fini has helped keep the authoritarian right alive as a force in Italy.

EU leaders already see him as someone they can do business with, following his work as Italian representative to the convention that drew up the draft European constitution. Most governments find him easier to deal with than Berlusconi, and his constructive approach to European integration has impressed them.

He has distanced himself from Mussolini’s 1938 racial laws, the basis for sending thousands of Italian Jews to the gas chamber. Since joining the government in May 2001, Fini has courted Italy’s 35,000-strong Jewish community. He went on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz and publicly wept at a screening of a film about a wartime Italian fascist diplomat who risked his life to save Jews in Budapest.

Before he can fulfil his ambition to lead the right in Italy, and even a centre-right government if Berlusconi steps down, Fini needs the endorsement of an important European political leader such as Tony Blair. It would be nice to think that Blair would think twice before giving it to him, but according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, talks are under way for a visit by Fini to No 10.