Alessandra Mussolini: Politician in stilettos

She defends her family's reputation with a sweep of her manicured hands, but insists her career in politics has nothing at all to do with her surname. Susan Chenery meets self-confessed fascist Alessandra Mussolini - granddaughter of Il Duce, niece of Sofia Loren, and the first woman in Italy to lead a political party

It is a typical Italian television debate. Everybody is screaming. No one is listening. One moustachioed man in the studio audience appears to have gone mad, or at least purple, such is the pitch and volume of his tirade. When he reaches a crescendo and lurches forward, I wonder if there is going to be a heart attack live on Saturday afternoon television. The heat-inducing topic? Should the children of unmarried couples have the same rights as those of married couples.

Sitting calmly in the middle of it all is a woman with long peroxide blonde hair, high black boots with vertiginous heels, a pornographic mouth, startling eye make-up and just the merest suggestion of a skirt. Did she get lost in the vast Rome television centre and wander into this hysterical political debate by mistake?

The woman sits examining her fingernails but then her enormous green eyes focus on the camera and in them you see something unexpected. You see purpose, a flash of contempt, aggression. "I am not docile," she will tell me later, somewhat unnecessarily. "If I see that something is wrong, I will say so. I am not sweet."

This is the face of the far-right in Italy. This is Alessandra Mussolini, 40, the embodiment of both the old and the new order; history remade in a loud and pouty package. Politics is in her blood; and a great deal of blood has also run through Italy in her family's name. Her grandfather, Il Duce, plunged the country into darkness. A generation of Italians grew up with his granite-jawed photograph on their classroom wall, his statue in the piazza. His iron grip was on every aspect of their lives between 1922 and 1943, as he attempted to create an Italian empire through aggressive nationalism.

In Italy there is no reason why a neo-fascist politician - she is a member of parliament for Naples - should not look like a porn star. On the contrary. Mussolini has posed for Playboy and, in a previous incarnation as an actress, flaunted the voluptuousness also seen in her aunt, Sofia Loren (her mother, Maria Scicolone, and Loren are illegitimate sisters who grew up in the slums of Naples. Maria married, and later divorced, Romano Mussolini, third son of Il Duce). "When you are an actress," she has said about the many lascivious photographs that linger of her on-line, "you are dealing with the body. Every actress does topless and stuff like this; you have to."

At this time, Loren seems to have taken her headstrong niece, somewhat gingerly, under her wing. In a number of the nine cinema and four television films that Mussolini made between 1972 and the early 1990s, she appears alongside her aunt. In one film, The Assisi Underground, she plays a nun rescuing Jews from Mussolini's fascists, and in Back To Freedom, made in Israel, she plays an Israeli soldier.

It would be easy to dismiss Mussolini as an attention-seeking figure of fun. A spectacle of the kind often used to promote political parties in Italy. But the facts are more alarming. National Alliance, the party she recently resigned from in a fit of pique, came to power on a post-fascist mandate, and is the second biggest group in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition, after his own Forza Italia party. Also in this coalition is the racist, xenophobic Lega Nord party. If you believe Mussolini, there is nostalgia and a groundswell of support for the kind of right-wing politics that she represents. "I see the enthusiasm all around me; many, many people have solidarity with me."

Now Mussolini, who has served for 11 years in parliament, has resigned from her political party, National Alliance, the successor to the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), which in turn grew out of Benito Mussolini's fascist party. This happened after its leader, Gianfranco Fini - the deputy prime minister, who is now expediently moving to a more moderate stance - condemned fascism as an "utter evil" and Benito Mussolini's 1938 anti-Jewish laws as "disgraceful".

So Mussolini has launched her own party, Alessandra Liberta d'Azione (Freedom of Action). "The National Alliance is no longer to the right, it is in the centre. There is a huge space in the society of the right for me to occupy. For the first time a woman is the leader of a political party [in Italy]."

Gianna Fregonara, a political journalist at the leading centre-left Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, acknowledges her influence. "She has been around a long time, she is something people understand and know," she says. Adding, "She has done a lot for women in this country."

Angelo Preziaotti, editor of the centre-left Corriere dell'Umbria, agrees: "In the older voters there is a tendency to vote to the right. Fascism was bad but not all bad, the positive aspects are now coming to the surface. Many people still think good of fascism."

After the television debate, I meet La Mussolini with trepidation. I know from our telephone conversations over the previous months, during which I have arranged this interview, that beneath her charmingly accented English, there is a tricky woman. Several times on the phone she has suddenly said, "I have to go now, bye," if she hasn't liked the way the conversation was going or if I mentioned her grandfather.

I am also unsettled because she is such a curious mixture of luscious Italian beauty, prurience and hard-right politics. She has a degree in medicine from the University of Rome and a passion for windsurfing. She champions the causes of women and children, issues on which she frequently strays into left-wing territory and resoundingly clashes with her former party bosses.

"Women in politics are too obedient," she says sweetly as we sit in the office of the show's producer, "On the left they are really obedient, they don't believe in themselves. We are very, very few. And some of us don't want to go up against the leader of the party. But sometimes you have to say what you have to say. I don't like compromise. In politics you have to always choose a compromise and sometimes that I don't like."

When I say that I find it hard to reconcile some of the political positions, she replies as if talking to someone very stupid: "I cannot fight for things I don't believe in. My field is a social one, so you cannot talk about these things with the idea that I am from the right. When you do a social thing the people want the result, they are not interested in sides. You have to say what you believe and I cannot follow a position that is against children or against a woman."

This did not stop her, however, from infamously * brawling on a television talk show with Katia Bellillo, minister for equal opportunities, whom she called an "ugly communist". Mussolini kicked the minister and suggested that she should "really go and live in Cuba".

Recently, in one of her startling volte-faces, she teamed up with the prominent liberal MP Livia Turco to enact a bill giving the children of de facto relationships the same rights as those of married couples - the topic causing so much heat in that television debate. "They are innocent, they don't know if their parents are married or not."

Mussolini has also called for the chemical castration of sex offenders, is opposed to artificial insemination ("it is against the dignity of women"), has campaigned vigorously against sexual harassment in the workplace, once led a protest of denim-sporting women into parliament to protest about a judge's acquittal of a man accused of rape (the judge had ruled that it is impossible to rape a woman wearing jeans), is horrified by the idea of asylum seekers or relaxed immigration laws and is broadly in favour of divorce.

In person, Mussolini has a certain woman-to-woman warmth, a way of touching your arm to make a point. There is a mischievousness that is unexpected; a cynical sense of humour. The notorious verbal aggression is alleviated by an earthy unpretentiousness. "Oh, no, we are not glamorous," she snorts when I suggest that family dinners must be interesting what with Loren, her father - a well-known jazz musician and writer - and herself. "It is just like us sitting here, very simple," she insists. When I ask her whether being a woman and looking the way she does initially made it difficult to be taken seriously in Italy's very male parliament, she shrieks, "No, when you are a woman it is always difficult. You don't have to think about beauty or not beauty. Just try to do something."

Actually, up close, Mussolini's features seem outsized: the huge gleaming teeth, those massive lips, the creamy skin, the dramatic breasts... You can see why she didn't make it as an actress in Hollywood where she once sought fame but succeeded only in appearing on talk shows as a kind of novelty starlet. "Acting was not for me. They were saying you are too beautiful, you are too ugly, you are too plump, too tall, too short. You cannot believe the way you are judged." It was after a producer asked her to change her name - "this is an industry that is traditionally connected to the left", she says - that Mussolini returned to Italy to study medicine.

With her face, and her name, the decision to run for political office was an act of defiance. Especially given the political climate in a country where most people are inculcated against fascism from birth.

"I wanted to show that a woman could go into parliament and challenge the status quo. When you are born into this family, you eat bread and politics. As a child, my father always showed me the newspaper, and we discussed politics every day. When the moment was right, I allied myself to the party, all by myself as usual."

Like any working mother, Mussolini says she is torn between the demands of her political life and wanting to be there for her three children: Caterina, aged nine, Clarissa, five, and Romano, nine months. Her mother looks after the children while she is working but, in Catholic Italy, the family is paramount. "I have to run to and from the parliament to the house because I want to follow step by step, and be there to celebrate, all the important stages in my children's lives."

Given that she seems to be always on the move - she drives between the parliament in Rome and her constituency 140 miles south in Naples - you have to wonder how much time is really left for her family. "I am a simple person, I don't want to go out at night. I stay in my house with my children, I do the garden. When I am nervous I cut my flowers..." she mimics a violent beheading. When I say that her husband, Mauro Floriani, a financier, must be very supportive, she laughs. "No, he is at work all day. He supports when he can."

The pair met when he rescued her from surfboard distress in the Mediterranean, but she says that it was she who proposed. "The time was right." But hanging over all this girlie chat are more troubling questions, including her strident defence of her grandfather.

Mussolini believes that her grandfather has been unfairly maligned by historians. "He created a big family in Italy. He protected the family, he helped them in hospitals and stuff like that," she said once, in her less savvy early days. Now she says that the statements from National Alliance boss Fini "betrayed the foundation of the story of Italy".

When Mussolini won her first election in 1992, she called it a "shout of joy and anger... an act of love for my grandfather", and rushed in her mini-skirt to sit in his former chair in the Italian parliament in Rome.

In his suicidal Steel Pact with Hitler, Mussolini decreed that Jews could not work, attend school, enter public libraries, pilot airplanes, be listed in the telephone book or own doves - because they might use them to send messages. Ultimately, Benito Mussolini sent 7,000 Jews to concentration camps. For this, his granddaughter is uncharacteristically apologist. "I have solidarity for the victims of the Holocaust," she says. "Not only Fini, but the entire world, including the Vatican and the Pope, should beg forgiveness of Israel."

In April 1945, her grandfather was captured and killed by partisans as he attempted to flee to Switzerland. He was strung up by his feet, alongside his mistress, in a piazza in Milan where he was booed, reviled and spat upon by the public. His family were exiled to an island off Naples after the war. You have to wonder what impact this had on his granddaughter. "I cannot grow up in another family, so for me it is natural. I get a bad reaction from some people. Of course, there was sadness. It was a bad page of history I have known since I was 12... In history there were a lot of mistakes, but not everything was wrong and now we must learn to go ahead. I am a Mussolini, but I believe in democracy. I am against any kind of extreme ideas because that is silly and dangerous."

And even though she will not tolerate disrespect for the name that helped her launch her political career, and was pointedly married in Mussolini's birthplace, Predappio, south of Ravenna, where he is now buried and which is now a shrine to fascism, she snaps when I press her on this point. I suggest it must give her pause that her beloved grandfather had his son-in-law, her uncle, Count Galeazzo Ciano, executed for betraying him, but this she will not discuss. "I don't want to talk about my grandfather because I am a politician and that is history. You know the thing that I hate the most is when people have prejudice. When they see me as the granddaughter of Benito Mussolini and not as Alessandra. That really I don't like. I didn't know my grandfather. I am me."

She has memories of her grandmother, Mussolini's wife Rachele, who died in 1979. She once told Harpers magazine, "At home my grandmother Rachele commanded. Therefore in public my grandfather played the role of the lion."

It is hard not to feel a certain disquiet that another Mussolini is forming a far-right political party. That here is another generation of fascism - albeit declawed and representing a small proportion of the body politic - being delivered in killer heels.

James Watson, professor of political science at the American University in Rome, says there is an outside chance that she could make it to the very top of Italian politics. "The way proportional representation is in Italy, she might just make it," he says. But to go all the way you need more than a name. You need money, a programme, organisation. She doesn't have that depth.

"Benito Mussolini was radical in many different ways, a stew pot of ideologies from which he would pick and choose. His granddaughter is the same. To older people, fascism is an ideal of having things working. But Alessandra is not even fascism light. Her activity on a number of cross-party women's issues shows that she is a child of the 1960s. Although, she is extremely Roman in her in-your-face way of dealing with things."

After our interview, I watch Alessandra Mussolini striding out of the television studio, this woman with such a strange gene pool and limitless, unshakeable self-belief. She's in a hurry to get somewhere as usual , but there are many who hope that this far-right politician will never arrive at her chosen destination: the leader of the Italian government. But the premiership of the colourful Silvio Berlusconi has made anything seem possible in Italy.

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