A confident manner and a silvery tongue

Gianfranco Fini likes to tell how it was a John Wayne movie that thrust him, as a tender 17-year-old schoolboy from Bologna, into the arms of the neo-fascist right. He and a school friend went to see The Green Berets in defiance of a boycott called by their left wing classmates, getting themselves into a fight outside the cinema for their pains. The next day, a banner in class read "Fini is a Fascist". The young Gianfranco needed no further encouragement...

These days Mr Fini, still fresh-faced at 43, winces with irritation every time he is accused of fascist tendencies. Ferociously ambitious, he is determined to refute any suggestion of improper or anti-democratic ideology.

The decision to wind up the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement and rename it the National Alliance was only the latest stepping-stone on a long road towards respectability for Mr Fini. As soon as his unashamedly neo- fascist mentor, Giorgio Almirante, died in 1989, he began dropping the old symbols of the past - black shirts, Roman salutes and the like - in favour of a more clean-cut, almost yuppyish image.

The image suits the man, with his neat hair, studious metal-framed glasses and cautiously elegant dress sense. Despite his early ruction with his classmates in Bologna, Mr Fini has never gone in much for the Saturday night brawls enjoyed by his comrades. He fought his battles first on the pages of the neo-fascist newspaper Secolo d'Italia, then in public meetings and parliament.

Mr Fini says he wants to re-fashion the Italian right in the image of de Gaulle, combining a deep attachment to democratic values with strong leadership. His electorate admires his smooth confident manner and his silvery tongue, to the point of apparently forgetting his political heritage and the ideas he once stood for.

He now denies ever calling Mussolini the greatest statesman of the century, or suggesting Italy could extend its northeastern border into Istria, even though both assertions appeared in interviews printed verbatim in respectable publications. Yet he remains confident, credible and popular.

Andrew Gumbel