Fini tries to sell respectable face of Fascism

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The Italian right-wing leader, Gianfranco Fini, faced hostile demonstrators and a protest by a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs when he delivered a speech to the institute in London last night.

Mr Fini, standard-bearer of the Italian extreme right, is seeking to make respectable the former neo-Fascist party that was dissolved and renamed the National Alliance.

His visit to London has caused controversy among members of Parliament and an angry crowd of anti-Fascist demonstrators greeted him on his arrival at the meeting.

Before Mr Fini could speak, one member of the audience rose to protest against the invitation. "It is a disgrace that he should come and an outrage," the protester shouted. "This is purely giving him a cloak of respectability. He is Mussolini in an Armani suit."

Mr Fini was questioned on his attitude to Mussolini and Fascism. "History has condemned Mussolini," Mr Fini said. "I don't need to." He said the National Alliance "took the firmest possible stand to condemn all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia".

He said a delegation from the right-wing Likud Party of Israel had attended the alliance's recent congress in Fiuggi. He described Mussolini's racial laws as "an error that became a horror".

Mr Fini said he had come to convey the "new reality" of the Italian right. "There has been a real democratic revolution in Italy," he said. "Our people wanted to punish a political class which had managed the public administration so badly."

Mr Fini said the post-war age of ideological confrontation in Italy had come to an end. "In Italy there is a democratic left and a democratic right," he said. He noted that a delegation from Italy's main left-wing party had also attended the recent National Alliance congress.

Mr Fini gave a smooth and extremely able assessment of the complex state of Italian politics and the prospects for the next election.

But his audience was evidently not to be convinced. He faced questions about the National Alliance's nostalgia for the past, its foreign policy and its views towards Europe.

Mr Fini said his party was committed to democracy and to maintaining Italy's credibility, its fidelity to the European Union and its international engagements. But he sketched out an Italian right-wing vision of Europe that will have disappointed British Conservatives who see in Mr Fini a potential Euro-sceptic sympathiser.

"The National Alliance believes in a united Europe," he said. He believed also in the inevitable need for a single currency, although he felt it must be adapted to the circumstances of each member state. "The fact is that there exists a two- speed Europe," he said.

Mr Fini was questioned about his party's stance towards Italy's north- eastern neighbours of Croatia and Slovenia. The Italian government has held up negotiations for Slovenia to join the European Union, largely as a result of pressure from the National Alliance. "Our official position is that we have never called for a change in borders," Mr Fini said.

Mr Fini insisted that his party's only concern was to safeguard the rights of Italian-speaking minorities in both Croatia and Slovenia.