Mussolini, the liberal, champions cohabitees

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The Independent Online

Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of the Italian dictator and an MP with Alleanza Nazionale, Il Duce's political heirs, has come out as a liberal.

Yesterday, with Livia Turco - a member of the "post- communist" Left Democrats and a former minister - by her side, she outlined a draft bill offering the same legal protection to cohabiting couples and their children as that enjoyed by families where the parents are legally married.

According to the two women, MPs from opposite ends of the political spectrum, nearly 700,000 Italian families are penalised because the parents are not married. They claim the number of such families has shot up from 1.8 per cent of all families in 1995 to 3.1 per cent in 2001. Among other measures, the new law would put the parental authority of cohabiting couples on the same basis as married couples, and give their children the same rights over use of the home and in the event of the parents separating.

Mussolini and Turco, called "the odd couple" by the communist dailyL'Unita, presented a draft of their proposed law live on television at the weekend. On Monday, they tabled the proposals at parliament.

In the foreign press at least, Ms Mussolini will always be dogged by the fact that, before becoming a politician, she was a topless model. But in Italy she has left all that behind her. She has built a strong following as "an intelligent populist", according to Professor Paul Corner, a political scientist at the University of Siena.

"She knows how to strike the right notes," he said. "For example, in defence of Mussolini, she is always careful to defend aspects of the Fascist regime that many people liked."

She also recently made headlines on paedophilia. She campaigned loudly, though unsuccessfully, for the sterilisation of offenders.

The joint action by politicians from the far left and the far right follows a similar initiative by Gianfranco Fini, the Deputy Prime Minister, who stunned the ruling coalition by proposing limited voting rights for legally resident immigrants. Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, has indicated that the proposal is unlikely to be made law, but the seriousness of Mr Fini's endeavour was shown in his attempt to drag his party in from the howling wastes of the far right.

Ms Mussolini's pact with the former communist is a comparable effort. When Maurizio Ronconi, a Christian Democrat senator, dismissed her as "a suffragette outside her time", she shot back: "Either Ronconi is not aware the suffragettes fought for women's votes or he would like to return to the days before universal suffrage."

The proposal is unlikely to become law, if only because Ms Mussolini and Mr Fini are said to loathe each other. She challenged him two years ago for the party leadership; and he is believed to be embarrassed by the Mussolini name, a permanent reminder of the past he is anxious to exorcise.