Neo-fascist sweeps in as Rome's mayor

A former street-fighting neo-fascist won a crushing victory in Rome’s mayoral election last night, crowning the victory two weeks ago of Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-right in the general election, and fuelling fears that Italy is now set for an unprecedented assault on immigrants.

The Eternal City’s new mayor is Gianni Alemanno, the 50-year-old son of an army officer, who still wears the Celtic cross belonging to a rightist friend killed with a spanner blow to the skull during a demonstration. He has mellowed since his wild youth: as agriculture minister in Berlusconi’s last government, his passion for organic food would have done credit to a Green.

But getting tough on immigration is a key promise. In his 16-point “Pact for Rome”, point number seven reads: “Immediately activate procedure for the expulsion of 20,000 nomads and immigrants who have broken the law in Rome.”

Point eight follows: “Closure of illegal nomad camps, rigorous and effective checks on legal ones and their progressive elimination.”

Mr Alemanno’s election, with a margin of nearly 7 per cent over the former centre-left mayor Francesco Rutelli, confirms that the xenophobic wave which swept the Northern League to historic highs in this month’s general election has now reached Rome.

The signs were there from last November, when the murder of Giovanna Reggiani, a housewife from Rome, on a footpath from a railway station to her home, provoked the mayor Walter Veltroni to demand that Romando Prodi’s government pass a diktat mandating the expulsion of undesirable foreigners, including those from inside the EU, without the need for court action.

The demand was followed by the demolition of migrant squatter camps across the capital.

The “decree law” was rammed through - the most draconian reaction to immigration pressures yet seen in western Europe. Generous, humane Italy suddenly bared its teeth, and people elsewhere recalled that it was an Italian who invented fascism and filled the city streets with goose-stepping, Roman-saluting blackshirts.

But like many Italian laws, last year’s “diktat” did not do the job it was designed for, and now Mr Alemanno moves into a new office close to where Il Duce harangued the crowds in Piazza Venezia, armed with a mandate to carry out what Mr Veltroni and Mr Prodi only threatened. Mr Alemanno’s victory marks the arrival in the Italian capital of the politics of paranoia that have already triumphed in much of the rest of the country.

The biggest winner in the general election was the Northern League, which increased its share of the vote to 8 per cent. The party was founded by Umberto Bossi to fight for the rights of the over-taxed north of Italy in the battle with “Roma ladrona” (“thieving Rome”).

After a farcical declaration of secession from the Italian state, the party was written off as a spent force. But since early last year, with the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU, the League has discovered that immigration paranoia is their winning card.

A Northern League mayor, Massimo Bitonci, of Cittadella, in the Veneto region, passed an ordinance banning the poor, the homeless and the unemployed from living in the town. Others proposed banning illegal immigrants from getting married, or from being eligible for scholarships.

Cittadella also become one of many League-dominated northern towns to implement all-night security patrols by League volunteers. And the appeal of such gestures was amply proved in the election.

Star of the campaign for the League was Roberto Calderoli, already notorious for ripping off his shirt on live television to expose a T-shirt emblazoned with one of the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohamed. After the election, Mr Calderoli was touted as Mr Berlusconi’s possible deputy prime minister, though the idea has since been canned.

Italy has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, and economic growth is at a standstill; manufacturers and other businesses clamour for the admission of more immigrants to enable them to take on cheap labour. But the popular mood is set against it.

Yesterday, the man likely to become Mr Berlusconi’s foreign minister, the former EU immigration commissioner Franco Frattini, added his voice to the swelling chorus. “We need a national law that establishes a minimum income below which foreigners cannot stay in our country for more than 90 days,” he said. “Whoever [has income] above that level stays. Whoever does not have the minimum income will be sent back to their country of origin.”

Mr Alemanno said: “I will be the mayor of all Romans, including those who did not vote for me” - but not necessarily of those born far away. His first act as mayor, he said, would be to visit the widower of Mrs Reggiani. It seemed a decent gesture: more than any other one event, Mrs Reggiani’s death made Mr Alemanno’s victory possible.

The key people on the Italian Right

* Gianfranco Fini

The man who brought the MSI, the heir to Mussolini's Fascist party, in from the cold and created the National Alliance. Tried to bury the Fascist record of anti-Semitic persecution by visiting Israel. In 1993 he ran for mayor of Rome against Francesco Rutelli, the man defeated by Mr Alemanno yesterday. A key pillar of Silvio Berlusconi's coalition.

* Gianni Alemanno

Rome's newly elected mayor likes rock-climbing, meditating and organic foods; he's a friend of Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement. As minister of agriculture in Mr Berlusconi's last government, he was praised by an opposition leader as "Berlusconi's best minister". His extremist past makes him a bogeyman of the Roman left.

* Alessandra Mussolini

The dictator's grand-daughter followed Mr Fini into the National Alliance following stints as an actress, singer and medical student . Frequently at war with other far-right leaders, she is famous for her unscripted outbursts on live television. Said to be a candidate for minister of equal opportunities under Mr Berlusconi.

* Daniela Santanche

The other glamorous face of Italy's far right declined to follow Mr Fini into Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom party before the general election, instead becoming prime ministerial candidate for The Right, the unapologetically Fascist rump of the old MSI. Verbal punch-up with La Mussolini on live TV enlivened general election campaign.

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