Italy finally loses its cool over chaos

THE CITY sits stifling under the summer heat. The tarmac is melting in the streets and most of the inhabitants have already joined the yearly exodus to the sea.

This year, though, it is a flight from more than just the airlessness of the big city. 'Fuggita dalla crisi' (flight from crisis) run the headlines, as Italy faces up to political and economic problems unprecedented in its history. The country has muddled through political incompetence and economic chaos before, while its citizens have seen their standard of living outstrip that of more sober and angst-ridden European neighbours. When governments fell and foreign analysts prophesied gloom, Italians shrugged and carried on dining out and driving their new cars to the beach.

This time it is different. Never before has the state faced disaster on so many fronts simultaneously. The economy is nearing judgement day, as the burgeoning public sector deficit and plummeting industrial production kill off investor confidence. Its new government, cobbled together barely a month ago, is tottering, after the resignation of the Christian Democrat (DC) Foreign Minister, Vincenzo Scotti, exposed deep rifts in a party that for better or worse, has been in power continuously since 1945.

The opposition is split and embroiled in corruption scandals. And, as if this were not enough, the Mafia has murdered the two judges leading the country's fight against the criminal organisation. With them has died any hope, at least in the short term, of reining in Mafia crime.

Italy has been overwhelmed, and shocked. Leoluca Orlando, the leader of the anti-Mafia party, La Rete, and a close friend of both dead judges, gave an impassioned interview to Le Figaro last week, in which he dubbed Italy a 'banana republic' and appealed to France, Germany and Britain to throw the country out of the European Community, since its sickness would otherwise 'infect the others'.

The interview caused a political uproar, not least because Mr Orlando, a former member of the Christian Democrats, and widely believed to be next on the Mafia's hit-list, went on to attack 'a country where policemen and soldiers are forced to salute politicians who protect the Mafia and symbolise the collusion between the world of politics and that of organised crime'. Politicians of Mr Orlando's former party hit back, branding him a 'traitor to Italy', and suggesting grief and fear had turned him insane.

His words were, however, welcomed by many ordinary Italians, a measure of how uncharacteristically sombre the mood is here.

In a dark, stuffy bar near the Quirinale, the presidential palace, the cashier grows animated at the mention of Mr Orlando.

'Ah that one] At least he's honest, he's the only one who tells the truth. I used to be proud to be Italian, to be Roman, but we've become a joke. Everyone laughs at us.' A young man at the bar reflects gloomily: 'It's the end. What sort of image can we expect to have abroad when our foreign minister - a foreign minister who doesn't even know anything about foreign affairs, who's been chosen because he's from a certain faction in a certain party - when he just ups and resigns like that just a few weeks after being appointed? We don't deserve to be taken seriously.'

Indeed, when the daily Corriere della Sera asked five public relations experts how they would devise a publicity campaign to boost Italy's image around the world, they concluded that it was more or less impossible.

Oliviero Toscani, the man behind the controversial Benetton campaign that used photographs of a new-born baby, a Mafia victim and a man dying of Aids, offers his own hard-hitting analysis: 'My campaign for Italy would prove unpopular, because I would tell the truth. I would say that this is a land of wonderful individuals, but unfortunately they are few, and the thieves, cheats and mafiosi are many. The government doesn't work, the institutions don't work, the state doesn't exist. No more fairy-tales about 'Made in Italy'; Versace and Pavarotti: it's all rubbish. We are hypocrites.'

A poll published by Corriere after Mr Scotti's resignation shows that 86 per cent of Italians disapproved of party interests being put before those of the nation. And 53 per cent approved of the ruling by the DC that its cabinet ministers had to resign parliamentary seats to avoid clashes of interest. It was over this ruling that Mr Scotti resigned.

A cartoon on the front page of La Repubblica sums up the feeling. Showing the reviled Mr Scotti in wide-boy pose, it has him declaring, in his native Neapolitan dialect: 'We are the richest nation in the Third World; why should we become the poorest nation in Europe?'

Yesterday the Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, named the former prime minister, Emilio Colombo, of the DC to succeed Mr Scotti. It is the sixth time he has been given the job and his 21st ministerial post.

(Photograph omitted)