Very model of a modern fascist leader

Gianfranco Fini's hour may be at hand

SOBER suit, sleek haircut, earnest spectacles, well-scrubbed face: Gianfranco Fini is the epitome of what many Italians call a persona seria, a serious person. It is true that Mr Fini occasionally sports a daring tie - only the other day he was wearing one on which dolphins frolicked in a canary-yellow sea.

At 42, he is perhaps the most youthful leader of a major Italian political party. He could make or break this and the next Italian government. He is the most interesting and complex figure in a political landscape at present dominated by a television showman, Silvio Berlusconi. Last week, as Mr Berlusconi's star waned, Mr Fini radiated gravitas. ''The country has need of public duty . . .and an elevated sense of responsibility,'' he said. ''Political squabbles cannot be allowed to obstruct the passage through parliament of the national budget, the indispensable ingredient for the economic well-being of all our people.''

Mr Fini, as head of the National Alliance, the heirs of Mussolini's fascists, is concerned to avoid painful reminders of the past. He has rechristened the old neo-fascists (they used to be called the Movimento Sociale Italiano, or MSI) and brought them into government with an unctuous skill that only a few years ago would have been regarded as miraculous. Half a century after the fall of Mussolini, Mr Fini has made right-wing politics acceptable once again.

What makes him so important is that the reworking of Italian politics is far from complete. In the 1980s the system appeared impervious to change. Christian Democrats, who said they were conservatives, ruled over a vast public sector financed by debt and lubricated by corruption. Socialists, who said they were reformers, muscled in to share power and advance the interests of their sympathisers. Smaller parties, all preaching sound finance or enlightened liberalism, were bought off with ministries and jobs.

Outside this endlessly turning circle stood the two rival ideological extremes. The Communists, now split into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) and a hardcore rump, provided the Great Terror. The ''threat'' of their entry into government legitimised the ruling order and ensured foreign support. The neo-fascists, where Mr Fini began his youthful activities in 1967, were useful insofar as they both gave right-wingers an outlet for nostalgia and frightened everybody else with reminders of the past. Politically, they were irrelevant.

All that changed with the corruption investigations of 1992, the collapse of the old parties, partial reform of the electoral system and the victory last March of the right-wing slate in which Mr Berlusconi forged an electoral pact with the National Alliance and the federalist Northern League. Now Mr Berlusconi is doomed by allegations of corruption. The League is relevant only in the north. Mr Fini's hour may be at hand.

''We cannot betray our ally in government,'' Mr Fini said last week. In fact he is positioning himself for the upheaval that will come when the Berlusconi interlude gives way to a second phase of remaking Italian politics. It is certain to be a period of sharp conflict. It will mark the definitive break with the post-war notion of consociativismo, under which government and opposition often submerged their differences to serve the collective interests of the political class. Mr Fini's clear manifesto is contained in a short but vigorous book entitled La Mia Destra (''My Right'').

Here he is on the would-be secessionist Northern League: ''Italy is indivisible. There is an Italian People. . . There's a risk of drifting into the sort of geographical egotism that led to the collapse of Yugoslavia.'' Not much room for consociativismo there.

On the ''Great Terror'': ''It didn't need the fall of the Berlin Wall to convince Italians that communism was built on foundations of lies, hypocrisy and illiberalism. . . the old Communist Party and the new PDS may not have been parties of the government but they were part of the power structure.''

If this is not classical fascism, what is it? Mr Fini has explicitly said it is not Thatcherite. ''It's impossible to transfer to Italy the definitions of British politics. Apart from anything else, we are not conservatives in political terms. The thrust of the National Alliance is for renewal and progress.''

This is, in fact, the authentic voice of fascist Italy, which postured as dynamic but turned out to prefer the sloth of the Bourbons. It is the politics of exclusion, the spokesman for the little man who feels threatened by great forces beyond his ken and the outsider who dreams of seizing power from the corrupt but charmed circles which always seem to retain it.

Mr Fini's voters are heavily concentrated in the south. Only a few put on black shirts and dream of the Duce's lost empire. Many are discontented small businessmen. Many more are employees of the state who would have no jobs if central government did not dispense its borrowed largesse to provide undemanding lifetime posts. Mr Fini may not like consociativismo but he cannot divorce himself from its twin, clientilismo, the bond between politician and supporter which stretches back in southern Italy to the age of Cicero. To put it crudely, the modern development of Lombardy, Piedmont, the Romagna and the Veneto has made Mr Fini's National Alliance not much more than an interest group.

History and rhetoric, however, give its message a resonance beyond Italy's borders. One MSI veteran, Mirko Tremaglia, has caused international concern by reviving Italian claims to coastal territory in Slovenia and Croatia from his influential position as head of the foreign affairs committee in the Chamber of Deputies.

Mr Fini is a study in ambiguities. On one occasion he said: ''Europe just considers Italy a ball at its feet.'' He has no time for Brussels. But with the other hand he spreads soothing balm. Fascism, he acknowledges, was totalitarian. It will not return, he says. Mussolini's racial laws, though enacted late and enforced half-heartedly, ''were a tragic error that wrote pages of horror. We've said so a thousand times and if necessary we'll repeat it a million times''.

But, cunningly, Mr Fini depicts events in Italy between Mussolini's fall in July 1943 and final liberation in 1945 as a civil war in which fascist patriots fought communist partisans. ''Let's not imagine that anti-fascism was all democratic,'' he says. ''Quite the contrary.''

Anyone who expects Gianfranco Fini to resolve these ambiguities shows little knowledge of Italian political culture. The Italian right retains the instinct for drab conformity tempered by flashes of unpredictable passion. It would be wise to remember that fascism embraced both the grey eminences of Italian capitalism and the piratical fantasies of the aviator-poet Gabriele d'Annunzio. The charcoal suit, if you will, set off by the bright yellow dolphin tie.

(Photograph omitted)

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