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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 19:00 GMT
Profile: Italy's post-fascist hopeful
Gianfranco Fini and Franco Frattini
Foreign minister: Gianfranco Fini (L) and predecessor Franco Frattini (R)
Gianfranco Fini, leader of the "post-fascist" National Alliance party, is a polished, intelligent and witty political operator.

He is also leader of a party that traces its origins directly to the Fascist Movement of Italy's one-time dictator, Benito Mussolini.

But Mr Fini, 52, has gone a long way to transforming the National Alliance from a far-right fringe group to a mainstream centre-right political party, embracing the "social-market" economy.

The party's old name, the Italian Social Movement, was jettisoned, as was the old fascist commitment to a "corporate state".

I was born in 1952, I am a post-fascist and I hope that Italy stops talking about fascism and anti-fascism
Gianfranco Fini in 1994
Just before entering government for the first time in 1994, Mr Fini appeared to distance himself from Mussolini's regime.

"I was born in 1952. I am a post-fascist and I hope that Italy stops talking about fascism and anti-fascism," he said.

"I have said and I repeat that fascism made a mistake with its 1938 race laws. This had horrible consequences."

Courting Israel

Mr Fini has made overtures to Italy's small Jewish community.

A visit to Auschwitz in 1999 turned into something of an embarrassment, when he was pelted with eggs by local Polish anarchists.

FINI FACTS
1952: Born in Bologna
1983: First elected to parliament
1987: Becomes leader of Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by Mussolini supporters
1994: Transforms MSI into National Alliance
1999: Visit to Auschwitz
2001: Appointed deputy prime minister
2004: Named foreign minister
A visit to Israel in November 2003 was more successful, from a diplomatic point of view - leading Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to describe him as a "good and friendly leader" - but caused a rift in his party.

While there he described Mussolini's rule as a "shameful chapter in the history of our people" and said fascism had been an "absolute evil".

He added that many Italians had acted with "laziness, indifference, complicity and cowardice" in not opposing the anti-Jewish laws introduced in 1938 in imitation of Nazi Germany.

He is a good and friendly leader - it is time to look to the future, not the past
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
The comments led Alessandra Mussolini, the dictator's grand-daughter, a member of the Italian parliament, to storm out of the National Alliance party, saying her family's honour had been abused.

They also prompted criticism from other leading party figures. Francesco Storace, governor of the Lazio region, called Mr Fini's remarks a "media-driven operation".

The trip showed just how far Mr Fini had travelled in the seven years since 1994, when he described Mussolini as "the greatest statesman of the 20th Century".

In 2003 he also surprised both his friends and his rivals with a proposal to grant illegal immigrants the right to vote - an idea more commonly associated with the Italian left.

Long game

BBC Europe analyst Jan Repa says Mr Fini's greatest tactical success was to position the National Alliance to take advantage of the demise of the Christian Democrat party, which had dominated Italian politics since the end of the World War II and collapsed under a tide of corruption scandals in the 1990s.

The National Alliance moved into the old Christian Democrat electoral strongholds across Italy's poor South, while the once separatist Northern League, under Mr Fini's equally controversial cabinet colleague, Umberto Bossi, hoovered up the North.

But the National Alliance has its northern outposts too: in Bolzano - a largely German-speaking region near the Austrian border - and in Trieste, which is on the borders of Slovenia. Both are areas of potential ethnic strife.

Mr Fini says Italy has no territorial claims on its neighbours. However, National Alliance leaders have often referred to territories like Istria and Dalmatia - now parts of Croatia and Slovenia - as "rightfully Italian".

According to some observers, Mr Fini is playing a long game. Italy's main governing party at the moment - Forza Italia - is almost the single-handed creation of Italy's maverick prime minister and media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi.

Mr Berlusconi's business interests have long been of interest to lawyers and prosecutors alike.

If Mr Berlusconi falls, Forza Italia could fall with him. Then, in theory, the National Alliance could find itself well-placed to assume the role of Italy's "party of government".




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