After Gianni Alemanno was elected mayor of Rome last month, his supporters rallied on the Capitol steps, many giving the straight-armed salute and shouting "Duce," the nickname of former fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Though Alemanno had served many relatively quiet years in Parliament before running for mayor, he was once a youth leader of a neo-fascist movement who was charged with (but not convicted of) beating up a leftist and other mischief.
Alemanno is an extremist, but his success comes amid a political resurgence by the right in Italy, whose new government is frequently cited as the country's most conservative since World War II. The rest of Europe is finding that a little unsettling, though the rightward shift isn't unique to Italy; France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries previously dominated by leftists are now led by the center-right.
If the political changes in these countries have anything in common, it's public dismay over immigration. The continent's demographics are shifting dramatically as native birthrates drop and waves of immigrants from North Africa, Turkey and Eastern Europe arrive. Yet it's Italy where the anti-immigrant fervor seems to be reaching its height.
Media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who had been prime minister from 2001 to 2006, was swept back into office last month by allying with some rightist parties that had previously been on the fringes of Italian politics -- notably the neo-fascist National Alliance and the Northern League, whose chief, Umberto Bossi, once suggested that the navy should fire on immigrants crossing the Mediterranean. These parties have publicly rejected the militarism and anti-Semitism of Mussolini's day, but they still embrace ultranationalism combined with a distrust of foreigners that verges on xenophobia. The Northern League favors such policies as kicking the children of illegal immigrants out of schools, banning veils, forbidding construction of mosques and denying citizenship to anyone who doesn't speak fluent Italian.