In Italy, a Neo-Fascist Party’s Small Win Creates Big Unease

17 11 17

When a candidate for a neo-fascist party, CasaPound, won a seat this month on the municipal council of the Roman suburb of Ostia, many Italians were startled.

But they really took notice days later when a television reporter arrived to interview a CasaPound supporter — a supporter who happened to belong to one of the area’s most feared crime families — and received a vicious, nationally broadcast head butt that broke his nose.

Last week, Italian journalists trekked to Ostia to solemnly protest at the scene of the assault. Around the corner, residents were still celebrating, shrugging off the party’s claims to be the direct descendant of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party.

“Look at what I’ll show you,” said one, Gianluca Antonucci, as he unzipped his jacket to reveal a black shirt featuring Mussolini’s granite face. “Il Duce.”

For a while, this country seemed an outlier as nationalist and xenophobic forces made gains across Europe. But now some fear that Italy, the birthplace of fascism, is catching up with its neighbors.

This month, thousands of Poles chanted “White Europe” during Independence Day marches, and the Freedom Party, founded by ex-Nazis, is in negotiations to join a coalition government in Austria. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany now sits in the Bundestag.

“In every state we want nationalist forces to win,” said Luca Marsella, CasaPound’s newly elected council member, who won 9 percent of the vote. “If this happens in other cities, we’ll have a chance to go into Parliament to defend our nation.”

That is a long, long way off. The party, named after the American poet Ezra Pound, who supported Mussolini, is still statistically irrelevant on the national level.

But CasaPound is winning seats in a handful of towns, and some of its core beliefs — a fondness for Russia and sharp opposition to the European Union, globalization and immigration, which it believes sully the national identity and economy — are increasingly spreading throughout Italy.


Carabinieri mediating a quarrel in Ostia, where CasaPound won 9 percent of the vote in a city election. The area has been tense since a party supporter assaulted a journalist on camera.CreditNadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

In Sicily, the new headquarters of Brothers of Italy, a descendant of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement, had the phrase “Italians first” written on the wall during its recent inauguration.

Anti-immigration sentiment has grown so popular that the once-secessionist Northern League has dropped the word “Northern’” from its name as it looks for inroads to the south.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, while ideologically amorphous, has charismatic firebrand leaders who take the stage to the chanting of their nicknames and then rile up crowds with a message of resentment.

All of this makes CasaPound’s leaders hopeful that Italy is newly fertile ground for fascism.

The Italian Constitution bans “the reorganization in any form of the dissolved Fascist Party.” But CasaPound and other neo-fascist movements have skirted the law by calling themselves the descendants of Mussolini. They insist that they believe in democracy and not a fascist dictatorship.

CasaPound began 14 years ago as a sort of fascist version of the populist Rent Is Too Damn High Party in New York. It now has thousands of chapters around the country.

“We are a young and clean political force,” said Simone Di Stefano, the party’s vice president, as he stood under posters of Mussolini in its Roman headquarters.

The building, which sits incongruously in the heart of an immigrant neighborhood in central Rome, has served as the party’s home since its leader, Gianluca Iannone, a tattooed and extravagantly bearded member of a right-wing punk band, led followers to occupy the apartments.

On a recent afternoon, children of the roughly 20 families now residing there ran in its entryway, brightly decorated with the names of the movement’s heroes, including Julius Caesar, Mussolini and the right-wing philosopher Julius Evola.

Of course, there was also Pound, who ranted against Jews on Italian radio and was imprisoned for treason during the war. (The daughter of the poet has tried to make the party change its name.)

Members with black boots, tattooed necks and shorn hair guard floors decorated with pictures of Fascist-era marches and banners reading “Arm Your Soul.”


CasaPound supporters were unbothered by the party’s claims to be the descendant of the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Some, like Gianluca Antonucci, were proud.
CreditNadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

CasaPound has a more secular and socially tolerant approach than its hard-right cousin Forza Nuova, which Italy’s interior minister, Marco Minniti, banned from re-enacting Mussolini’s “March on Rome” last month.

But its members exhibit the same fondness for Roman salutes and mythic glory days. CasaPound’s leaders shrug off Mussolini’s racial laws and alliance with Hitler with a nobody’s-perfect nonchalance. They instead prefer to focus on Fascism’s role in Italian modernization and military might.

“That spirit of the nation bloomed in this country during those years,” Mr. Di Stefano said. “And I would like to bring that feeling back today.”

That is especially so in Ostia, a suburb of 230,000, home to joblessness, resentment toward immigrants, and an organized crime problem so insidious that the police disbanded the local government two years ago.

The journalist who was head-butted was trying to interview a member of a powerful local clan called the Spadas, which had thrown its support behind CasaPound.

“I voted for CasaPound, and I’m proud of it,” said Marina Luglu, as she walked out of Bar Music, owned by the head-butter, Roberto Spada, whom she admiringly called “Mr. Roberto.”

Voters here rewarded the party for its engagement with their rundown housing projects. CasaPound provided a food bank to hundreds of families, sent handymen to fix elevators and lawyers to locals in need.

Viviana Prudenzi, a 34-year-old house cleaner walking down a seaside street with her mother, said she voted for CasaPound because its members were “the only ones who are here helping — helping the Italians.”

“They call them fascists because they think of Italians and not the foreigners,” she said.

This summer, Mr. Marsella, the CasaPound candidate, led a beach patrol of party members in red vests. They forced unlicensed and immigrant vendors, some visibly terrified, off the beach.

Leftist activists have accused them of beatings. For recreation, party members whip each other with belts in mosh pits.

The neighborhood of New Ostia, which has public housing by the sea. Residents say politicians have forgotten them, allowing joblessness, anti-immigrant feeling and organized crime to flourish.CreditNadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

“We don’t recognize violence as a political tool, but if we are attacked, we respond,” said Mr. Marsella, a soft-spoken 32-year-old I.T. consultant. Asked whether he had prevailed in his clashes with leftist activists, he cracked a smile. “Oh, yeah.”

Over the summer, Mr. Marsella and other members of CasaPound clashed with the riot police in Rome as they protested a proposal to grant citizenship to the Italian-born children of immigrants.

“We wanted the Senate to feel besieged,” Mr. Di Stefano said at the time. A video he posted of the clashes on his Facebook page received more than 300,000 likes.

That history of violence did not bother a group of women gathered in front of one of the Spada family’s gyms. They hailed the CasaPound activists as “goodfellas.”

When the Rev. Franco De Donno, a priest known for his works against the Mafia and on behalf of immigrants, walked by, they cursed him as “disgusting” for taking a leave of absence from his sacramental duties to run for office.

They nearly attacked a woman who urged them to acknowledge the drugs and violence that riddled their neighborhood. Five Carabinieri patrol cars came to her aid.

Father De Donno, who also earned a seat in the municipal government, said one of his supporters had been beaten by members of CasaPound, including Mr. Marsella. (Mr. Marsella denied this.)

“I hope that entering in the institution, Luca Marsella limits his recourse to violent methods,” the priest said.

On Sunday, amid an increased police presence, residents will vote in a runoff to decide who will become council president.

Giuliana Di Pillo, the leading candidate of the Five Star Movement, acknowledged that CasaPound had siphoned support from her and her center-right opponent.

She admitted to some trepidation about serving with a fascist. “Certainly, it worries me,” she said.

SOURCE: New York Times


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