Italy’s Meloni under pressure to condemn fascist salutes at Rome event

ROME — In a chilling echo of the era of Benito Mussolini, a male voice yells out, “For all fallen comrades,” prompting a throng of right-wing supporters on a Roman street to declare themselves “present” in unison and give the fascist salute.

That scene — contained in a now-viral video being leveraged even by Russian propagandists — is enveloping Italy’s farthest-right leader since World War II in a gathering political storm. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) party insists that while its youth arm took part in a separate commemoration on Sunday for three right-wing militants slain in 1978, they had nothing to do with an evening memorial that saw hundreds of activists from the Italian hard right send up the “Roman salute,” which remains a powerful symbol of fascism.

In a country where post-World War II legislation bans fascist symbolism including the telltale salute with outstretched right arms tilted upward, authorities have opened an investigation. But Meloni has remained silent despite mounting pressure to denounce and disband the groups that participated.

The 46-year-old Meloni, a rising star of the global right, has done political contortions over the “f” word — fascism — for years. A tricolor flame in the logo of FdI evokes a now-defunct party made up of the political remnants of Mussolini’s fascists. But Meloni has fiercely rejected the fascist label, calling herself a modern conservative.

Laws against the Roman salute are laxly enforced here, and the gestures seen on Sunday have been fixtures at extreme far-right events for decades. Recent Italian prime ministers, even from the political left, have rarely raised a ruckus over their use. But Meloni’s critics say she must be held to a different standard, given the political tradition she comes from.

“Her silence is embarrassing,” Elly Schlein, head of the opposition Democratic Party, told parliament this week. “She remains a hostage of her past, from which she still doesn’t want to distance herself.”

More than any other hard-right European leader in modern times, Meloni has succeeded in becoming a member of the club in the West. She has earned influence in Brussels and Washington by showing herself to be a reliable partner on foreign policy, first and foremost by staking out a tough stance on Russia. She is now reportedly using her clout to try to persuade Hungary’s more radical right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, to stop blocking European Union aid for Ukraine.

But at a time when Italy is leading the Group of Seven bloc of industrialized nations, Meloni’s critics have succeeded in at least one thing: putting her on the spot.

In recent days, at least one major figure in Meloni’s party — the head of the Senate, Ignazio La Russa, who owns a collection of Mussolini memorabilia — has publicly questioned whether the salute might be legal in the context of a remembrance ceremony. In 2021, several FdI officials were embroiled in a scandal after being filmed using the fascist salute and racist jokes.

Meloni’s claims to be anything but an extremist, meanwhile, have left her open to scrutiny.

Meloni, who was a youth militant in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) and whose current party was an outcrop of its dissolution in the 1990s, has called Mussolini’s deportation of Jews to concentration camps “the worst moment in Italian history” and said she has no “sympathy” for fascism. But opposition critics are calling her silence now a sign of her unwillingness to completely disavow the legacy of the Italian far right.

Italian TV and social media are marveling at her silence. The Kremlin-backed Russia 1 network has latched on to the incident, airing footage as evidence that “all of the alleged postwar education that was theoretically meant to separate the Europeans from the Nazi legacy has gone up in smoke.”

“Even though [the salutes have] always happened, it’s relevant now because of who is at the head of the government,” Fiorenza Sarzanini, deputy editor in chief of the Corriere della Sera, told Italy’s La7 television. “Not only did [Meloni] not distance herself [from the rally], but La Russa even doubted that it may be a crime. It’s banned, it’s a crime that’s called apology of fascism.”

Such salutes are not uncommon at the most extreme of far-right events here, including at the annual commemoration, which took place Sunday in a neighborhood of eastern Rome in front of the old headquarters of the MSI. Brothers of Italy officials have said their youth arm largely marked the event at a different site some seven miles away.

The uproar happened in part because of the viral footage. But, observers say, the opposition, which has had a difficult time challenging Meloni, sensed an opportunity in a year in which European parliamentary elections are being held in June. Meloni and far-right parties from across the continent are seeking to make major political gains, in part by sanitizing their image and portraying themselves as far evolved from their extremist roots.

Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, speculated that Meloni has stayed silent to avoid validating criticism on the left. But the fact that the footage has now been seen across the globe has risked damaging her mainstream image.

“This government should tell the world that these are fringe groups that won’t be tolerated,” he said. “And she’s the only one who can say that.”

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