Giorgia Meloni’s spacious office, on the top floor of Palazzo Montecitorio — Italy’s House — has large French windows that adjoin its own huge rooftop terrace with spectacular views of the Eternal City. You could hold the party of the century up there if you were so minded.
Perhaps she will, if she wins. The polls suggest that Meloni, forty-five, is on the verge of becoming Italy’s new prime minister in next month’s snap election, which follows the collapse of Mario Draghi’s unelected national unity government. The Fratelli d’Italia, the party that Meloni co-founded just ten years ago, which got just 4 percent at the last general election, leads the opinion polls as the senior partner in the coalition of the right, which includes Matteo Salvini’s radical-right Lega. The latter has fallen in popularity as fast as Meloni has risen. She may soon be the first ever woman leader of a still-macho country at the beating heart of Europe — as well as Italy’s first democratically elected (as opposed to bureaucratically appointed) prime minister in fourteen years.
Might this not all be a cause for celebration across the Continent? No way. Most coverage of her in the international press argues that she is not conservative or “center-right,” as she claims, but something more sinister.
When we meet, I get straight to the point. Why is she nearly always labeled “far-right” by the international press — which is the modern way of saying (but not actually saying) fascist?
She tells me it’s a smear campaign by her political opponents, who are “really well embedded” in the nerve centers of power: especially the post-communist Partito Democratico, which is polling just behind Fratelli d’Italia but without the necessary allies to form a winning coalition. “Let’s face it,” she says. “The concerted attacks in rapid succession [against me] can only have a single director. The left is in control of the culture. It is the mainstream. Not just in Italy. They launch the cry for help: and everyone jumps to it.”
So incensed is she by the charge of fascism that last week she sent a video to foreign correspondents based in Italy, in which she attests in three languages that she is not a fascist and poses no threat to democracy.
Pint-sized and friendly, Meloni certainly does not look or sound like my idea of a fascist. She is dressed in a calf-length pleated white cotton skirt, a tight beige short-sleeved top and silver sandals.
She is accused of having a “nakedly reactionary” agenda — largely, it seems, because of her hostility to illegal migrants and to “woke ideology,” which in a speech in America earlier this year she blamed for (among other things) “destroying the foundations of the natural family.”
Meloni now accepts gay civil unions (which have been legal in Italy since 2016) but opposes gay adoption. She says that a child has “the right to a father and a mother.” She opposes gender politics in schools, and what she calls in Italian-English “la LGBT lobby.” A passionate, occasionally manic speaker, she famously shouted at a rally in Rome in 2019: “They want to call us parent 1, parent 2, gender LGBT, citizen X, with code numbers. But we are not code numbers… and we’ll defend our identity. I am Giorgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Italian, I am Christian. You will not take that away from me!”
The speech went viral and was even made into a disco dance track which became a smash hit. I spot a framed platinum disc on the wall. Yes, it’s for the song. She cracks up and says: “It’s not real! It was a present!” She laughs a lot. She also smokes the odd ultra-slim cigarette.
There is no denying that Meloni and her coalition ally Salvini take a pretty hard line on immigration. In the past eight years, about 750,000 migrants have crossed the 300 miles of Mediterranean that separate Libya from Sicily — many ferried across by NGO charity vessels on permanent standby. Such numbers make the fuss about those crossing to England from France seem petty.
Meloni has often called for a naval blockade to deal with the boats coming from Libya. “Racists are cretins, OK? But that doesn’t mean Italy must not co-ordinate its migratory flows.” Her favored solution now, she tells me, is for the European Union to pay Libya to stop departures and take back those who make it to Italy. In 2016, the EU paid Turkey €6 billion to do the same thing — with mixed results.
“The EU, because those migrants irritated Germany, for once got its act together. We must do the same thing with Libya. Europe must strike a deal to stop the departures and open up hotspots in Libya to process asylum requests and distribute fairly across Europe only the genuine refugees. Borders exist only if you defend them. Otherwise they do not exist.” Italy “needs a quota of migrants,” she says. But “the first rule is that no one must enter Italy illegally.”
Doesn’t Italy need as many migrants as it can get? Its population is expected to decline from 60 million to 40 million by the end of the century, because it has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world — 1.2 children per woman. Will it not soon be facing demographic disaster without immigrants? Well, the situation will not be helped if they are overwhelmingly men, she points out. “The only thing to do is to solve the problem at home and place Italians in a position in which they can have children. Women don’t want to have children, because they live in a society that makes them pay if they do. But they will, if instead they find themselves in a society that rewards them as mothers.” A maternity wage is “a beautiful idea,” she says, but there is already child benefit and instead she talks of free kindergartens that are open for longer, of maternity leave paid for by the state rather than the employer and of reducing the tax burden on people with children.
It is indisputable that Fratelli d’Italia are the heirs to Mussolini, in the sense that the party was founded in 2012 by Meloni and others who had been members of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano which was set up in 1946 by former fascists. In 1995, MSI became Alleanza Nazionale and rejected fascism. Its then leader served as foreign minister and president of the Chamber of Deputies in successive Berlusconi governments.
“I have no problem confronting this,’ says Meloni. ‘When we founded Fratelli d’Italia, we founded it as the center-right, with its head held high. When I am something, I declare it. I never hide. If I were fascist, I would say that I am fascist. Instead, I have never spoken of fascism because I am not fascist.”
Plucking something from the depths of her phone, she tells me: “Here’s a declaration I made in 2006, nearly twenty years ago, that an Italian journalist published, a left-wing journalist — and I told him: “Mussolini made various mistakes: the racial laws against the Jews, the declaration of war, an authoritarian regime. Historically he also did other things that were good, but that does not save him.”
It’s not just left-wing international media that calls her “far-right”; the right does it too, mainly because they consider her relationship with fascism to be deliberately ambiguous. In last week’s video message she tried to address that: “The Italian right consigned fascism to history decades ago, condemning without ambiguity the suppression of democracy and the shameful laws against the Jews.”
She says: “In the DNA of Fratelli d’Italia there’s no nostalgia for fascism, racism or antisemitism. There is instead a rejection of every dictatorship: past, present and future.” What about those times when members of her party have been filmed doing the fascist salute? “They are a tiny minority,” she says. “I’ve always told my party bosses, even in memos, to exercise maximum severity with any manifestation of imbecilic nostalgia because those who are nostalgic for fascism are no use to us. They are only the useful idiots of the left.”
Italy does have two openly fascist parties — Forza Nuova and Casa Pound. Both polled less than 1 percent at the last general election in 2018.
The country’s electoral system — a hybrid of first-past-the-post and proportional representation — forces the parties (there are currently nineteen in its parliament) to form coalitions in an attempt to achieve a majority. In theory, the leader of the party in the winning coalition that gets the most seats is appointed prime minister by the president. But there is no rule insisting that a prime minister must be an elected politician — and because no coalition since Silvio Berlusconi’s in 2008 has attained a majority of seats in both chambers, no prime minister since then has been a party leader — and four were not even elected members of parliament when appointed.
Meloni believes this system makes Italian politics “politically fragile and therefore unstable” and endemically short-termist. She wants to transform the Italian presidency from being largely ceremonial, and chosen by parliament, into a French-style one that is elected by the people. Her so-called presidentialism is backed by Salvini and Berlusconi (aged eighty-five but still going as leader of Forza Italia, the third major party in their coalition). It is a big theme of the upcoming election. Her opponents claim it is more evidence of the threat she poses to democracy.
Meloni has a strong Roman accent which makes her the Italian equivalent of a Cockney. She and her older sister Arianna were born and brought up in a working-class area of central Rome by her mother Anna, who (among other things) wrote bodice-rippers to make ends meet. Their father, an accountant, abandoned the family shortly after her birth to sail with his mistress to the Canaries in a yacht called Cavallo Pazzo (Crazy Horse).
Her father had not wanted a second child and so her mother had booked an appointment at the abortion clinic — but halfway there she stopped at a bar, drank a cappuccino, ate a brioche and had second thoughts.
Meloni would “never ever” have an abortion, she tells me, but supports Italy’s abortion law which permits it on demand up to ninety days. She herself has a five-year-old daughter but is not married to the father, a TV journalist, because although she believes in traditional family values, he does not.
At school she excelled but could not afford to go to university and instead worked as a babysitter, nanny, nightclub bar server, market stallholder and journalist, before becoming a full-time politician. In her recently published autobiography, she writes that she signed up to the MSI at the age of fifteen because the Sicilian Mafia had just killed the two top anti-Mafia prosecutors in Sicily. Desperate to do something, she chose to join because it was a fringe party that seemed untouched by the perennial corruption and uselessness of Italian politicians. At thirty-one, she became the youngest ever government minister in Italy, as minister for youth in the last Berlusconi administration.
About six years ago — she is not sure exactly when — her estranged father succumbed to leukemia in Majorca. “My father is dead and I do not feel any emotion towards him,” she says. “This angers me, because I would like at least to hate him.”
She regards herself and Fratelli d’Italia as owing more to the late British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton than to the revolutionary socialist Mussolini. In her speeches, she often quotes Scruton. “In all the many things he was so passionate about, from art and music to wine and being a country gentleman, he always knew how to embody the essence of conservatism as a way of life and never as an ideology,” she tells me.
“I believe that the big challenge today globally, not only in Italy, is between those who defend identity and those who do not,” she says. “That is what Scruton meant when he said that if you destroy something, you do not necessarily do something new and better. I’d probably be a Tory if I were British. But I’m Italian.”
That’s why she does not agree with Marine Le Pen’s policies of massive state intervention in the French economy, which is closer to the national socialist elements of fascism — something that began, it is usually forgotten, as an alternative left-wing revolutionary movement. And she promises to cut, not raise taxes. On foreign affairs, she is fervently on the side of Ukraine (there is a striking ambivalence in Italy about sending arms), declaring herself “on the side of a proud nation that is teaching the world what it is to fight for freedom.” She blames Joe Biden’s Afghanistan debacle for emboldening Putin.
One of her favorite mantras is “libertà” (freedom), and her party was the only one to oppose Italy’s Covid vaccine passport regime, which was the most draconian in Europe, even banning the unvaccinated from work. “They did things that in a democratic state should never happen,” she tells me. “It is just surreal to think the state is telling you if you can or cannot work to earn a living to give food to your children. But they called us fascists because we contested the fact that people were no longer free.”
She is also inspired by another “giant of conservative thought”: J.R.R. Tolkien. Every January 3, she marks his birthday on her Facebook page, which has 2.3 million followers, and this year wrote: “He brought up so many of us with his stories, so rich in values and meanings, which taught us to believe and to dream.” She tells me that before we met, she imagined that I would look like Tolkien. “No! They used to call me Strider, Aragorn,” I reply.
“Me, Sam Gamgee.”
Why so? Because she was fat as a child. “But without Sam Gamgee, nothing, nothing could be done. The truth is Sam is much more useful than Frodo.”
She goes on: “The Lord of the Rings is not a book that teaches you something. It’s a book that helps you discover who you are, which is something else. Above all, Tolkien has given me this understanding that power is not a conquest but an enemy, a problem that you must keep under control, on a leash.”
But you are about to get power, I say.
“It scares me,” she says.
We come back to the f word. Her opponents say no one will believe Fratelli d’Italia has no links with fascism until she removes the tricolore flame — the MSI’s old symbol — from the party’s logo. Why doesn’t she?
“The flame in the Fratelli d’Italia logo has got nothing to do with fascism but is the recognition of the journey made by the democratic right through the history of our republic. And we’re proud of it.”
The closest Meloni gets to discussing fascism at any length in her book is near the end, in a passage in which she writes: “I have no fear repeating for the umpteenth time that I do not believe in the cult of fascism.” And she describes Mussolini’s 1938 antisemitic laws as “detestable.” Why, I ask, does she make so little reference to fascism? “It’s something that does not belong to me,” she replies. Do you believe her?