Last April, the city of Rome elected its first right-wing mayor since World War II ended fascism in Italy.
Gianni Alemanno is a former neo-fascist, who is now a political ally of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. During the election campaign, Alemanno promised to get tough with illegal immigrants and crack down on crime, but since he won power, his policies — and the political opposition to them — have contained some surprises.
After he was declared victor, Alemanno promised he would be mayor of all Romans. But at the victory rally, many supporters flashed fascist salutes, raising concerns among his critics about his heavy political baggage.
Alemanno, 50, wears a Celtic cross around his neck, which is generally seen in Europe as a symbol of the far right.
As a young man, Alemanno was a street fighter and follower of one of the most radical factions of the neo-fascist party. The majority of the party has since transformed itself into the mainstream national alliance, which is part of Berlusconi's government.
Alemanno says he wants to put his past behind him.
Jewish leaders, including Leone Passerman, were outraged by an interview in September in which Alemanno refused to condemn fascism as an absolute evil.
Passerman, who later accompanied Alemanno to visit Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, says the mayor has since recanted.
"Practically now he says that fascism and Nazism are the same thing," Passerman says. "You have to believe the statements, open statements. What he really thinks in the back of his mind is a matter of his conscience."
Alemanno criticizes his center-left predecessors as elitist. He has abolished several cultural events, is focusing on law and order, has cracked down against street prostitutes and their clients and has also won support for arming traffic cops with pistols. Interior Ministry figures indicate a drop in crime this past summer.
Facing The Roma People
Alemanno also had promised the demolition of 85 unlicensed Roma, or Gypsy, encampments and the expulsion of 20,000 allegedly criminal foreigners. But his anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric has cooled somewhat.
Late last month, the mayor paid a visit to Casilino 900, one of Rome's most squalid Roma encampments. Italy has been repeatedly admonished by the EU and the U.N. for its insistence on treating non-Italian Roma people purely as nomads and relegating them to makeshift camps, usually lacking even water and electricity.
"We will be judged by how we handle this camp," Alemanno said. "We want to build a new settlement along European Union standards, and we will do this together with the Roma communities."
Lorenzo Romito, a Rome University professor whose students have been assisting the 650 Roma living in the Casilino camp, says people are still unsure if the promises being made are old promises or truly a new strategy. Romito has always leaned to the left, but he says even the left has joined the anti-immigrant bandwagon.
"Now we still don't know if we are listening to promises, the same promises we already heard, or is this really a new strategy," Romito says. "I've been noticing a growing racism that crosses all political boundaries in these past years," he says. "I am ready to give the benefit of the doubt to everybody who really would like to face the complexity of the issue and try to do something about it."
Campo dei Fiori, home of a colorful outdoor market, is a popular choice for left-wing demonstrations, and the prevailing mood is one of anti-fascism.
"Everybody knows the past of Alemanno; he was a street fighter," says Sonia Proietta, who runs a fruit and vegetable stand. She is dismayed by a surge of harassment and attacks on immigrants around Rome.
"The climate is worse because all the fascist groups think that Rome now is theirs," she says.
Surveys show that Italians are increasingly intolerant of immigrants, and Proietta and other Alemanno critics say his victory could signal that the politics of paranoia that has already gripped large parts of northern Italy has also arrived in Rome.