Profile: Gianfranco Fini
- 13 December 2010
- From the section Europe
Gianfranco Fini, president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies, is a polished, intelligent and witty political operator.
The 58-year-old is also leader of a party that traces its origins directly to the Fascist Movement of Italy's one-time dictator, Benito Mussolini.
In the 1990s Mr Fini transformed his party from a far-right fringe group to a mainstream centre-right political party, embracing the "social-market" economy.
For the past 16 years, he has been a key ally of the current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and was widely seen as his 'heir apparent'.
But since 2009, Mr Fini has become increasingly critical of Mr Berlusconi's policies and behaviour and by November 2010 was urging the Italian leader to step down.
There is no doubt that he and his supporters feel he is the best candidate to take over the reins of power.
As a teenager, Gianfranco Fini became involved with the youth front of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) which had been formed after World War II by supporters of Mussolini.
The story goes that the youngster joined up after being outraged that a Communist demonstration at a cinema had stopped him from seeing a John Wayne movie, The Green Berets.
He studied psychology at La Sapienza University in Rome and after military service and a brief career as a journalist, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1983 as a member of the MSI.
Within five years he was to lead the party, and as late as 1994 he was extolling the virtues of the fascist tradition and proclaiming: "Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman of the 20th Century."
But in the early '90s, the Blackshirts were already making way for double-breasted suits.
Just before entering government for the first time in 1994, Mr Fini appeared to distance himself from Mussolini's Blackshirts.
"I was born in 1952. I am a post-fascist and I hope that Italy stops talking about fascism and anti-fascism," he said.
The culmination of the party's shift to the mainstream came when the party merged with elements of the disbanded Christian Democrats in January 1995 to form the National Alliance.
Voice of moderation
Not everyone was convinced by the transformation.
A visit to Auschwitz in 1999 turned into something of an embarrassment, when he was pelted with eggs by local Polish anarchists.
Mr Fini has made overtures to Italy's small Jewish community and on a visit to Israel in 2003, he described Mussolini's rule as a "shameful chapter in the history of our people".
He said many Italians had acted with "laziness, indifference, complicity and cowardice" in not opposing the anti-Jewish laws introduced in 1938 in imitation of Nazi Germany.
Associates of the bespectacled chain-smoker say his shift to the centre is genuine.
Mr Fini was said to be profoundly affected by his exposure to moderate conservatism as a member of the convention headed by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a former French president, that drew up the draft European Union constitution.
His time as foreign minister, from 2004-2006, is also reported to have influenced him.
Some say the final tie to his fascist past was broken when he separated in 2007 from his first wife Daniela, a gun enthusiast who he had met when they were both in the MSI's youth front.
He is now married to Elisabetta Tulliani, a lawyer 20 years younger than him.
Mr Fini's tactics have positioned the National Alliance to take advantage of the demise of the Christian Democrat party, which had dominated Italian politics since the end of the World War II and collapsed under a tide of corruption scandals in the 1990s.
The AN moved into the old Christian Democrat electoral strongholds across Italy's poor south but with northern outposts too.
His political metamorphosis has made some enemies on the Right, and he has been given the nickname Comrade Fini by those who feel he has veered far to the left.
In 2003 he surprised both his friends and his rivals with a proposal to grant illegal immigrants the right to vote - an idea more commonly associated with the Italian left.
Other policies, for example on abortion and stem cell research, have also come in for criticism.
When Mr Berlusconi got back into power in 2008, the National Alliance leader got the post of president of the Chamber of Deputies (Speaker of Parliament), a position which is the third most powerful in Italian politics.
Since then he has been fierce in his defence of the rights of parliament and his criticism of his erstwhile patron.
"The best leader the Italian left never had" is how The Independent's Rome correspondent described him.
"He has reinvented himself as a conviction liberal: the champion of women and immigrants, the enemy of autocracy," says Peter Popham.
Tensions between the two men exploded publicly in an argument at the party congress in April 2010 which was being televised live.
But it is only in recent months that the rift has appeared more permanent, with Mr Fini trying to position himself as both Mr Berlusconi's successor and his most outspoken opponent.