Italians fear Berlusconi image tarnishing nation

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

As Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi fights to save his country from its burgeoning debt crisis, some Italians worry the man dogged by sex scandals is further hurting the country's image across the world.

Italians call it "fare una bella figura". Roughly translated, it means cutting a fine figure, looking good.

It is not just about polished shoes, tidy hair and sharp suits, though.

It is also about what you say and how you carry yourself and, lately, many Italians worry that their "bella figura" has taken a beating on the international stage.

It is a topic that comes up over lunch with extended family in our home town of Cassino, just off the toll-road that connects Rome to Naples.

Some 20 of us - uncles, aunts and cousins - are meeting up at the apartment of cousin Vittorio.

It is a warm, autumn Sunday and the French doors to the balcony are open, chiffon curtains billowing gently in the breeze. From here you can see the abbey of Montecassino, gazing down on the town below from its peak on the surrounding mountains.

'Bunga bunga' parties

Tucking into his antipasti, Vittorio offers me a drink. "What do they say about us over there?" he asks.

Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug Belly dancer Karima El Mahroug claims she has been to "bunga bunga" parties at Mr Berlusconi's villa

It is a question that will be put to me more than once on this visit. As the "foreigner" in the family - the Anglicised Italian living and working in London - it is presumed I have the inside line on the outside view.

They want to know if Emma Marcegaglia, the president of Italy's largest employers' association Confindustria, was right when she warned recently that Mr Berlusconi's diplomatic gaffes and sex scandals - the infamous "bunga bunga" parties and allegations involving prostitutes -  were making Italy the laughing stock of the world.

For Vittorio, though, there is little to laugh about.

He is about to become a father for the third time. His two daughters are now teenagers, looking towards their future.

Jobs have always been hard to come by in this part of Italy. A third of 15 to 24-year-olds cannot find employment.

With the Italian economy looking to its EU partners for financial support, what Mr Berlusconi says and does has become more than just a matter of "bella figura".

'Embarrassing politics'

Yet Italians keep voting for him. Only a few days earlier, the prime minister's candidates won a regional election in the poor and rural southern region of Molise.

"It's the pensioners. They keep supporting him," says my retired Uncle Enrico, over a plate of fresh clam and parsley spaghetti.

Aunt Cristina, in her 70s and matriarch of the family, shakes her head.

"It's not just the pensioners, you know," she says, jabbing at the air with her fork. "It's a macho thing. So many Italians think he's all man."

She practically spits out the last word.

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This, after all, is a country that voted a porn star into parliament back in the 1980s.

Embarrassing politics, Vittorio says, should be nothing new for Italians.

"There's no credible alternative, you know," says Aunt Cristina. "The opposition is divided."

In Italy, she argues, people go into politics for financial gain, not from conviction. She points to the generous pay and pensions of those in office.

It is a sore point, not least because Mr Berlusconi - under pressure from EU partners - is now proposing to reform the pension system by raising the retirement age, as a way of curbing public spending.

My cousin Livia arrives just in time to join us for coffee.

She teaches at a local secondary school in Cassino, just down the road from where we are having our family get-together.

Newsweek magazine US magazine Newsweek has called on Italians to get rid of Mr Berlusconi

There, the school's walls are covered with graffiti. Two flags hang limply over its entrance. One bears Italy's red, white and green, the other is dark blue with the yellow stars of the European Union.

She has some 30 pupils per class but struggles to get teaching materials.

There is not enough money to make photocopies, she says. There are only two overhead projectors for a school with hundreds of students.

The school toilets have been broken since the beginning of the year and there is no money to fix them.

"We go in there at the end of every day with buckets of water to flush everything away," she shrugs.

With more cutbacks being demanded by those seeking to bring Italy's huge public debt under control, the toilets are not likely to be fixed any time soon.

"Culture doesn't put food on the table," Mr Berlusconi's finance minister is reported to have said recently.

Livia gives me a wry smile as she sips her coffee. "That's the sort of philosophy we have to work with these days," she says.

It is all a far cry from Italy's cult of "bella figura".

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