Italy: Outcry over neo-fascist salute engulfs Meloni

Rome: Anti-terror police are studying video footage of hundreds of people who are alleged to have performed mass fascist salutes during a memorial event in Rome.

The memorial on Sunday marked the anniversary of the deaths in 1978 of three far-right activists from the Youth Front, the young people’s wing of the post-war party formed by former fascists.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is under pressure to condemn the event, which was attended by members of her ruling Brothers of Italy party. But it is a sore point for Italy’s first female premier because she was herself a member of the Youth Front, and her party traces its roots back to the same former fascist group.

The outcry has revived memories of uglier times in Italian political life. Violence was widespread in Italy in the late 1970s during a period of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings by the far right as well as far-left groups, such as the Red Brigades.

Under post-war legislation, promoting fascism and its symbolism — including the straight-armed salute also known as the Roman salute — is punishable with up to 12 years in prison.

Video footage, which circulated on social media on Monday, showed a crowd raising their right arm multiple times in a unified straight-armed salute that recalls the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.

Opposition politicians in Italy demanded the government explain why the police didn’t intervene, called for stronger laws to prosecute support for fascism, and proposed that neo-fascist groups should be dissolved.

The opposition 5Star Movement and the Democrats turned the issue personal for Meloni, calling on her to issue a clear condemnation of the scenes. Stefano Graziano of the Democrats said: “Whoever does not openly condemn gestures that are fascist, racist, or Nazi is complicit.”

Senator Enrico Borghi of centrist party Italia Viva said that the images recalled the 1920s, when Italy was under a fascist dictatorship.

Meloni’s coalition partner, Antonio Tajani, foreign minister and leader of the center right Forza Italia party, noted that justifying fascism is a crime. “We’re a force that certainly isn’t fascist, we’re anti-fascist,” he said during a press conference. All rallies “in support of dictatorships” must be condemned, he added.

Francesco Todde, president of the Rome section of National Youth, the wing of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party which organized the memorial, defended the event as “a ritual” that has taken place for two decades. Addressing the journalists who filmed the scenes, he said: “You were looking for the fascist salute or some strange ritual so as to accuse us. You found an array of young people who every year meet to renew their allegiance to those who really loved this country.”

Fabio Rampelli, deputy speaker and senior member of Meloni’s party, who attended the memorial event, claimed only 10 people saluted and said they were not part of Brothers of Italy. Associating that incident with his party “is acting in bad faith,” he said. “We do not and have never done [fascist] salutes, by decision and not just because we are now in government.”

A spokesperson for the police told POLITICO that the footage had been passed to prosecutors who would decide whether to pursue criminal charges. Some people had already been identified, the spokesperson said.

Meloni has not so far commented. She expressed admiration for Mussolini in her youth, but she has condemned fascism more recently, saying that Mussolini’s racial laws were “the worst moment in Italian history.” The Brothers of Italy logo still includes the flame from the logo of the Italian Social Movement, its predecessor party founded by supporters of Mussolini. But Meloni has claimed the flame has “nothing to do with fascism.”