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Giorgia Meloni is Italy's first female prime minister

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This weekend, Giorgia Meloni was sworn in as Italy's first female prime minister and leader of the country's most right-wing government since the end of World War II. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that Meloni is the leader of a party with roots in the ashes of fascism.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: At a rally in Rome in 2019, right-wing party leader Giorgia Meloni forcefully told the world who she is.

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PRIME MINISTER GIORGIA MELONI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "I am Giorgia. I'm a woman. I'm a mother. I'm Italian. I'm Christian," she said. "And you're not going to take that away from me." As a teenager, Meloni dressed as a hobbit. Like many young Italians attracted to the legacy of fascism, Meloni was infatuated by "The Lord Of The Rings". Meloni's friend and right-wing intellectual Pietrangelo Buttafuoco says the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien offered an alternative to the ideologies of the 20th century.

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PIETRANGELO BUTTAFUOCO: (Through interpreter) In Tolkien, the great spiritual dimension of Europe prevails over the enlightenment and secularism that tried to erase the past, claiming the future is always better than what went before, like today's cancel culture.

POGGIOLI: Meloni has repeatedly rejected the fascist label. In an interview with NPR in 2020, she insisted her party is firmly grounded in the Western conservative movement.

MELONI: We are working with all the people who want to defend identity, who want to defend the real economy, who want to defend the borders, who want to defend family, with all the parties who agree with us upon some very important issues.

POGGIOLI: Nicoletta Pirozzi, an EU expert at Rome's International Affairs Institute, says many of those issues might put her at odds with the European Union. They include opposition to marriage equality, gay parents adopting children and surrogate motherhood.

NICOLETTA PIROZZI: She never put the feminist agenda at the forefront of her political career or political message.

POGGIOLI: A recurrent criticism of Brothers of Italy, Meloni's party, is the tricolor flame logo that harks back to the party's authoritarian roots.

COREY BRENNAN: It offers plausible deniability because it wasn't a primary fascist symbol.

POGGIOLI: Rutgers University professor Corey Brennan is the author of a book on fascist symbols. The flame is an appeal, he says, to keep alive the spirit of dictator Benito Mussolini.

BRENNAN: The way it was designed is extremely unsettling. When you look closely, you see rising in this mounting flame is an M for Mussolini - very, very clever, but it's also ambiguous enough.

ANTONIO SCURATI: We never felt the guilt for fascism, never looked into the abyss.

POGGIOLI: Antonio Scurati is author of "M: Son Of The Century," a novel about Mussolini and the rise of fascism. Scurati says he wrote it because he felt the need to strengthen readers' repulsion for fascism.

SCURATI: We never dealt with it because the only way to deal with it is to take responsibility for that and say, OK, we have been fascists. You know, most of the Italians were fascists.

POGGIOLI: During the campaign, after Meloni was repeatedly pressed to explain her view of fascism, she sent a video to members of the international media in English, French and Spanish but not in Italian. She said the Italian right consigned fascism to history long ago.

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MELONI: Unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws.

FEDERICO FUBINI: What she said in that video was not a condemnation of fascism per se. It was a condemnation of suppression of democracy.

POGGIOLI: But not of the entire violent legacy of the 20-year dictatorship, says Federico Fubini, editorialist at the daily Corriere Della Sera. He believes Italy's institutions and constitution are strong enough to resist a return to authoritarianism. And only a minority of Meloni's voters are diehard fascists. But Fubini worries about an overall deterioration in the quality of Italian democracy.

FUBINI: I would say most people are not fascists, but they're not anti-fascists, either. They consider that experience just part of Italy's history, and that's all. They are not horrified and indignant about what happened, as maybe we should be.

POGGIOLI: Commentators have pointed out the prime minister's use of populist and nativist language, favoring the interests of native-born inhabitants over those of immigrants, such as patriot instead of citizen, nation instead of country. And coincidentally, Meloni's first week in office falls during the 100th anniversary of Mussolini's March on Rome, the insurrection that marked the start of the fascist dictatorship. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.