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Where Have All Italy's Fascists Gone? They're Becoming Mainstream

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"The only force that helped Italy survive was Fascism," says Ferdnanda Baldini, an elderly housewife in Florence.

She praises the late dictator Benito Mussolini, whose Fascist movement peaked prior to World War II, and denounces those she identifies as his enemies: atheist Communists, Zionist Jews, masons, and trade unions.

Lately Mrs. Baldini has added a new name to her enemies' list: Gianfranco Fini, the young politician who in the past few years has transformed Italy's neo-Fascist movement into a more modern right-wing party named the National Alliance. Over and over again she says she feels betrayed by Mr. Fini for founding the new party. He practically announced that he rejects all that Fascism created, she says.

Baldini now supports Pino Rauti, whose splinter group called the Social Movement still carries aloft the Fascist banner. "If he should disappear, I won't vote, because I don't feel like negotiating or compromising," she says.

Baldini knows her impact is limited to voting her conscience since Mr. Rauti gets only 1 or 2 percent of the vote nationally.

By contrast, Fini's National Alliance has grown as he moves the party further away from its neo-Fascist roots.

Italy's right-wing vote has gone from 5.2 percent in the 1992 national elections, when the party was still the Italian Social Movement (MSI), to 15.7 percent in the 1996 elections won by the ruling center-left coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Fini himself is benefiting, too. The party's dynamic leader consistently places among the country's highest-rated politicians in public opinion polls.

"They've won a new electorate that was not linked to the Fascist experience," observes Piero Ignazi, a political scientist at the University of Bologna and author of books on European and Italian right-wing movements. "The consensus comes from all levels of society, especially the young."

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