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ROME — In July 1992, a 15-year-old schoolgirl rang the doorbell of her local branch of the Youth Front, a far-right student movement in Rome, and asked to enter.
The group of all-male radicals inside met her with bewilderment, as she applied to join their cause. But, little by little, the girl won their acceptance, taking on one leadership role after another as she rose through the ranks.
Thirty years on, Giorgia Meloni is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister, leading a right-wing coalition that polls predict will win power in Sunday’s election.
His Rise is the story of a country choosing a foreigner, after the collapse of the government led by Mario Draghi, the godfather of Europe’s economic establishment.
If Meloni’s Italy Brothers party emerges with the biggest share of Sunday’s vote, it will be a huge national gamble at a precarious time – warning lights on Italy’s economic dashboard are flashing as Europe teeters on the brink of recession, while war rages on the EU border.
As leader of the European Union’s third-largest economy, Meloni will play an important role in shaping the bloc’s responses to these crises as they unfold. Both in Brussels and in capitals beyond will wonder who she really is. What shaped its values? Where is she from? How does Meloni think?
The answer, in part, lies among his friends and allies of those early days in the Rome Youth Front. Many members of the original group are now senior officials of the Brothers in Italy. Some are ready to join Meloni in leading the country.
On that summer day in 1992, Meloni must have seemed an unlikely right-wing radical. She came from the staunchly left-wing neighborhood of Garbatella in Rome. Schools like his and the universities in the region were dominated by the left. The simple fact of belonging to the right was a revolutionary act.
“None of us could ever have imagined, even momentarily, what the polls say could happen,” said Nicola Procaccini, who joined the youth front at the same time and is now a Brothers of Italy MEP. .
According to Meloni’s own account, the trigger that pushed her to join the Youth Front was the assassination on the same day of anti-Mafia prosecutor Paolo Borsellino. But what cemented their commitment to the cause, according to his comrades, was fervent patriotism – and an impulse to rebel.
In his book, “I am Giorgia. My roots, my ideas“, Meloni says her leftist teachers turned her end-of-year exam into a kind of political show trial, until she threatened legal action. “Clearly we were in rebellion, because most of the students were on the left,” Procaccini said. But their motivations were “the same as today, although more radical…love and anger for our country, and the way it has been reduced”.
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The local branch of the Youth Front group became known as “The Seagulls”, after Richard Bach’s cult novel, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”. Like Jonathan, they were strangers who came together for a greater purpose.
Many Seagulls had complicated family lives and were looking for an alternative family, according to Meloni. Her own father, who voted communist, had abandoned their family.
Seagulls membership was not restricted to part-time employees. Their politics “was an all-consuming experience” that took your whole life, including relationships. For one event, activists were asked to get their phone books and call friends outside of politics, Procaccini recalled. “We had our phone books, but none of us had friends who weren’t in politics.”
The group waged violent turf wars against leftist activists, often resulting in seriously injured members. Giovanbattista Fazzolari, now a senator and one of Meloni’s closest advisers, said: “Our whole generation ended up spending a few days in the hospital. I was treated for injuries, a broken arm. It was part of our normalcy. Activists tried to protect the girls, Procaccini said, but Meloni even then didn’t want special treatment.
Procaccini claims that, when they were not fighting leftist militants, the members of the Youth Front had a surprising intellectual curiosity for communist and socialist political theory: on weekends, far in the forests and monasteries, they sang songs by left-wing artists and writers like Che Guevara enjoyed, “because we shared their fight against indifference,” Procaccini said.
But more than political texts, they were influenced by fantasy novels, often about outsiders uniting to triumph over evil. Meloni’s favorites included Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Tolkien’s novels, the texts of which had been appropriated by an earlier generation of Italy’s far-right.
Irreverent and sweet
Despite the masculine world Meloni inhabited, being a woman sometimes helped her. Her mentor at the time, Fabio Rampelli, now a member of the Friars, chose her to run as provincial councillor, “because she was irreverent and gentle at the same time, and was perfectly placed to dispel the image hard-core far-right skinhead.”
When Meloni became Italy’s youngest minister at 31, she was still living at home with her mother, although she still worked to contribute to the household. She avoided the chauffeured government car and instead took her Mini to parliament.
She claims that her father’s abandonment left her with a sense of inadequacy, which drives her to work endlessly. For Fazzolari, “Giorgia’s great strength is that she never feels completely at ease. She studies and prepares things that for others would be routine.
Meloni’s political ideology rejects progressive values and embraces identity politics. It is built on the defense of national borders, national interests and the traditional family. She has always been staunchly anti-drugs and anti-abortion, although she insists she would not ban abortion. She resents what she sees as the dominance of the elitist left over public discourse and the Italian establishment, particularly academia and the judiciary. “They call us freaks,” she said. Such complaints are common among right-wing politicians around the world.
A tendency to frame its work in militaristic terms does little to allay the concerns of critics and opponents on the left, who draw a direct line between Italy’s fascist past under Mussolini and the current Italian Brotherhood. She called herself a soldier and the politics of her “mission.” She considers herself lucky to have a partner and a child.
She values consistency and stays true to her political roots, often worrying about how 15-year-old Meloni would judge her decisions now, Procaccini said: “She cares a lot that this emotion that brought to politics as the teenager is not corrupt.
This perception of consistency has served her and the Brethren well through a turbulent few years of unwieldy coalition governments, a pandemic and economic uncertainty, helping her secure votes from her rival of right, the League party.
But in foreign policy, Meloni has shown herself ready to evolve and adapt. In 2018, she celebrated Vladimir Putin’s election victory as representing “the unequivocal will of the Russian people”. And in her book, published last year, she praised Italian leaders such as Bettino Craxi and Silvio Berlusconi for what she said stood up to the United States.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, anxious to be seen by the international establishment as a moderate, Meloni has aligned herself wholeheartedly with the United States and NATO.
The pack of wolves
Still, while there is room for flexibility when politics demands it, Meloni relies on a tight-knit group of allies who have been with her for years. His sister and brother-in-law are also there. The circle, in the words of a former MP, is “closed”. Sometimes loyalty and shared battles matter more than experience.
The team in Meloni’s office has to deal with its weaknesses and its exacting standards. She writes only by hand in block capitals – and insists that everything she reads be printed, on a single page, in Segoe size 12 font.
At home, too, she’s a neat freak who color-codes her mostly monochromatic wardrobe. Having been bullied because of her weight as a teenager, she is now an avowed sports ‘junkie’, always choosing hotels where she can run. If she stops, her mind “become a kind of pressure cooker,” she writes in her book.
This inner circle is essential to understanding Meloni the leader. When she has to make a decision, she does not do it alone. First, she consults those who know the subject, says Fazzolari. In her book, she quotes Kipling: “The strength of the wolf is the pack. The strength of the pack is the wolf.
For Fazzolari, the strength of the wolf pack is that they have known each other for 30 years. “During this period, we have all discovered each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “Gradually there has been a selection of those who are fit to be leaders and those who are not.”
Yet Meloni’s loyalty to his tribal roots also risks preventing his party from fully transforming into moderate conservatives. Meloni refuses to remove the flame associated with fascism from the Brotherhood’s logo because it is part of their history.
Yet governing in a coalition inevitably requires compromise. If she wins Sunday’s election, Meloni will no longer be an underdog. When political reality hits and the time comes to compromise on her ideals, a 15-year-old schoolgirl will watch over her shoulder, with the harshest judgment of all.