Italian Row Over Insult to Patriotism

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Gianfranco Fini, Silvio Berlusconi and Umberto Bossi

If patriotism is the last refuge for scoundrels, what do you call a Cabinet minister who flips off the national anthem? Certainly not a statesman — nor a reliable political partner. By waving his middle finger Sunday while barking out a verse of Il Canto degli Italiani, Italy's Reforms Minister Umberto Bossi raised real questions about the long-term viability of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right ruling coalition.

The Northern League party that Bossi leads has long flirted with secession, even while he and his lieutenants have served key ministerial posts in three governments of the Italian Republic. But his latest act of national scorn has brought down the fury of Berlusconi's other key ally, lower-house president Gianfranco Fini, whose post-Fascist past makes him the leader of the most explicitly patriotic faction in the three-month-old government. "A Cabinet minister cannot offend national sentiment," Fini proclaimed on Monday, demanding that Bossi "clarify" his thoughts. Bossi bit back quickly, saying that Fini would have been better off staying quiet. Senate president Renato Schifani quickly sought to silence the spat with a call to "lower the volume and work for the good of the country." Berlusconi, so far, has remained silent.

Few expect that the episode will lead to a lasting split in the coalition. But it is an ominous sign that the current government may well follow the pattern of Berlusconi's last term (2001-2006), in which internecine battles among coalition partners of convenience perpetually hindered enacting real reform.

Since he burst onto the scene in 1991 — claiming a national identity for "Padania," his name for the comparatively rich regions around the Po River Valley from Turin to Venice — Bossi has exhibited a knack for both vulgarity and political agility. Having gradually recovered from a stroke suffered during Berlusconi's last term, he led his party to 8% of the vote in the April elections. That makes the Northern League stronger now than it has been in years, currently posting four Cabinet ministers, including Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.

In addition to his penchant for making disparaging remarks about immigrants and southern Italians, Bossi, 66, has targeted national symbols. In 1997 he declared that the Italian tricolore flag was best used as toilet paper. The Northern League repeatedly aims its ire at the government bureaucracy in Rome and at the underdeveloped regions in Italy's south, which it says are siphoning off tax dollars with public subsidies. While Bossi was ranting on Sunday against southern teachers being sent to work in northern schools, he cited the national anthem, whose words were written in 1847 by Goffredo Mameli to encourage the peninsula's jumble of regions to unite into the Italian state. "[The anthem] says we're slaves of Rome," Bossi bellowed into the microphone, waving his middle finger. "No! No!"

It is true that Italy still often seems splintered by regional allegiances. But "from the Alps to Sicily," as Mameli put it, many Italians are united in wondering what plans Umberto Bossi has next for a country he has pledged to serve but can barely stand.