Is the republic at the edge of the abyss? Are the pillars of democracy swaying? For the last four weeks, Germany has debated the loan scandal surrounding its president, and for just as long, we have heard warnings that the discussion of the tiresome loan could "damage" his office. Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), even went as far as saying that German President Christian Wulff could not resign because it might trigger a "national crisis."

In fact, the issue merely revolves around the misconduct of a man who wanted to buy a house he couldn't afford. Why such hysteria over criticism of the president? It's time to take a sober look at the most superfluous office in the republic.

Since its creation, the presidency has been based on a misunderstanding. The fathers of the German constitution believed that pure democracy was too much for the Germans to handle. They were afraid of the anti-parliamentary reflex from the Weimar Republic, which vilified political debates as perpetual quarrels and party discord. The office of the president found its way into the constitution because there were those who wanted to create a neutral force that reconciled citizens with representative party democracy. The tamed ersatz monarch was supposed to satisfy the German yearning for non-partisan reason.

But soon it became clear that this wasn't necessary at all. After the horrors of the Nazi regime, most Germans no longer needed to be convinced of democracy's advantages. And the state of emergency, in which the president was to guide the nation, never occurred. Soon the question arose as to what exactly a president should do with his time. Though formally the highest-ranking official in the country, he actually has no power at all. He cannot even claim direct election by the people.

Boring Routine

There is always something humiliating about the office of the president. The head of state has all the trappings of power at his disposal, including an attractive official residence in the posh Berlin suburb of Dahlem, an armored official car that flies the presidential standard and bears special license-plate number 0-1, along with access to the German air force's VIP squadron, even ahead of the chancellor, if necessary. But his position is all grand form with no substance. The president appoints the cabinet ministers the chancellor wants, and he signs bills into law that the coalition government has drafted. The office is an imposition for any politician with even the smallest shred of ambition.

Anyone who travels with the president can witness the full drama of the office. The head of state is surrounded by the aura of importance. He walks down red carpets to the sound of military bands, and he comes face-to-face with the world's most important and powerful people. But in the end it is nothing but a semblance of power. The talks remain superficial, extending to little more than assurances of mutual friendship and the desire for greater cooperation. Form without substance creates a sense of the ridiculous to which every president is exposed.

It comes as no surprise that the politicians who were candidates for the presidency in the past were usually those who had lost their thirst for power after a long career. There were also cases in which appointing a politician to the office solved an embarrassing problem, such as that of Heinrich Lübke. The conservative Christian Democratic agriculture minister was able to take up residence in the Villa Hammerschmidt (the president's former official residence in Bonn) because then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer realized at the last minute how little influence the president actually had.

Naturally the more ambitious presidents have tried to push the boundaries of their power. Theodor Heuss, for example, managed to prevent fellow party member Thomas Dehler from being reappointed as justice minister, and Horst Köhler refused to sign two laws that he thought were unconstitutional. But in the end, these were just attempts to escape the representative boredom of the presidential routine. The text of the German constitution is clear. The chancellor, it reads, "shall determine and be responsible for the general guidelines of policy" -- not the president.

A Special 'Respect'

The discrepancy between the importance of protocol and actual lack of influence is the reason for the oddly inhibited handling of the highest-ranking public office. No one would consider sparing a chancellor or a minister from investigation for involvement in a scandal by arguing that this would harm the office. On the contrary, it is precisely because personal misconduct is punished that these offices can remain intact. In the case of the president, however, just the opposite applies. Every debate about the head of state reliably includes the suggestion that he be treated with special "respect." One could see this as evidence of a unique political responsibility, but the truth lies elsewhere: The office of the president is a façade, which is why people are so afraid that a firm kick would be enough to send it all tumbling down.

The presidential selection process itself reveals the faulty design of the office. To ensure that the president is not provided with greater authority than the chancellor, he is not elected directly by the people, but by the Federal Convention. But because the parties set the tone within this body, every president comes into office with the inherent flaw of being the result of precisely the political wheeling and dealing from which he is supposed to be set apart.

Oh, but the speeches! Some say that the power of the president stems from the word; that he is the country's supreme editorial writer or a secular preacher of sorts, as political scientist Dolf Sternberger has put it. No self-respecting president forgets that he should encourage debate and even be difficult, if necessary. But is this really true? There have certainly been memorable speeches by German presidents. They include the address by Richard von Weizsäcker on May 9, 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the German surrender, Roman Herzog's "jolt" speech and, most recently, Christian Wulff's remark that Islam is part of Germany.

But it is a popular myth in the republic that the president initiates debate. The trick to a successful presidential speech lies precisely in capturing the social mainstream and giving it a quasi-governmental blessing. Weizsäcker's speech on the anniversary of Germany's surrender was brilliant, but in the end it only summarized the consensus that had emerged from a decades-long debate over how Germany should address its Nazi past. It wasn't Weizsäcker who had forced the painful debate over the crimes of the Nazis on the German people -- the '68 generation deserved most of the credit for this. Was it truly shocking in 1997 -- that is, in the final phase of the Kohl era -- to lament politicians' lapsed courage to bring about reforms, as Roman Herzog did in his jolt speech? And besides the Bavarian conservative party, the Christian Social Democrats (CSU), who seriously disputes that Islam is a part of Germany?

Official Soapbox Orator

There is always something amusing about the president being said to have given a "courageous" speech. Courage implies having something to lose, and aside from a little criticism in the press, a president has nothing to fear, as Roman Herzog once admitted with refreshing candidness: "Because I, as president, have almost no decision-making power, it isn't even possible to hold me accountable if someone translates proposals I make into law. On the other hand, when something I propose is not done, I can always point out that it would have been better if they had listened to me."

Of course, the republic can afford an official soapbox orator. The office of the president costs taxpayers €30 million ($38 million) a year, which an industrialized nation like Germany can certainly afford. But it's annoying when presidents abuse the office to make a name for themselves at the expense of those politicians who actually have to follow up their words with actions. One of the reasons Wulff's predecessor, Horst Köhler, was so popular is that he gave a voice to anger against politicians. He managed to castigate politicians for being enslaved to the pollsters, while at the same time delighting in his own popularity.

Köhler had a great role model. No former president is as admired as Richard von Weizsäcker, and yet he was the one who introduced the unpleasant habit of criticizing politics and parties from the vantage point of the president. Weizsäcker had been a member of the CDU federal executive board for years, and he was a member of the Bundestag and mayor of Berlin, but as president he said: "I do not come from the world of political parties." Like Köhler later on, he did not try to encourage understanding for the complex business of political life. Instead, he separated himself from it to enhance his popularity.

Colder, But More Honest

It is about time to think about the unthinkable -- a republic without a president. Is this even possible? With some goodwill, the meager competencies of the head of state could certainly be quickly reassigned. Laws can also come into effect without the president's signature. That would leave the examination of whether new legislation is in conformity with the constitution, a task that the Federal Constitutional Court is better equipped to perform than the lawyers at the office of the president.

And why shouldn't the Bundestag be given the right to dissolve itself? It's already a glaring deficiency in the constitution that a chancellor who is tired of governing can only pave the way to new elections by proposing a vote of confidence, and the construct is made doubly absurd by the fact that the president is ultimately included in the decision-making process.

What would a republic without a president look like? It would be colder, but more honest -- colder because citizens could no longer cling to the comforting idea that there is something akin to non-partisan wisdom. Germany would have to bid farewell to the idea of a republican king, one who puts a friendly face on the daily battle for power. It would also lose the president's annual Christmas address.

It would also be more honest because the elimination of the presidential office would obliterate the last trace of fear of an authoritarian state from the constitution. It would reduce the German democracy to its rational core, and to the insight that politics cannot exist without debate and strife -- and that that is a good thing. It would be an unfiltered democracy, and thus an unprecedented experiment in German history. But it wouldn't be the worst.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

The fault line in Haiti runs straight to France

The earthquake’s destruction has been aggravated not by a pact with the Devil, but by the crippling legacy of imperialism.

Where does the fault lie in Haiti? For geologists, it lies on the line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. For some, the earthquake is evidence of God’s wrath: the American evangelist Pat Robertson has even suggested that the horror is recompense for some voodoo pact made with the Devil at Haiti’s birth.

More sensible voices point to the procession of despots who have plundered Haiti over the years, depriving it of an effective infrastructure and rendering it uniquely vulnerable to natural disaster. But for many Haitians, the fault lies earlier — with Haiti’s colonial experience, the slavers and extortionists of empire who crippled it with debt and permanently stunted the economy. The fault line runs back 200 years, directly to France.

In the 18th century, Haiti was France’s imperial jewel, the Pearl of the Caribbean, the largest sugar exporter in the world. Even by colonial standards, the treatment of slaves working the Haitian plantations was truly vile. They died so fast that, at times, France was importing 50,000 slaves a year to keep up the numbers and the profits.

Inspired by the principles of the French Revolution, in 1791 the slaves rebelled under the leadership of the self-educated slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. After a vicious war, Napoleon’s forces were defeated. Haiti declared independence in 1804.

As Haiti struggles with new misfortune, it is worth remembering that noble achievement — this is the only nation to gain independence by a slave-led rebellion, the first black republic, and the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere. Haiti was founded on a demand for liberty from people whose liberty had been stolen: the country itself is a tribute to human resilience and freedom.

France did not forgive the impertinence and loss of earnings: 800 destroyed sugar plantations, 3,000 lost coffee estates. A brutal trade blockade was imposed. Former plantation owners demanded that Haiti be invaded, its population enslaved once more. Instead, the French State opted to bleed the new black republic white.

In 1825, in return for recognising Haitian independence, France demanded indemnity on a staggering scale: 150 million gold francs, five times the country’s annual export revenue. The Royal Ordinance was backed up by 12 French warships with 150 cannon.

The terms were non-negotiable. The fledgeling nation acceded, since it had little choice. Haiti must pay for its freedom, and pay it did, through the nose, for the next 122 years.

Historical accountancy is an inexact business, but the scale of French usury was astonishing. Even when the total indemnity was reduced to 90 million francs, Haiti remained crippled by debt. The country took out loans from US, German and French banks at extortionate rates. To put the cost into perspective, in 1803 France agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory, an area 74 times the size of Haiti, to the US, for 60 million francs.

Weighed down by this financial burden, Haiti was born almost bankrupt. In 1900 some 80 per cent of the national budget was still being swallowed up by debt repayments. Money that might have been spent on building a stable economy went to foreign bankers. To keep workers on the land and extract maximum crop yields to pay the indemnity, Haiti brought in the Rural Code, instituting a division between town and country, between a light-skinned elite and the dark-skinned majority, that still persists.

The debt was not finally paid off until 1947. By then, Haiti’s economy was hopelessly distorted, its land deforested, mired in poverty, politically and economically unstable, prey equally to the caprice of nature and the depredations of autocrats. Seven year ago, the Haitian Government demanded restitution from Paris to the tune of nearly $22 billion (including interest) for the gunboat diplomacy that had helped to make it the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

In the wake of last week’s earthquake, the effect of which has been so brutally magnified by Haiti’s economic fragility, there have been renewed calls for France to honour its moral debt. There is no chance that it will do so. The view from the Élysée is that the case was closed in 1885. In 2004 Jacques Chirac set up a Commission of Reflection under the left-wing philosopher Régis Debray to examine France’s historical relations with Haiti: it concluded blandly that the demand for restitution was “non-pertinent in both legal and historical terms”.

As Haiti faces social breakdown, government paralysis and death on a shattering scale, the French finance minister has called for a speeding up of the cancellation of Haiti’s debt. This is grim irony: if France had not saddled the country with debt almost from its inception, Haiti would have been far better equipped to cope with nature’s spite.

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, is calling for a “reconstruction and development” conference. “It is a chance to get Haiti once and for all out of the curse it seems to have been stuck with for such a long time,” President Sarkozy said.

This seems uncomfortably close to Mr Robertson’s insulting suggestion that Haitian slaves made a “pact with the Devil” to free themselves from Napoleon’s grip. The original curse was economic, not religious, and laid on Haiti by imperial France.

Haiti does not need more words, conferences or commissions of reflection. It needs money, urgently. So far, official donations from France are less than half of those from Britain.

The legacy of colonialism worldwide is a bitter one, but in few countries is there a more direct link between the sins of the past and the horrors of the present. Merely a French acknowledgement that the unfolding catastrophe is partly the consequence of history, and not merely blind fate, would go some way to salving Haiti’s wounds.

France does not pay for its history. But imagine what the reaction might be if, the next time you receive an outrageous bill in a French restaurant, you declare that payment is non-pertinent, set up a commission of reflection and walk out.

Sarko’s Secret Plan

Baroness Ashton, who today takes up office as the Union’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy under the Lisbon Treaty, could do no better than study the life of another of her noble predecessors on the European stage – that of the Prince de Talleyrand-Perigord, Foreign Minister of the French Empire and architect not just of much of the present French state, but of much of present inter-European relations as well.

An aristocrat who served Louis XVI, the Directory, Napoleon, the Allies, the restored Bourbons and finally King Louis – Phillipe, no-one could claim to be a better survivor. But the twists, turns and accommodations that his tortuous life entailed, have left him a detested figure in much of France. Which is rather sad when you consider that but for his efforts to have it restored, the Tricolour might have flown for the last time at Waterloo.

Talleyrand’s negotiating skills were supreme: France even came out of the defeat of Napoleon, thanks to his negotiation, with more territory than she had had at the beginning.

But his crowning triumph, achieved when he was already into his ninth decade and on his final mission as Ambassador to Britain in the 1830s, was finally to align British and French foreign policy and to set it on the course that would result in the ‘entente cordiale’ and an unbreakable alliance that later survived two world wars.

That he should have done so in the aftermath of twenty years of bloody war with Britain’s traditional enemy, when Germany was the rising nation in Europe and when even the household language of the British court was German, should be enough to make any aspiring diplomat go weak at the knees with admiration.

Asked what had driven him throughout his long and turbulent life, he said that he had always acted in the best interests of Europe, believing that what was good for Europe would also be good for France and that what was good for France was also good for Europe.

Nevertheless, if Talleyrand is generally despised by today’s French politicians, his famous dictum seems still to be imbibed with their mothers’ milk. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the whole European construction, certainly in France’s eyes, turns on this very premise.

This is not necessarily something to be regretted, still less opposed. From a British perspective what is good for Europe can also be good for Britain. We too, in our own way, have wanted to civilise the world. So the French motivation is not necessarily something to fear, just to be aware of.

With that in mind – and if it is not too much of a bother – let us return to the much tilled ground of the Lisbon appointments. You remember that the initial reaction from the commentariat was astonishment when we learned that two relatively unknown figures – Mr van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, had been appointed.

This astonishment was certainly real enough: we had been led towards thinking that while one group of politicians did indeed want a low key President of the European Council, others wanted a strong campaigning figure such as Tony Blair, who, at various times, was espoused by a raft of senior European leaders, including President Sarkozy of France.

Indeed, even as late as 19th June, and after he had dropped his support for Blair, Sarkozy was still saying: “…if we have Lisbon I’d like the first President of the Council to be someone strong and ambitious for Europe because Europe deserves and needs such a person.”

Once the Lisbon appointments had been made, however, the commentariat rapidly switched tack, arguing that no-one had wanted strong figures in these roles, that France and Germany did not want their national prestige usurped by some traffic-stopping figure; that what was required was a back room person, an organiser. And on the foreign policy side, someone who would not make waves.

I am still wondering whether this is correct. Has the leopard really changed his spots?

You remember Sarkozy’s French Presidency? (More Sarkozy’s than French you might think). The lavish expenditures, the rushing around all over the world waving the European flag. The frenetic pace continuing right to the very last day and last hour of the Presidency, trying to show what might be done, what ought to be done, with French leadership.

Put this together with Mr Barroso’s second Commission, now assembled. Its composition is very much in the French interest. The wings of free market liberalism – something for which Barroso’s first Commission was roundly criticised for embracing too closely – are now almost certain to be clipped. Agriculture, too, so important to France, is in safe and friendly hands. In Pierre de Boissieu, France has also secured the Secretary-Generalship of the Council.

Consider also that Sarkozy, has been careful to stress that Mr van Rompuy’s appointment as Council President is for two and a half years. Of course the appointment can be renewed for a further term when in comes to an end in May 2012. That is, if the member states so wish.

But whose term of office expires in April 2012? None other than Mr Sarkozy’s! Should he not stand again for the French Presidency, the Presidency of Europe – the ‘strong and ambitious’ figure that Europe ‘deserves and needs,’ could be his. Why not?

Fifteen years ago a newspaper cartoon from the dying days of the government of Edouard Balladur pictured the French cabinet as if in a game of Cluedo. Every minister was depicted as attacking another. Each was being shot, stabbed, clubbed, poisoned or strangled by a colleague. Meanwhile, through a window, we see Sarkozy, retreating from this mayhem with a gleeful smile.

Sarkozy’s volte-face, first supporting Tony Blair, then abandoning him, now becomes explicable. Britain is palmed off with the foreign minister post – which is not important because, should Sarkozy indeed become President of the Council, he will want to play the chief diplomatic role himself. Skilful, very skilful. Worthy of Talleyrand himself.

Talleyrand also said, memorably, that zeal was the enemy of diplomacy. That the best things came to he who waited. I am wondering whether Sarkozy has learned this injunction too; whether Mr van Rompuy is no more than his stalking horse. Having got his Commission ducks in order and disarmed his possible opponents, will Sarkozy now descend in two and a half years time to claim what he regards as his (and France’s) inheritance?

Little Hitlers

Encouraged by Silvio Berlusconi, groups of far-right vigilantes are patrolling the streets of Italy, awakening fears of a return to fascism

Gaetano Saya’s staccato voice rises to a near-hysterical pitch as he points skywards, jabbing his finger in the direction of four giant marble eagles with outspread wings that tower above the semicircular porticoes of Rome’s Piazza della Repubblica. “Look! There they are — symbols of the mighty Roman Empire. They are everywhere!”

Saya is almost spitting with rage as he speaks. For most of the time that we sit in the sweltering summer heat, sipping espressos in a bar tucked under the arches of the busy piazza, he maintains his composure. But when it comes to discussing the uproar caused by the insignia chosen for the recently formed patrol units of his revived neo-fascist party — which include the imperial eagle once worn by Musso-lini’s Blackshirts, the camicie nere — he can barely contain his fury. “The eagles on our badges are Roman, not fascist emblems. If you ban them you would have to tear the eagle off every public building in Italy. They are part of our history. Just as Cromwell is part of yours,” he rants, stroking his clipped moustache.

For the first time since the second world war, Rome is now run by a right-wing mayor. Gianni Alemanno is not only right-wing, but a former neo-fascist street protestor, whose supporters flashed fascist salutes at his victory rally. Alemmano was swept into office in spring last year in the wake of national hysteria following the brutal murder in Rome of an Italian naval officer’s wife by a Romanian Roma gypsy. Her attacker stole the few coins in her purse, attempted to assault her sexually, then left her for dead as she was returning home along a deserted street in October 2007. The 47-year-old religious education teacher’s face was beaten to such a pulp that police could only describe her as of “indeterminate age” before she died of her injuries.

Following sensationalist coverage of the “Roma beast” responsible for Giovanna Reggiani’s death, vigilante groups sought revenge. Four Romanians begging in the centre of Rome were beaten and stabbed, while immigrant shacks all over Italy were set on fire. Since then the country has found itself in the grip of a growing wave of xenophobia that politicians on the right are ruthlessly exploiting. Extremists such as Saya, with his reinvigorated Italian Social Movement-National Right (MSI-DN) party, are also feeding off the fear of immigrants.

The ultimate beneficiary has been Silvio Berlusconi, the 72-year-old perma-tanned billionaire prime minister. Using the might of his extensive media empire, he quickly declared that his country was in the grip of a “Roma emergency” of criminal activity. Many reports at the time wildly inflated the extent to which immigrants account for crime in Italy, with one leading outlet even suggesting that “all Romanians harbour criminal intent”.

Overall crime figures in Italy have not risen for over a decade, yet more than a third of prisoners are now foreigners. Last year foreigners were charged with 68% of rapes and 32% of thefts.

Concern about immigrant crime levels helped to sweep Berlusconi back into power in April 2008 on a law-and-order ticket. He immediately announced the introduction of a “national security package” that has seen thousands of uniformed soldiers in camouflage combat suits deployed to stand guard on street corners in Italian cities and towns. The package is billed as an attempt to crack down on both crime and illegal immigration, now often depicted as entirely synonymous in Italy, which Berlusconi says should never be allowed to become a “multi-ethnic society”.

With so much attention focused on the bed-hopping antics of the flamboyant premier, this ugly undercurrent of racism has been allowed to spread quietly and insidiously. Berlusconi’s decision to legalise new vigilante patrols is raising particular alarm.

Waving his hands with a flourish of self-satisfaction, Saya boasts that thousands of Italians are now clamouring to join the extreme right-wing vigilante patrols he has called the Guardia Nazionale Italiana, or Italian National Guard, set up by his party in June. When the National Guard unveiled its uniform — military-style black caps bearing the imperial eagle, black gloves, black ties, khaki shirts and armbands with the symbol of the black sun long associated with Nazism — Italian prosecutors immediately launched a judicial enquiry into the group. Both Nazi and fascist symbols have been banned in Italy since after the second world war. But Saya, 52, who has been investigated in the past for inciting racial hatred, is confident that the enquiry will be quietly dropped.

“We are just ardent patriots. How can anyone object to that? We favour ultra-nationalism. We defend our history and we are on the march,” he says. He blames the “millions of foreigners invading Italy” for the economic, social and moral crisis he believes his country now faces. “Mussolini was a great man inspired by a real love of his nation. He was a legitimate leader, not a dictator.”

Saya waves his hand to beckon a young follower who has been hovering nearby. Riccardo Lanza is an eloquent 33-year-old stockbroker, neatly dressed in a suit and striped shirt. The reason the paramilitary uniform of the National Guard is hanging in his wardrobe, he says, is that “Italians are no longer in charge of their own country”. He blames the Russian and Chinese mafias for the “total chaos” in Italy. “They have infiltrated our economy, just as foreigners have taken over our streets. We need to put a stop to this.”

Unlike in many European countries with long colonial pasts, mass immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Italy, which traditionally was more used to the steady emigration of its citizens. Waves of immigration — first from eastern bloc countries such as Albania and the former Yugoslavia in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more recently from north and sub-Saharan Africa — have seen an estimated 3.5m people coming to live in Italy legally, and another 1.5m illegally, over the past 20 years. The country is left grappling with the fact that it is no longer monocultural. Berlusconi recently complained that his birthplace, Milan, “looks like an African city”.

Political expediency lies behind the creation of vigilante groups. Berlusconi was helped back into power with the backing of the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League), originally founded to lobby for the secession of northern Italy from the rest of the country, but more recently defined by its opposition to mass immigration. Ten years ago it was the Northern League that started organising unofficial anti-crime street patrols in towns and cities throughout the north with large numbers of immigrants. When it became clear that Berlusconi’s newly formed People of Freedom Party (a loose coalition between his former Forza Italia movement and the National Alliance, run by the reformed neo-fascist politician Gianfranco Fini) needed the support of the Northern League, promises were made about security, including the introduction of vigilante patrols. The way to tackle illegal immigration, declared Roberto Maroni, a key Northern League politician and subsequent interior minister, was to “get nasty”.

The security package, introduced in stages over the past 12 months, also includes stringent new rules making illegal immigration a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to €10,000. Children of illegal immigrants are banned from attending school or receiving health care, and those who knowingly harbour illegal immigrants face up to three years in prison. These measures have been compared by leading academics and writers to Mussolini’s infamous race laws banning Jews from work and education. The Vatican has described them as “of great concern” and “a reason for sadness”.

Even Berlusconi soon appears to have realised that he had gone too far in his support of vigilantism. When groups such as Saya’s National Guard started strutting about in fascist-style uniforms, and violent clashes broke out between an extreme right-wing patrol group and left-wing opponents in the Tuscan resort of Massa in late July, Maroni announced that vigilante groups would have to meet strict criteria before being allowed to start patrolling the streets. Patrols should be of no more than three people, members should not wear military-style uniforms, and they should be armed only with walkie-talkies and mobile phones to alert police to trouble.

But the genie of mob rule had already been let out of the bottle. Nowhere is this more apparent than among the followers of the far-right group at the centre of the violence that erupted over the summer in the small city of Massa.

Massa appears to be a typical Italian seaside resort, with its neat rows of sunbeds and striped umbrellas. But it is perched on the edge of the craggy Apuan mountains and has a proud record of resistance. In the second world war these mountains provided hiding places for scores of partisans. Some of the most notorious atrocities committed in Italy by German SS forces were carried out in the area, including the massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a small village where 560 civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, were rounded up and shot and their bodies burnt.

So when Stefano Benedetti spins me a yarn about how the name for the vigilante patrol group he and other right-wing extremists set up in Massa came to him by chance, it is clearly laughable. The group is called Soccorso Sociale e Sicurezza (Social Help and Security), and its initials, SSS, are seen as highly provocative.

Benedetti, a travelling salesman well known for playing fascist anthems on his car stereo and hanging a portrait of Mussolini at home, is the only right-wing city councillor in a municipality controlled by the left.

“People call me a Nazi and a fascist. But I am just doing my civic duty,” he argues, explaining how his SSS patrols began to operate at night earlier this year, touring areas of the city frequented by immigrants, on the lookout for trouble.

“There are too many foreigners in our community and they are turning to crime, stealing cars, breaking into houses, becoming violent.”

When SSS members congregated outside a bar close to where left-wing union members were staging an annual solidarity march on the night of July 25, fighting between the two factions sent tourists scurrying. Three policemen and two demonstrators were admitted to hospital; left-wing protestors staged a sit-in on the high-speed rail link.

As news of the emergence of the SSS started circulating among the small immigrant and Roma communities in and around Massa, local officials reported that foreign-born parents were starting to pull their children out of summer activity programmes. A visit to one ramshackle Roma camp of makeshift huts and caravans scattered along the railway tracks between Massa and the neighbouring town of Carrara soon reveals why. “The Italians have always hated us. But until now they have left us alone most of the time,” said one 23-year-old father of three boys, who would only be identified by his first name, Ercoles. “These patrols say they will make the streets safer. But now we are afraid to let our children out of our sight. We’re afraid if we let them go to local swimming pools or beaches, they will be attacked.”

“Massa has a reputation as the sixth safest city in Italy,” its mayor, Roberto Pucci, explains wearily. “But the way these right-wing patrols operate is to create a false sense of fear, create a perception that there are more problems than there are, then portray themselves as the only ones interested in and capable of solving them.

“We are a young democracy, and what is happening here should be taken seriously,” Pucci concludes. “It is not a pleasant situation.”

Pucci has now banned the SSS from operating in Massa, and many left-wing municipalities throughout Italy are expected to follow suit. But Benedetti and his followers vow they will resume their patrols. “They have forbidden the SSS from operating. So we will just change our name and reform as a different organisation,” says one supporter. “What we are doing is within the new law. No one can stop us now.”

This defiance is echoed by Gaetano Saya. Although the National Guard has delayed starting its vigilante patrols as a result of the judicial investigation, he says they will circumvent the rules banning uniforms by reclassifying themselves as a “party militia”.

“The guard will become the operational arm of our party, accompanying our politicians wherever they choose to go on the streets. That they can’t stop,” says Saya, who claims to have the backing of a group of rich industrialists who funded a surveillance helicopter the group recently bought.

The prospect of vigilante patrols mutating into political militias, as existed under Mussolini, has many Italians alarmed, especially in the wake of government measures such as the decision to fingerprint the country’s entire population of 150,000 Roma gypsies, some of whose families have been in Italy since the Middle Ages. The fingerprinting programme quickly got under way in some cities, but has since been watered down to exclude children, following human-rights protests. But such programmes have already had a desensitising effect. The bodies of two young Roma sisters, who drowned while swimming off a Naples beach in the summer of 2008, were left draped in towels for hours on the sand as bathers carried on picnicking and playing Frisbee.

In Padua, heartland of the Northern League, local authorities erected a three-metre-high steel barricade around an immigrant community held responsible for bringing prostitution and drug-dealing to the area. The barrier has since been removed, but in the nearby city of Ardo the mayor posted a bounty of €500 for anyone turning in an illegal immigrant. In some areas of the north, where vigilante patrols are now expected to flourish, the Northern League has also proposed that kebab shops and Chinese restaurants be banned from city centres because they are deemed “incompatible with the historical context”.

In recent years many Italians have felt uncomfortable about the proliferation of prostitutes from eastern Europe and Africa plying their trade openly in streets across the country. And the rise in organised crime and gang violence has had a wider effect. Earlier this year anti-immigrant feeling flared in Rome after a 21-year-old Italian woman was gang-raped and her boyfriend brutally beaten by a group of five Romanians.

But with the country’s plummeting birth rate and ageing population, many parts of the economy would find it hard to survive without foreign workers. Last year a government report on immigrant relations showed that 42% of Italians recognise that immigrants are essential to the economy. But this has not prevented a series of vicious attacks on foreigners in the past 12 months. These include a homeless 35-year-old Indian being beaten and set on fire at a seaside town near Rome last February, and before that an immigrant from Burkino Faso being beaten to death with an iron bar by a Milan shopkeeper who claimed he had stolen a packet of biscuits.

Marco Rovelli, an academic from Massa who has written about Italian immigration, attributes the emergence of vigilantism and the success of political movements like the Northern League in fostering xenophobia to the country’s own history as a poor nation of emigrants until the middle of the last century. “When Italians see foreigners living in the sort of poverty they have only relatively recently left behind, they feel afraid. For some it is a painful reminder of their own past and makes them wary of losing the prosperity they have achieved.”

Beneath the government’s manipulation of national insecurity lies another agenda, warns a fellow academic. James Walston is professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. “By focusing attention on immigrants — and that’s the intention of the vigilante patrols, though it is never said — and creating a feeling that the streets of Italy are unsafe and blaming foreigners,” he says, “Berlusconi is diverting the spotlight from the real problem in this country.”

The real problem, he believes, is organised crime and the mafia. “But any mention of the mafia has largely fallen off the agenda, partly because of the prime minister’s own links with it.” Walston cites the conviction of Marcello Dell’Utri, one of Berlusconi’s closest advisers, on charges of conspiracy with the Sicilian mafia.

In large parts of Italy a significant proportion of the population still pays protection money to local mafia groups every day. Some fear that, in the south particularly, vigilante patrols will soon fall under the control of the mafia, consolidating their hold and leading to more bloodshed.

Last September a hit squad of the notorious Casalesi clan gunned down six West Africans near Naples in a turf war over prostitution and drug-dealing. Several months before that, thugs of the Camorra clan unleashed an orgy of violence against Roma camps in Naples, setting fire to caravans, beating up occupants and driving them from their homes after rumours circulated that a baby girl had been abducted by a gypsy woman. The response of the government’s interior minister, Maroni, was simply to shrug and say: “That is what happens when gypsies steal babies.”

Little wonder, then, that the Italian judiciary — condemned by Berlusconi in the past as a “cancer on society” — and police unions are very critical of the premier’s new security package, including the legalisation of vigilante patrols, for “creating confusion” and diverting resources from official law-enforcement agencies.

Patrols approved by local municipalities will also be entitled to limited funding. The police say that exactly where this money ends up will be hard to track — as a meeting with two burly vigilantes in Milan soon confirms.

Vincenzo Scavo does not bother to introduce me to his heavily muscled associate, whose mobile phone rings constantly with the theme tune from The Godfather. Scavo is too busy complaining.

Until the beginning of July he ran a group in Milan called the Blue Berets that was paid more than half a million euros to conduct anti-crime street patrols in city trouble spots such as the railway station and the Metro system. This was until it was discovered that Scavo held a membership card for the neo-fascist MSI-DN party run by Gaetano Saya. The contract was suspended and Milan’s mayor immediately ordered an investigation into the Blue Berets.

Scavo, a tattooed private-security guard who is originally from Sicily, explains in hurt tones that the only reason he had a party membership card was because he had been contacted several years before to provide private security for the party. He was never hired and claims he had no contact with the party after that.

“For this our good work, our mission, has been stopped,” he complains. The contract, he insists, was only part of the work of the Blue Berets. “We also had volunteers running shopping errands for the elderly in marginal areas of the city, near gypsy camps and immigrant communities where Italians are afraid to walk the streets. Now our citizens will face danger again and live in fear of foreigners.”

Take a walk in some of the areas Scavo identifies as trouble spots, such as Via Padova to the northeast of Milan’s city centre, and it becomes clear that it is the immigrants who are afraid. “A lot of people in these patrols are just racists who use them as an excuse to be abusive to foreigners,” says 39-year-old Isabel Ceveno from Ecuador, who has lived in Italy for 13 years.

Many immigrants I approached in this area with a group called the City Angels, a humanitarian organisation that helps the homeless, no longer dare voice their real concerns. “They used to speak openly to us. But now they are far more cautious. Some think we are part of these new vigilante patrols,” says Mario Furlan, the founder of City Angels. “Whereas we go on the streets to look for people to help, the classic vigilante is someone who goes out looking for an enemy.”

“The patrols are just going to create more agitation on the streets,” says Jona Qamo, a 27-year-old from Albania. “Wouldn’t it be better to help immigrants fit in rather than spy on them?”

Qamo has a point. The attitude of the Italian authorities at all levels has been to assume that people would just muddle through and accept immigrants in their midst because Italians traditionally have a laid-back attitude to life.

“But the presumption of Italian tolerance is not enough,” says Walston, “when you have between 5 and 10% of the population made up of foreigners.” What is needed, he argues, is “real leadership” in promoting integration. “But that is the opposite of what is happening.”

Jean Leonard Touadi, born in the Republic of Congo and now Italy’s first black MP from sub-Saharan Africa says: “It is very hard for Italians to admit they are racist, since they don’t associate themselves with that part of Europe with a long colonial history.”

Touadi has lived in Italy for three decades and has seen a marked rise in racism in recent years. “You can’t say we are living in a fascist regime. But some of what is happening now is very dangerous. With all the problems this country has, not least with the mafia, to single out immigrants as the top priority for law enforcement and throw them to the mercy of vigilantes is clearly just making them scapegoats.”

THE AUSTRIAN FAR RIGHT

A Grand Coalition Fails, Leaving Room for Radicals

Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer's term in office has ended in fiasco amid infighting, tactical errors and his own overestimation of himself. The populist, far-right Freedom Party will benefit: It has good prospects in Vienna for the first time since the Jörg Haider era.

Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, an Austrian Social Democrat, will leave office in September after a spectacular -- and largely self-inflicted -- fall from grace.

It was the last time that the two political teams would meet, at least with their current lineups. Germany and Austria had sent the crème-de-la-crème of their respective administrations to a summit between the two countries' grand coalition governments, held on June 16 at Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium. The chancellors, vice-chancellors and defense ministers of both countries -- conservatives and Social Democrats -- were there.

Quarrels on the respective home fronts, complaints over political gridlock and fears over early elections were momentarily forgotten. Football was on the agenda. Germany beat Austria 1:0. For the heavyset man in the red and white scarf sitting next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was a sign of things to come.

Only hours earlier, Alfred Gusenbauer, 48, had been forced to resign as his party's leader. Now his real dream job, that of chancellor, is also about to end. Last month Austria's conservative People's Party (ÖVP) declared that its coalition with the Social Democrats had failed. Gusenbauer has announced that he will not seek another term.

But was it also a sign for Germany and for Angela Merkel? In each country, the last term of government has been marked by an awkward "grand coalition" between the major parties of the left and right. In Vienna and Berlin, they both tackled similar problems: health reform, tax and pension reform, and a redistribution of responsibilities between the federal and state governments. In Austria, though, the coalition parties managed to agree on only minor issues, such as lowering the voting age to 16 and an extension of the legislative period.

But the parallel between the two countries may stop at Gusenbauer's political demise. His fall from power shows the difference between Merkel, an expert in the mathematics of power, and her witty but aimless counterpart in Vienna.

Genius and Mediocrity

In February, months before he was toppled, Gusenbauer gave the Austrian people a dark foreboding of things to come during an interview with the Vienna city paper Falter. Choosing words from Saint-Just's last speech in defense of Robespierre, Gusenbauer said: "The coalition of mediocrity is bringing the genius to the scaffold."

There was a clear sense within the coalition of who was meant to be the genius: Gusenbauer. Secret documents detailing plans to bring down the government were revealed in Vienna the following month. The conspirators came from the camp of the conservative party, Gusenbauer's rivals in the coalition. But by April, Gusenbauer's own party, the SPÖ, was in an uproar. He was soon replaced as party leader, and the coalition fell apart.

Hans Dichand was pleased. At 88, the powerful publisher of the Kronen-Zeitung newspaper is still Austria's supreme shaper of political campaigns. Dichand had been writing opinion pieces for months under the pseudonym "Cato" against the EU's new Lisbon Treaty. By signing that document, Dichand argued, the government had sacrificed the country's sovereignty. Dichand is a figurehead of Austria's anti-EU movement, and Gusenbauer's downfall is his triumph.

As recently as late June, advisors warned Gusenbauer not to be pulled around "by a nose ring" at the paper's editorial office just to boost his popularity among Austrians. But 43 percent of Austrians read the Kronen-Zeitung, and recent opinion polls showed the chancellor with only a 16-percent approval rating. So the chancellor signed an open letter to Dichand, announcing referendums for future EU treaties. It was a 180-degree turn for Gusenbauer.

Dichand acknowledged this gesture of submission and thanked the chancellor, using the royal we: "We have become stronger, as we calmly continue the struggle for our fatherland, Austria -- with new friends." A short time later, Gusenbauer saw his old friend Werner Faymann -- who, as minister of infrastructure, advertised regularly in Dichand's paper -- promoted as the SPÖ's candidate for chancellor in this year's new elections, which are slated for Sep. 28.

Gusenbauer had been punished for eating humble pie.

The Rise of the Right

The chancellor is a seasoned a politician. The well-meaning interpret his downfall as clumsy, while everyone else chalks it up to a lack of social intelligence. There are, in fact, many reasons for the premature end to Gusenbauer's political career.

Jörg Haider, right, came to power in Vienna in the '90s as a xenophobic hero of Austria's far right. He's seen here with Wolfgang Schüssel, head of the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP).

First, he has a troubled relationship with provincial party leaders. The lineup of SPÖ luminaries in Austria's nine states is headed by the cunning Michael Häupl, mayor of Vienna for the past 14 years. He excels as a mouthpiece of popular opinion, and after the party suffered stinging defeats in state elections, Häupl and others felt Gusenbauer could jeopardize their own prospects for reelection.

Because the lonely chancellor also picked quarrels with union leaders, students and powerful members of the media during his brief 18 months in office, he lost the necessary support for his battle against the real enemy, his coalition partner, the conservative ÖVP. Under the discreet leadership of Wolfgang Schüssel, the ÖVP was more adept at tactical games.

SPÖ officials say that Gusenbauer grossly underestimated the influence of the conservative former chancellor, who still believes that his surprising failure to win reelection in 2006 was a mistake, and who made his feelings clear to the coalition partner on a daily basis. They are convinced that Gusenbauer believed that he could "moderate" the work of governing but was "taken to the cleaners."

Meanwhile, the populist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), led by Heinz-Christian Strache, has delved deep into the ranks of blue-collar workers, the unemployed and energetic pensioners who spend their days complaining about rising prices and the power-hungry bickering of the "big parties." Strache and his FPÖ have nationwide approval ratings of 20 percent. The young upstart politician -- who once staged paramilitary games with fellow gun enthusiasts in the forests of the Austrian state of Carinthia and was affiliated with the now-banned neo-Nazi Viking Youth group -- uses well-tried methods to win popular support. He calls for more social services for the needy, he agitates against Brussels EU "dictates," and he inveighs against foreigners using slogans like "Daham statt Islam" (Home, not Islam) and "Deutsch statt nix versteh'n" (German, not "I don't understand").

Strache's political mentor, Jörg Haider, turned the FPÖ into the country's second-largest party using similar rhetoric less than nine years ago -- and helped make Wolfgang Schüssel chancellor. After the September election, Strache hopes to influence the shape of a new government. And his prospects are good.

The Grand Coalition Habit

Among the oddities of Austrian politics in the last 20 years have been the strong gains made by the far-right FPÖ in times of grand coalitions. They are so significant that the best Austrians can hope for, if they want to keep the FPÖ out of government, is a return of the grand coalition. Wolfgang Schüssel came to a different conclusion in February 2000 -- he brought Haider's followers into his government. Schüssel's successor, Wilhelm Molterer, is keeping all options open for September.

In Germany, grand coalitions are considered a rare, sluggish, unfortunate compromise. In Austria they're a rule of thumb, and for more than half of the postwar era, the two popular parties have ruled the nation jointly. As a result, Austria has seen decades of social calm and only cautious reform.

For decades, though, social philosopher Norbert Leser has castigated the mega-coalition of the ÖVP and the SPÖ, which has become the Austrian state, as the symbol of a "captive democracy." Leser argues that by strenghening the center -- where the government benefits are hoarded -- the grand coalition drives many disgruntled voters to the fringes.

But there is no sign of any immediate change. After voters weigh in on Sep. 28, an avid supporter of grand coalitions will call the shots: Heinz Fischer, the Austrian president and, for almost half a century, a man who has lived in the orbit of Austrian power.

Fischer has managed for decades to stay "at the top in the middle of a mountain of political corpses," Leser writes. By virtue of his office he could stand in the way of any coalition he dislikes. In the fall of 2006 he refused to swear in an SPÖ minority government in a coalition with the Green Party and the FPÖ.

Strache, on the other hand -- the eloquent young rightist -- is convinced that the FPÖ's rise to power has long been inevitable. During the "implosion of the government" engineered by the ÖVP, Strache says, the SPÖ somehow managed to lose the chancellor. But Strache hasn't lost his forked tongue. Last May he said the portly bon vivant Gusenbauer, after leaving politics, could at least lend his name to red wine.

What sort of red wine?

"With a heavy finish," said Strache.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan