The New Face Of Populism: Giuseppe Conte, An Italian Robespierre?

The political novice set to become Italy's next prime minister has called himself the 'defense lawyer' of the people. While Conte’s words mirror the aspirations of today’s anti-establishment parties, they also have deeper roots in Western history.

Giuseppe Conte addressing a press conference in Rome on May 23
Giuseppe Conte addressing a press conference in Rome on May 23
Lucia Annunziata


ROME — With a few softly-spoken words after receiving the mandate to form a government by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, the lawyer-turned-politician Giuseppe Conte signaled the beginning of a new era in Italian politics. "I will be the defense lawyer of the Italian people," he said to the cameras. "I'm ready to do this at any cost."

What may have seemed like a simple declaration actually marks a historic turning point in Italy's institutional history. Conte went on to proclaim that the contract his government will be based on — a deal agreed to after 80 days of negotiations between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing League — "fully represents the expectations of change of the Italian people", and that he wants to "give life to a citizens' government."

Transforming himself from lawyer-turned-prime minister to lawyer of the people in a matter of seconds, Conte's words mirror the aspirations of today's anti-establishment parties, but they also have deeper roots in Western history. Notably, they echo the words of another great revolutionary: Maximilien Robespierre, who engineered the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution in 1789.


Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre, around 1790 — Photo: Musée Carnavalet

"All citizens, regardless of their condition, have the right to aspire to political representation," Robespierre proclaimed on October 22nd, 1798. "Every individual has the right to participate in public administration and in the creation of laws that he is subject to, otherwise it is not true that all men are citizens and have equal rights." Like Conte, Robespierre worked as a lawyer and styled himself as a defender of the people, and his ideas have drawn support among the highest ranks of the Five Star Movement.

The divide between the government and the governed is an issue that has been debated for millennia. Ever since humans united and organized to jointly decide their common destiny, the defining issue in politics has been the enormous gap between those in power and those who endure their rule and abuses. From Sparta to Rome, people's lawyers have always been an important institution — most notably the plebeian tribune, which was so essential to the Roman Republic that Cicero claimed there would have been no democracy in Rome without it.

How does Conte hope to square giving a direct voice to the people with a commitment to a Europe of nation-states?

The figure of a defender of the people taking matters into their own hands has reappeared at crucial junctures throughout history, from the French Revolution to the Napoleonic Era, from the treatises of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the writings of Vladimir Lenin. Conte carefully chose his words to follow in this path and send a firm message that his election marked the overturning of the previous order, despite his reassurances that the government will be committed to staying in the European Union.

How exactly does Conte hope to square his belief in giving a direct voice to the people with a commitment to a Europe of nation-states? More fundamentally, it remains unclear how he can combine the role of the people's lawyer with his job as prime minister.

Under the Italian Constitution, the prime minister's role is to design a governing agenda with the support of a majority in parliament, working to negotiate between the demands of political parties and the demands of the people. The prime minister is a symbol of representative politics, a negotiator who must find an equilibrium between competing interests and produce a coalition agreement that will last until the next elections. By definition, a prime minister is a perishable figure, with a mandate that exists only as long as the parliament that elected him remains in place.

Modern democracy ties political representation to the constant turnover of elected figures. This clashes with the idea of a strong "people's lawyer," a mercurial figure that history shows can quickly turn from defender of the weak to oppressor of the many.

It would be unfair to compare the elegant Conte to Robespierre, and in many ways he more closely resembles his well-respected predecessor, Paolo Gentiloni of the center-left Democratic Party. But whenever there is a transfer of power after an election, change is the order of the day. And in times of great change, it's important to remain vigilant of subtle things like words and titles bestowed on leaders — like defense lawyer of the Italian people.

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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