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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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