La dolce vita, Berlusconi style, may finally be just too much

Her stage name is Ruby, she is 17, and she may bring down Italy’s government.

The Moroccan-born belly dancer is the last of a long series of young women who have in the past two years embarrassed Silvio Berlusconi and the Italians. This time, the Italian Prime Minister has admitted intervening to get Ruby released when she got arrested for theft last May.

To make matters worse, there have been leaks to the press of what she told the police. Ruby said she attended many “Bunga-Bunga” soirées at the Prime Minister’s home in Milan.

Bunga-Bunga? A code name for after-dinner sex between guests, with cannabis freely available. Oh, and she says Silvio gave her 7000 Euros ($9,000) in cash.

This comes only a few months after 42-year-old escort Patrizia d’Addario reported to police that she had been paid to spend two evenings at Berlusconi’s Palazzo Grazioli in Rome, where they had sex, and a year after his wife filed for divorce when he attended the 18th birthday party of aspiring model Noemi Letizia.

In North America or Britain, Silvio Berlusconi would have been impeached in a matter of weeks and forced to resign. In France, he would have been held in contempt for being so indiscreet and vulgar.

But in Italy, men wish they were him, Italian women roll their eyes in despair, and the Roman Catholic Church, which has gained enormously financially under Berlusconi, just looks away.

But for how long? Perhaps not long. Friday Italy’s opposition presented a no-confidence motion, that could inevitably spell the end of his government.

Still, sex scandals are considered differently depending on whether you stand on the shores of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. France and Italy may have a different take on them, but both accept them as anecdotes, not central to public life and certainly not worthy of general opprobrium. From “la Pompadour” (the mistress of King Louis XV) to the secret daughter of François Mitterrand, French public figures have always been able to lead two lives, one public, one private; they must only answer to their public actions. Their private life is nobody’s business.

However, in France style is of the essence. Have illicit and plural amours if you must — but do it with taste, tact and discretion. Live your passions behind closed doors. Nicolas Sarkozy is the only French politician who does not get this.

In Italy, though, sex scandals are not only acceptable, but it seems that the trashier they are, the more acceptable they become, as was the case during the period of the Borgias (the corrupt, 15th-century Italian family that yielded one pope). After all, Italy has a long tradition of sex scandals. Roman emperors and popes set good examples for debauchery.

Across the English Channel and the Atlantic, it is an entirely different story: if you cheat on your partner, it means that you’re likely to cheat on your country. Extramarital affairs and unusual sexual practices are a no-no; do it at your own peril. (Bill Clinton must have wished many times he was French.)

Continental Europeans view the British and North American attitude as repressed and hypocritical. They deem this demand of total transparency on the part of politicians as tyrannical. North Americans view the French and Italian tolerance of sex scandals as shameful, a sign of intellectual and moral degeneration. On matters of sex, the French reassure themselves by thinking that they are more sophisticated than buttoned-up Anglo-Saxons, while North-Americans think they are morally superior.

What is astonishing, though, is Italians’ blasé reaction to their prime minister’s sexual antics. Perhaps decades of Berlusconi-owned television, with its lurid programming and omnipresent sexed-up presenters and semi-naked young women, have brainwashed the whole country. Every day from morning to night, Italians can watch very young scantily clad women on their screens. So why not on their prime minister’s lap?

But how do Italian women feel? “It’s very confusing” Maria Laura Rodota, a columnist for the daily Corriere della sera, wrote this week.

“Being an Italian in what are — maybe — the last days of Silvio Berlusconi is confusing. Being an Italian woman is even more so. Many of us are worn out and ashamed, but we are also divided. There are those of us who can’t take it anymore. But there are also those who seek to justify Berlusconi’s behaviour.”

Italian women seem to have no choice but to accept the overwhelming majority’s lenience. Or, as my friend Angiola told me this week, “I can always tear up my passport and ask for political asylum in Northern Europe. But is being embarrassed by one’s prime minister accepted to get refugee status?”

When attacked, Berlusconi always reacts the same way: he blames a Mafia conspiracy — when he has actually himself been linked to it many times over the years — or he bites back. The more outrageous his attacks, such as “it’s better to have a passion for beautiful girls than to be gay,” the more popular he is with a majority of the Italian people.

In Italy, to be a man is to be virile is to be macho is to be virtuous. Remember your Latin? Virtue comes from vir, manliness. In other words, be good, be macho.

Many Italian men dream of being Berlusconi: rich, powerful and, at 74, still gallivanting with very young women. Many feel the prime minister can be proud of his achievements, and womanizing is certainly among them. Why shouldn’t he even brag about it? To Berlusconi’s fans, his opponents are jealous, impotent or unhappy in love.

When the Church tried to distance itself from Berlusconi, it had to retreat. The too overtly critical editor of the Catholic daily Avvenire was subjected to a campaign of vilification by the Berlusconi press last summer and driven to resign. Keeping silent is also in the Church’s interest: Berlusconi is the one Italian prime minister who has lightened the tax load of his friends and allies.

This week, however, Berlusconi’s former ally and now most serious political rival, Gianfranco Fini, asked for Berlusconi’s resignation. Will it be the end of a 16-year farce, or just another episode in the long-running saga about Italian virility? Che sarà, sarà. And Bunga-Bunga!

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