By Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Nov. 25 (Xinhua) -- In what will likely prove to be the first high-profile step toward transforming CasaPound, Italy's extreme right movement with a history of violence, into a more palatable political force, some 6,000 of the group's members, sympathizers, curious onlookers marched through the streets of Rome Saturday without incident.
Saturday was a day of protests in Rome. There was a CasaPound counter-demonstration by Italian communists and anti-Fascists, plus student marches to protest against the government controversial austerity measures. But it was CasaPound demonstration that drew the lion's share of attention in what was by far the group's largest public demonstration to date.
The group, named for 20th Century right-wing poet and intellectual Ezra Pound, has a history peppered with violent clashes and aggressive and vulgar rhetoric. But on Saturday, the group took some small steps to put that reputation behind it.
"They (the group's critics) say we are racists and they call us names, they describe us as the opposite of what we really are," shouted CasaPound president Gianluca Iannone from a platform on the back of a truck at Rome's Ponte Milvio, at the end of a the 5-kilometer march through the city.
"People owe us an apology because we have proven that we are a peaceful movement," he continued, overlooking a huge crowd, with the group's red, black, and white flags waiving. "Perhaps that is exactly what frightened those who spread the lies by saying we would spread chaos in the city."
The group was founded nearly a decade ago in Rome, and until recently was known for violent clashes, a curious mix of neo-Fascist ideology and left-wing practices like using squatting laws to gain control of property, and for its savvy use of social media and the internet. Only recently has the group become its transformation into a political movement, with an eye toward presenting candidates in elections scheduled for next year.
To expert observers, Saturday's march was notable both because of its size -- predictions were that the group would have done well to attract 1500 marchers, a fourth of the official figure used by police -- and because of the event's precise organization.
"The march was expertly choreographed," said Caterina Froio, a researcher with the European University Institute in Tuscany, who is part of a research team working on a book about CasaPound. "It was everything from the way marchers were organized to the signs and flags handed out, to the discipline during the march. It was almost theatrical."
Iannone and other officials Saturday railed against many of the most popular issues used by European populist movements: burgeoning government debt, corrupt officials, high salaries and pensions for government officials, the influence of the media, foreign ownership of national companies, and the economic crisis gripping the country.
"At long last, there is a group that speaks for the concerns of or regular people," said Alessandro Fornini, a 28-year-old metal worker attending his first CasaPound rally.
Store clerk Anna Maria Scutaro, 31, agreed: "I am tired of popular leaders who only want to put money in their pockets," she said.
The economic crisis that has progressively tightened its grip on Italy in recent years is key to the group's appeal.
A year ago, Italy was on the brink of falling victim to the European debt crisis, with credit ratings agencies downgrading the creditworthiness of many big Italian companies and the government itself.
Long-term government bond yields surged past the 7-percent threshold that has sent Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain seeking bailouts. The stock market was plummeting, and consumer confidence reached record lows.
The crisis sparked the resignation of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was replaced by an appointed technocrat government led by former European Commissioner Mario Monti.
It was Monti who has pushed through difficult austerity measures that have helped reduce the risk of a credit default and dramatically lowering the country's borrowing costs. But it has been a painful process for many Italians, who feel the crush of rising taxes and reduced government services. It's a kind of discontent CasaPound has tapped into.
"More than anything else, the protagonist of (Saturday's) demonstration was the economic crisis," said Georgia Belli, another of the researchers from the European University Institute.