Mussolini goes on hunger strike

What would grandad make of it? Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito, Italy's former fascist dictator, is fuming after being barred from running in next month's election for governor of Lazio, the region that includes Rome.

According to the electoral commission, hundreds of signatures that she presented in support of her candidacy were forged. But on Monday she appealed against the decision in a regional court and started a hunger strike to publicise her protest.

Elected last year to the European parliament, and a member of Italy's parliament for 12 years before that, Mussolini has long shown that her surname can be an asset rather than an obstacle to a flourishing political career: in Italy at least.

But she's found it hard going since 2003, when she quit the once far-right National Alliance party in high dudgeon, accusing it of denigrating her grandfather's memory by becoming too moderate.

Nor is Mussolini getting much sympathy from some of her erstwhile Alliance colleagues. One of them, communications minister Maurizio Gasparri, said: "I saw Alessandra on TV looking rather tense and as if she'd put on weight. A hunger strike may be a healthy choice, just to slim down." There's Italian charm for you . . .


Such macho wisecracks would not be tolerated in Scandinavia, where Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik's recent assault on discrimination has inspired others.

Bondevik was outraged that iconic furniture giant Ikea did not use women in its wordless instruction booklets and was not afraid to say so.

Ikea has agreed to review the booklets to ensure gender equality in the future. Further, his brave protest has excited others in Ikea's homeland of Sweden.

Leaders of the influential Left party have demanded to know why all the figures on pedestrian crossing signs are men. Indeed, in a country where road signs happily warn of crossing elks, ducks and frogs it seems odd that half the human population is excluded.

But do not fear: Observer's new man in Stockholm reports that near his office the populace have taken direct action, with a skirt being neatly painted around the legs of the male figure. Stereotypical, perhaps, but effective.

Press-ure point

The departure of the bureaucrat running the behind-the-scenes press operation of the European Commission has sent the Brussels rumour mill into overdrive.

Jorge de Oliveira E Sousa is off to Harvard on a fellowship. Given the disastrous news coverage president José Manuel Barroso received recently as he marked his first 100 days in office, some think a shake-up is likely.

Observer hears there are two likely candidates to replace him. One is another Portuguese, Barroso's chief of staff Joao Vale de Almeida.

The other is the woman Vale de Almeida hired, Françoise Le Bail, the chief spokeswoman. The Frenchwoman has had a fractious relationship with the Brussels hack-pack and it would allow a new broom to sweep through the press room.

Boateng trip

Black empowerment in South Africa is not confined to business, it seems. It also applies to foreign ambassadors.

Last year the US sent Jendayi Frazer, an academic, former colleague and protégé of Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, to Pretoria.

Now London has appointed Paul Boateng, the Anglo-Ghanaian who was the first black cabinet minister.

It is very unusual for Britain to appoint a politician rather than a career diplomat but presumably senior black mandarins are in short supply. And Boateng will need to milk his anti-apartheid campaign history to mend relations dented by differences over Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

So how prescient was Boateng's 1987 acceptance speech when he first won election in London: "Brent South today, Soweto tomorrow." Though Observer guesses he'll prefer the high commissioner's residence in Pretoria to a shack in the township.

Dutch DeNunzio

Tony DeNunzio's decision to quit as Asda's chief executive to join the Dutch retailer Royal Vendex KBB as executive chairman has been met with a mixture of incomprehension and snootiness, with a touch of conspiracy about a possible falling out with the boys from Bentonville.

But the Briton's move from Wal-Mart's UK supermarket chain really doesn't seem that odd. Private equity ownership, like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts' of Vendex, gives executives a chance to create serious wealth for themselves, without running foul of the governance police that closely monitor remuneration at listed companies.

Its 15 brands include M&S Modes, de Bijenkorf (Dutch for "beehive"), a 135-year-old upmarket department store chain and Hema, the jewel in the crown.

When it was founded in 1926, everything cost a guilder at Hema; its original, uncontracted name meant "Dutch Standard Price Company". Selling housewares, food and clothing, Hema manifests the best of Dutch design at prices so keen that many Dutch wouldn't consider moving anywhere without a branch.

Brief protest

Euratex, the trade body that represents the textile industry, is doing its best to pressure the European Commission into imposing curbs on imports of Chinese textiles to stop cheaper Chinese clothing flooding the market following the removal of worldwide quotas.

To make its point, it will hold a "dignified and symbolic event" on March 23 in front of the Berlaymont building, home to the Commission.

What kind of event exactly remains unclear. How about a symbolic bra burning, since that is one of the items on its suggested EU sanctions list?

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