Daughter of Italian and Jewish American parents, Elly Schlein wants to remake the center-left opposition to Giorgia Meloni, if only her party can survive it.
ROME — Growing up in Switzerland, Elly Schlein felt a little lost.
“I was the black sheep. Because my brother and sister seemed to be more sure of what they would do,” the politician recalled. She watched Italian neorealist cinema and American comedies, played Philip Glass on the piano, pet her dwarf bunny named after Freddie Mercury, listened to the Cranberries and ultimately got involved in her school’s politics. “It took a lot more time for me to find my way,” she said.
Last weekend, Ms. Schlein, 37, found her way into the center of the debate about the future of the European left when she stunned the liberal establishment and reordered Italy’s political landscape by winning a primary election to become the first woman to lead the country’s center-left Democratic Party. She is promising, she said in her new office headquarters on Wednesday, to “change deeply” a party in the midst of an identity crisis.
It is hard to embody change in Italy more than Ms. Schlein.
A woman in a relationship with a woman, she is the daughter of a Jewish American father; granddaughter of an Italian antifascist partisan; proud native of Lugano, Switzerland; former volunteer for Barack Obama; collaborator on an award-winning documentary about Albanian refugees; fan of “Naked Gun” movies; shredder of Green Day chords on her electric guitar; and fervent progressive eager to make common international cause with “A.O.C.,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York.
With her election, Ms. Schlein has catapulted Italy, which long seemed a Country for Old Men, into markedly different territory. A female opposition leader now is pitted against the first female prime minister, the right-wing nationalist Giorgia Meloni.
“It’s a different scenario now,” said Ms. Schlein, who had the professorial air of her professor parents as she leafed through newspapers. “And an interesting one, because I’ve always said that we don’t need just a female leadership. We need a feminist leadership.”
The two women could hardly be more different. Ms. Meloni, who called Ms. Schlein to congratulate her, was raised by a single mother in a working-class neighborhood of Rome, was a youth activist in post-Fascist parties and came to prominence on an anti-migrant, Italy-first platform. Her battle cry: “I’m Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m a Christian!”
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Ms. Schlein — who has Italian, Swiss and American passports — said she didn’t understand how being “a woman, a mother and a Christian helps Italians to pay their bills.” She added: “I am a woman. I love another woman. I am not a mother, but I am not less of a woman for this.”
She argued that Ms. Meloni represented an ideology that viewed women merely for their reproductive and child-rearing roles. Ms. Meloni has “never described herself as an antifascist,” Ms. Schlein said, arguing that she instead threw red meat to her base with “inhuman” and “illegal” policies making it harder to save migrants at sea.
Such liberal red meat is likely to sate the base of progressives and young voters that Ms. Schlein brought into the Democratic Party fold in last Sunday’s primary. But it did little for the left in the election Ms. Meloni won easily in September. Ms. Schlein’s party now has about half the support of Ms. Meloni’s.
Moderate critics within Ms. Schlein’s own deeply divided party fear that she will fold its big tent by forfeiting the political center, driving the party to the far left, gutting it of its reputation for sober competence, and blending it with — or feeding it to — the reinvigorated, populist Five Star Movement.
But Ms. Schlein is not convinced that denizens of an Italian middle even exist. “Where are they today?” she asked in her perfect English, noting that “when somebody had tried to represent them with new political options, it never went really well.” Instead, she saw the way forward as making “clear who we want to represent” — struggling Italians.
She said she would spread “environmentalist and feminist” solutions to endemic Italian problems such as female unemployment and inequality in “clearly a patriarchal country.” She would make amends for “the mistakes made in the past,” especially during the leadership of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, which led her to quit the Democratic Party nearly a decade ago.
She would reintroduce labor protections, tax the rich, reconnect with trade unions, invest in a greener economy and push for gay and immigrant rights. This week, she visited the site of a deadly shipwreck of migrants in Calabria and effectively interrogated Ms. Meloni’s interior minister for appearing to blame the victims.
“Rights, civil rights and social rights, for us are strictly interconnected,” she said in the interview, adding, “The left lost in the moment it became shy on these issues.”
One major change on her agenda is to put her party in a position to win elections by making alliances with partners who agreed on critical progressive issues, such as the support of a universal income.
“Five Star, of course,” she said. “They have a lot of support.”
But Giuseppe Conte, the leader of Five Star, which has demonstrated a strong illiberal streak over recent years, was the prime minister who signed off on the crackdown of migrant rescue ships at sea. He has emerged as Italy’s main opponent to Ms. Meloni’s vow to keep sending weapons to Ukraine.
Five Star’s position on Ukraine, Ms. Schlein said, “I don’t agree on.” She described her party as wholly supportive of Ukraine against the “criminal invasion” by Russia and noted it had voted to send arms over the next year, because “it’s necessary now.”
Supporters of Ukraine, however, worry about Ms. Schlein’s ongoing commitment because of her talk of being a “pacifist” and what some consider her naïve argument that Europe somehow needed to convince China to force Russia to end the war.
But she said she feels a personal connection to Ukraine. Her grandfather was from Ukraine, she said, and after he emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Elizabeth, N.J., his family back home was almost certainly wiped out in the Holocaust. Her Italian grandfather, who eventually became a Socialist lawmaker, refused to wear the “black shirts of the Fascists” during his graduation and “was an antifascist lawyer” who, she said, would “defend Jews in trials.”
That family history has made her keenly sensitive to “what nationalism has brought to the European continent,” she said, adding, with a reference to the Russian president, “This war is a nationalist war from Putin.”
Ms. Schlein was herself not raised Jewish, though she called herself “particularly proud” of her Jewish ancestry. In a friendly interview during the campaign, she told an Italian website that her last name and pronounced nose, what she considers her defining physical feature, attracted odious anti-Semitic attacks. But, she noted, the nose was not Jewish, but “typically Etruscan.”
Asked about that comment, Ms. Schlein’s verbosity stalled. “I wouldn’t go back to that,” she said. “No, thanks.” When pressed on what an Etruscan nose looked like, she threw her hands up and acknowledged, “They don’t even exist!”
The point, she said, was that she learned that being a “woman,” and “an L.G.B.T.Q.I.+ person” and “very proudly the daughter of a Jewish father” made her a prime target “from the extreme right or also from my extreme left sometimes.” Ms. Schlein declined in the interview to discuss her family or her partner in further detail.
Ms. Schlein said addressing such injustices drew her into politics. A star pupil in her Lugano high school, she said, she wanted to take her talents to Italy, “because I’ve always felt that this country, the country of my mother, has strong potential that only needs to be freed.”
She went to art school in Bologna. Then she dropped film for law and went from campus politics to the real thing — making powerful friends, gaining fluency in social media and doing stints in the European and Italian Parliaments along the way. When she quit the Democratic Party to protest the loss of its liberal way, she supported a movement to “occupy” the party.
Now she occupies the leadership headquarters near the Spanish Steps, and after a short walk toward Ms. Meloni’s palace, Ms. Schlein, the progressive no one saw coming, entertained taking that place over, too.
“Well,” she said. “We’ll see.”