Europe

Italy's quiet man PM: Who is Paolo Gentiloni?

Mr Gentiloni and Matteo Renzi Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Gentiloni faces a struggle to show that he is his own man

Italy's new Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is known as a reserved diplomat with an untainted image but he might be forced out of his shell to meet the demands of the job.

Paolo Gentiloni is a one-man refutation of almost every Italian stereotype. He is quiet, organised, and unflashy. He is reminiscent of the butler in the novel Remains of the Day, whose greatest ambition was to be in a room without anyone noticing he was there.

"Paolo is a very reserved person," says Stefano Menichini, a journalist who has known Mr Gentiloni for almost 30 years.

"There is never gossip about him," he continues, "Nothing. You will never see him in famous holiday spots - he actually goes to the mountains in Austria."

He is not alone. The UK's Theresa May and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, also seen as reserved, spend their respective holidays there too.

From noble background to high office

Paolo Gentiloni comes from an aristocratic Roman family, the class that has provided courtiers for the city's respective Italian and Vatican governments for centuries.

He began his career as a journalist, and then rose through the centre-left of Italian politics.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Paolo Gentiloni is seen as well organised but reserved

From 2006-08 he served as communications minister in the government of Romano Prodi. In 2014, Matteo Renzi appointed him as foreign minister.

During the recent constitutional referendum campaign, Mr Gentiloni warned that Italy risked being caught by the wave of populism.

"It's easy to say 'No, I'm not worried'," he told the BBC during the campaign, "but in fact every single Western country should consider very seriously the risk that people who are in some ways the victims of globalisation can react against the traditional parties, both the right- and left-wing moderate parties.

None of his words, delivered to the BBC in impeccably aristocratic English, translate into easy slogans. It's hard to imagine Mr Gentiloni leaping on a platform and rousing a crowd.

He is about to face opponents who know how to do just that. The opposition Five Star Movement takes a populist approach to politics.

The party has already worked out its line of attack against the new prime minister.

"He is just Renzi's puppet," says Manlio di Stefano, a Five Star member of parliament, "They needed someone to put there and give Renzi the time to wipe his image after the referendum disaster."

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Mr Gentiloni faces a struggle to show that he is his own man. Matteo Renzi remains the leader of the Democratic Party, of which Mr Gentiloni is a member, and shows every sign of wanting to come back as prime minister at the next election.

'Austere but funny'

That poll is, at most, 14 months away. Paolo Gentiloni risks becoming little more than a placeholder whilst Matteo Renzi and the Five Star Movement begin the campaign for the next election.

But even a stopgap prime minister has things to do. Mr Gentiloni's most immediate priority will be to safeguard Italy's banks, which have €286bn (£240bn; $303bn) of bad debts.

Of particular concern is Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world's oldest bank, which needs to arrange a rescue by the end of the year.

"He is a person who has the qualities that are needed when there is too much mess in a country," says Stefano Menichini.

While he might be austere as a person, his friend insists he can also be very funny.

In public, that sense of humour is well-buried. Perhaps Italy's prime minister keeps his jokes for his hikes in the Alps.

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