In 2019, a politician little known outside Italy named Lorenzo Fontana brought a polarizing event to Verona, a city with a history of ultra-Catholicism and right-wing politics. Called the World Congress of Families, after the U.S.-based coalition that organizes the event, it is one of the world’s largest and most influential anti-gay, anti-abortion conventions, powered by influential backers, including Russian oligarchs, Catholic bishops, Opus Dei leaders, ultra-nationalist academics and media personalities. 

The conference was a political lightning rod. As it began, protestors swept through the streets of Verona while conference attendees gave interviews outside the event hall. “Homosexuals must be treated, otherwise hell is waiting for them,” one woman told journalists outside the conference. 

Also at the conference, Giorgia Meloni, who was elected last month to be the new prime minister of Italy, gave a rousing speech to a standing ovation, railing against surrogacy for gay couples. “A puppy rightly cannot be ripped from the mother’s womb as soon as it’s born. So two rich men should not be able to buy a son from a desperate mother,” she told the enraptured crowd. 

Meloni’s election victory also swept in Fontana, 42, who was elected speaker of the lower house of Italy’s Parliament — the third most powerful position in Italian politics. But despite their history of overlapping values and a shared conference podium, the appointment came as a shock to people who have been watching Meloni’s rise to the pinnacle of government. 

“I was surprised,” said Marianna Griffini, a lecturer in European and international studies at King’s College London. She described how Fontana’s election as speaker is at odds with Meloni’s newfound moderation strategy. “As soon as she stepped into Parliament, into government, she basically went through a makeover of her discourse and image. The style was much less aggressive, much less emotional, much more moderate in tone.” 

In contrast to Meloni’s trajectory toward the middle, Fontana doesn’t mince his words, eschews compromise and calls for the complete repeal of Italy’s abortion law. This positions him as Meloni’s ideological standard-bearer, allowing her to sidestep political purity tests. In being her choice for parliamentary speaker, said Griffini, Fontana represents the new government’s core ideology, while Meloni wears a mask of moderation: “We have to see that she’s walking a tightrope between mainstreaming and radicalization.” 

Fontana, meanwhile, stakes out a hardline defense of “traditional family values,” a movement at the core of Meloni’s rise to power, which has been promoted and financed by a coalition of pan-European, U.S., and Russia-backed individuals and institutions for nearly a decade. A year before the Verona conference, Fontana, at the time Italy’s minister for families, made headlines when said he believed LGBTQ families “don’t exist.” Key figures in the traditional family values movement have coalesced in support of Fontana.

The multi-country campaign to roll back LGBTQ, immigrant and reproductive rights across Europe was galvanized five years ago by Vladimir Putin’s repressions against many public expressions of gay life in Russia — notably a ban on the promotion of “LGBT propaganda” among children that last month was expanded to include people of all ages. “The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world,” said Larry Jacobs, the Congress of Families’ late managing director. In 2016, Fontana said that “with gay marriage and and immigration they want to dominate us and wipe out our people,” adding that the example to follow was Russia. 

Fontana joined the hard-right League party when he was 16 years old. He drove a forklift before becoming a politician. “Never has a politician from the city of Juliet risen to such heights,” the Italian newspaper La Repubblica wrote of him.

Intensely religious, Fontana has called Vilmar Pavesi, a priest in Verona with virulently anti-LGBTQ views, his spiritual father. “Gays are a creation of the devil,” Pavesi told Espresso magazine in 2018, before saying that he and Fontana think the same way. “If we thought differently, our paths would divide.” Fontana says 50 Hail Marys a day, and his social media channels are peppered with images of Christ and the Madonna. 

Fontana’s fast rise in Italian politics is often linked to his ability to cultivate connections with the larger constellation of right-wing, Catholic associations in Europe. In addition to the Congress of Families, Fontana has called members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement his “friends.” He has links to CitizenGo, the ultra-conservative Madrid campaigning platform that sends bright orange “freedom planes” and “freedom buses” around Europe with slogans like “boys have penises, girls have vulvas, don’t be fooled.” Fontana has also campaigned alongside Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the renegade, anti-vaccine, conspiracy-theory-promoting former Vatican envoy, who recently blamed the war in Ukraine on the American deep state, U.S. bioweapons labs and Zelensky’s “LGTBQ ideology.” 

Fontana admires Vladimir Putin. He once called him “a light for us Westerners, who live in a great crisis of values.” Alongside Matteo Salvini, a right-wing Italian politician known for his hostility toward immigrants, Fontana wore a “no to Russian sanctions” T-shirt in the Italian Parliament during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Later that year, the Kremlin invited Fontana to Crimea, alongside other members of pro-independence and anti-immigration parties, to act as international observers in a sham independence referendum.

Meloni has vowed to maintain unflinching support for Western sanctions against Russia no matter the energy implications on Italy this winter. Fontana, meanwhile, has expressed concern that sanctions against Putin could “boomerang” and that allowing Ukraine to enter the European Union “would risk exacerbating the already bad climate with Moscow.” 

Space between Meloni and Fontana is largely confined to foreign policy, while positions concerning LGBTQ people and women are more in lockstep. “I think they will try to make us like Poland. Keep out the possibility of abortion. The possibility to get a divorce, to get contraception. They will try — and I think they will succeed also,” said Silvana Agatone, a gynaecologist in Rome who leads an association protecting the rights of women to receive an abortion in Italy.

While Meloni has said she will not repeal Law 194, Italy’s version of Roe v. Wade which protects the rights of women to an abortion, Fontana has made no such promise. Instead, he is a member of a group called Committee No To 194, which works explicitly to overturn the 1978 law.

“We are concerned that they might create obstacles — financially, organizationally, institutionally  — so they might not touch the law, but they might physically make implementation impossible,” said Giulia Tranchina, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s already incredibly hard, for poorer women, from southern Italy, from outside the big cities to actually access abortion,” she said. Doctors in Italy are allowed to invoke conscientious objection to performing an abortion, a law she worries will be taken advantage of by the new government. 

Since the new government was elected, Agatone, the Roman gynaecologist, has been receiving new, strange messages from people asking about her views on abortion after 22 weeks and abusive notes accusing her of “wanting to kill babies.” She said that her colleagues from other associations have received similar messages. “It’s almost like they are trying to catch me out in some way. Like my answers are under observation. So I think we will be attacked in some way.”

In espousing ideas about population decline, demographic implosion and an immigrant invasion, Fontana echoes white nationalists in the U.S. and in Northern Europe who embrace the Great Replacement — a conspiracy theory that holds that nonwhite people are being allowed and encouraged to come to the U.S. and Europe to “replace” white voters and achieve a leftist political agenda. In 2018, Fontana wrote a book called “The Empty Cradle of Civilization” where he argues Italians risk “extinction.” The legality of abortion forms part of this concern — in his view, the problem partly stems from births being terminated. “If every year we lose a city the size of Padua, the demographic decline is comparable to that caused between 1918 and 1920 by the Spanish flu,” said Fontana. 

In fact, Italy is currently facing population loss, a brain drain of young and talented people leaving the country in the hundreds of thousands every year. Fontana claims mass immigration  — alongside same-sex marriage and gender fluidity — will “wipe out our community and traditions.”

Outlawing abortion as a way of addressing demographic challenge is a tactic deeply rooted in the history of European fascism, said Neil Datta, executive director of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive rights. “It puts women and their procreative role in some sort of nationalist objective, producing more babies for the glory of the nation,” Datta said. 

When Fontana was elected speaker of the lower house of Italy’s Parliament, protesters took to the Piazza Dante in Naples dressed in the dystopian red robes of the Handmaid’s Tale. “We dressed up as handmaids to recall the novel and TV series in which women are subjected to constant violence, so that their only role is to be a reproducer,” one protester told journalists. Members of parliament also staged a protest at the appointment, holding up a banner saying “No to a homophobic, pro-Putin president.” 

Others celebrated. On the World Congress of Family’s official news site, an article enthusiastically praised Fontana’s rise to high political office. “Lorenzo Fontana is the Parliament Speaker,” the article read. “One of us.”