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Italy's royals face 11th hour hurdle

By ERIC J. LYMAN

ROME, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- The head of Italy's deposed royal family is on the verge of returning to his native country after more than half a century of exile, but the homecoming could still be sidetracked by 11th-hour drives that could spoil a generation of lobbying on behalf of the House of Savoy.

Vittorio Emmanuele, duke of Naples, the son of Italy's last king, Umberto II, last set foot in Italy 56 years ago. Now 65, he has been the victim of a ban that prohibited male heirs of his house from living in Italy. This was in retribution for the family's collaboration with the country's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. But in July, Parliament voted in favor of letting Vittorio Emmanuele and his 31-year-old son, Emmanuele Filiberto, prince of Venice, return.

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The family, which resides in Switzerland, celebrated the vote and started planning their return immediately afterward. But two movements -- the first from an anti-monarchist group and the second from supporters of another pretender to the throne -- are trying to change those plans.

The anti-monarchists were slow to get started, but their opposition is not a surprise. Stefano Covello, a former lawmaker who heads an anti-monarchist group supported by parts of the Communist and Green political parties, is furiously trying to accumulate 500,000 signatures needed to call a referendum on the issue. Covello has until the end of the day exactly three months after parliament's vote, a period that ends Thursday at midnight.

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Experts say the petition is unlikely to succeed. Such a move has only been successful twice in the Italian republic's history, and Covello started only two weeks ago. But the initiative is nonetheless surrounding Vittorio Emmanuele's return with a lot of bad publicity.

The other group, a pro-monarchy movement, last week withdrew its support for Vittorio Emmanuele's return because of the oath of allegiance to the republic the prince was required to take as a condition of his return -- requiring him to promise to stay out of politics and not to seek to restore the monarchy.

The movement, which wants a monarchy again in Italy, backs Vittorio Emmanuels's third cousin, Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of Aosta, as the rightful heir to the throne. Amedeo was not forced to leave Italy in 1946 because he was not a direct heir to the crown.

"Vittorio Emmanuele could return to Italy as soon as Friday, but he's now facing one attack that wants to take away that permission before it can go into effect, and another that wants to take away his royal claims even if he does return," political scientist and self-appointed royals watcher Angelo di Negri told United Press International. "This cannot be the kind of return he has imagined."

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Vittorio Emmanuele was a controversial figure even before Parliament voted in favor of his return to Italy. He has been criticized for, among other things, failing to maintain what the newspaper La Stampa called "the dignity of the monarchy."

While banned from entering Italy, the family owns a villa on the French island of Corsica that has a view of Sardinia, which is part of Italy. Vittorio Emmanuele has admitted to piloting the family's sailboat into Italian waters and as close to land as possible without touching shore.

Additionally, the royal pretender was accused of manslaughter in 1978 for the slaying of a German tourist, Dirk Hamer, who was shot trying to climb aboard the family's yacht. A French court acquitted Vittorio Emmanuele in 1991, but the issue remains a sensitive one.

Vittorio Emmanuele also said that anti-Semitic laws passed under the Mussolini regime were "nothing really terrible," a statement on which he later backtracked with an apology to Italy's Jewish leadership.

Furthermore, Emmanuele Filiberto, is a former disc jockey who has spent recent years jet setting around Europe, cultivating an image as one of the continent's most eligible bachelors -- all to the disapproval of Italian blue bloods.

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Despite all the problems, most observers expect Vittorio Emmanuele and Emmanuele Filiberto to return to the ancestral home. The family that ruled Italy from its unification in 1870 until they were forced into exile in 1946 is likely to return to Naples, the city where Vittorio Emmanuele and his father, the deposed King Umberto II, last stood on Italian soil. They will likely return by sea, which is how they left the country.

"Vittorio Emmanuele wants his first steps in Italy to be in the same city where he last stood, as a young boy," di Negri said.

Umberto II ruled Italy for less than a month. He became king after the war when Umberto's father, King Vittorio Emmanuele III, abdicated in a desperate attempt to save the monarchy. It had been discredited by its support for the Mussolini regime, which had by then been toppled. But a closely fought national referendum forced the family to go into exile, where they have remained ever since.

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