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Monti: The sober technocrat who saved Italy from default

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ROME, Dec 23 – Prime Minister Mario Monti, who said Sunday he is ready to lead Italy again, is a former high-flying European commissioner who saved the country from the brink of bankruptcy but at a steep social cost.

Monti was installed by parliament at the head of an unelected, technocratic government when his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi was forced to step down last year in a storm of sex scandals, market panic and infighting within his own party.

With his professorial demeanour, sober lifestyle and dry English wit, Monti could not have been more different from the larger-than-life Berlusconi.

In power since November 2011, Monti managed to govern with cross-party support that has spared him the rough-and-tumble of Italian politics.

Used to the back-and-forth of think tanks and the bureaucratic buzz of European institutions, he is still effectively untested in politics, leading some observers to doubt how he will perform if he joins the election campaign.

In a rare candid interview shortly after becoming prime minister, Monti admitted that his mother had always warned him to stay out of politics.

Asked about any acts of rebellion in his youth, Monti conceded that there really were none and said he had just studied hard, enjoyed cycling and was passionate about listening to foreign news on his short-wave radio.

That is not to say that the church-going 69-year-old has not shown his mettle in a long career, which he began as a free-market lecturer in an Italian university world that was being swept by far-left radicalism in the 1970s.

Twenty years later, as the European Union’s competition commissioner, the tough-minded Monti took on US corporate giants Microsoft and General Electric.

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In his past 13 months in government he has also imposed draconian austerity measures and launched long-delayed structural reforms, facing down trade union fury and outbursts of protests against cuts to education and healthcare.

Born on March 19, 1943 in Varese in northern Italy, Monti went to a Jesuit school — leading former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to explain: “That’s why you elaborate, elaborate, elaborate and never concede anything!”

Monti graduated in 1965 and began lecturing in Turin in 1970 — where he began a life-long passion for ancient Egypt after visiting a museum there.

He left to become a professor at Bocconi University in Milan where he became dean in 1994 — a position he has held on to even as prime minister.

Bocconi is widely seen as the training ground of Italy’s economic elite.

Also in 1994, Berlusconi’s first government proposed Monti for the European Commission. He showed his bipartisan support by managing to stay on in Brussels even after Berlusconi fell and a new centre-left government took power.

After taking over last year, Monti spoke of the need to restore Italy’s international credibility and called for Italians to make “sacrifices”.

He tempered this with a message of “social equity” — an ideal that opponents say he has failed to live up to as unemployment has risen to record highs and middle class Italians feel squeezed by a new property tax.

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