The Italian Almanac

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Northern League politicians were up in arms after low-cost airline Ryanair used a photo of party leader and Reforms Minister Umberto Bossi making an offensive hand gesture in a publicity campaign. The photo of Bossi, whose party wants devolution of powers to the regions, was taken when he caused a country-wide furore by raising his middle finger at the Italian national anthem.

But the image now appears on the homepage of Ryanair's Italian website in an advert for summer price bargains that also knocks recent efforts by the Italian government to keep loss-making national carrier Alitalia in the air through 2008. The government gave Alitalia a 300-million-euro loan - now under European Union scrutiny - in June after Air France-KLM abandoned a takeover bid due to union opposition.

Public Works Minister Altero Matteoli of the National Alliance described the ad as ''vulgar and offensive''. ''The airline, which operates out of our airports and in our skies, ought to apologise not only to Minister Bossi but also to Italians, although the vulgarity of the advert is so extreme that even an apology won't suffice,'' he said. The chairman of the Senate's public works committee, Luigi Grillo, pointed out that Ryanair could also be considered an 'assisted' company, since it enjoys generous Irish tax breaks. ''Ryanair also forgets to mention in its ad that it receives a tidy sum from many Italian airports who pay to increase their internal traffic,'' he added.