Discreet Conte bounces back for second go at Italy's premiership

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Rome (AFP)

Little-known academic Giuseppe Conte finds himself once again on the cusp of leading Italy's populist government-in-waiting less than a week after walking away from the post amid a row over a proposed eurosceptic economy minister.

On Sunday Conte, 53, gave up the prime ministerial mandate handed to him by President Sergio Mattarella, barely five days after being nominated to to marshal an anti-establishment, far-right government, as the coalition between the Five Star Movement and League fell apart amid calls for Mattarella's impeachment.

He returned to teaching law at the University of Florence, from where he suddenly had to dart after classes on Thursday morning as leading figures from Five Star and the League hashed out talks over a reborn Conte administration.

Now the devout Catholic and former leftist is back in the hot seat after being newly handed the opportunity to lead the country and a cabinet shorn controversial financier Paolo Savona in charge of the nation's economy.

He could very well be stood alongside Mattarella for Italy's national day celebrations in Rome on Saturday, before jetting to the G7 in Canada.

Born in 1964 in the tiny village of Volturara Appula in the southern region of Puglia, Conte joined the anti-establishment Five Star Movement after reportedly turning his back on the country's left.

"I used to vote left. Today, I think that the ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate," Conte was quoted as saying by Italian media.

Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, also from Italy's poorer south, hailed Conte as "someone from the periphery of this country (...), who has made something of himself".

A friend told state radio broadcaster Radio 1 that Conte is "very religious" and devoted to mystic Catholic saint Padre Pio, who lived in Puglia.

The saint was famous for exhibiting "stigmata" -- marks on his body supposedly matching the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ.

- Who's boss? -

Analysts say that Conte will serve at the command of the leaders of the two groups forming the new cabinet.

They said Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigrant League would call the shots.

Salvini and Di Maio are tipped to for key ministerial posts within the new government, as well as both holding the deputy prime minister position.

The Italian press had raised concerns over Conte's credibility as premier on the international scene.

Left-wing newspaper La Repubblica branded him "a prime minister who will not count" in an editorial, asking "what authority will he have when he goes to meet Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron?".

- CV or not CV? -

Di Maio had initially presented Conte as part of the Five Star team of ministers ahead of the March 4 general election.

That was the general public's first glimpse of the discreet lawyer. He stayed out of sight in the talks between Five Star and the League to form an alliance after the inconclusive election.

After the parties nominated him, the media uncovered snippets of information about the likely future prime minister.

He is reportedly separated from his wife, with whom he has a 10-year-old son.

Conte currently teaches law at the University of Florence and at Rome's Luiss University.

In a CV posted on the website of a lawyers' association, Conte boasted of an impressive career in law and academia.

His claims of study positions at some of the world's most prestigious universities were cast into doubt, however.

New York University (NYU) and the Sorbonne's law school told AFP they had no record of him as a student or faculty member.

NYU said that he was granted permission to conduct research in its law library between 2008 and 2014. Cambridge University declined to give details about Conte.

Another of the institutions where he claims to have "furthered his juridical studies" was Vienna's Internationales Kulturinstitut -- a language school.

Conte has not spoken out publicly about the CV affair, but Di Maio and League chief Matteo Salvini staunchly defended him, and when the chance of forming an alliance reappeared, the pair had no hesitation in putting they quite man forward again.