Emmanuel Macron’s decision to escalate France’s feud with Italy will backfire

By losing his temper and recalling an ambassador, the French president has descended to the level of his opponents. 

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Is there an adult in the room? Last week, for the first time since 1945, France recalled its ambassador to Italy in a situation the French government described as “unprecedented” since the end of the Second World War. Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, had met with gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protesters near Paris earlier that week, a move seen as “an additional and unacceptable provocation” by the French authorities. Since Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega and the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) formed a governing coalition in Italy last June, two of the EU’s founding members have been at each other’s throats.

 

Di Maio met with yellow vest Christophe Chalençon and fellow protesters who are standing candidates in this May’s European elections. “The wind of change is blowing through the Alps,” Di Maio tweeted in a clear message of support to the movement that has sparked months of anti-government protests since last November.

Di Maio, who leads M5S, had previously shown support for the yellow vests in a blog post in early January, clearly opposing French president Emmanuel Macron’s stance of condemning the street protests: “Yellow vests, don’t give up!” his message read. “We have followed your battle from Italy since the day you first appeared, colouring the streets of Paris and other French cities in yellow.” The post drew comparisons between the French and Italian movements, displaying Di Maio’s obvious political motivation: “In France, like in Italy, politics is deaf to the needs of citizens, who have been kept out of the most important decisions involving the people.” Di Maio’s piece went on to offer political support and the use of the Five Star web platform to the yellow vests.

Although Di Maio described Chalençon as the yellow vests’ “leader” in his tweet, the list is led by a woman, Ingrid Levavasseur, who had not been notified of the meeting. Chalençon may be prominent among the yellow vests, but he is not in any respect their “leader”.

The French government, however, did not simply shrug at this error: the foreign affairs minister declared in a statement that the meeting was the latest in a series of “repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outrageous declarations” by Italy. The M5S's support for the yellow vests, it added, “violated the respect that is owed to the democratic choices made by an allied and friendly nation”. That the meeting was held on French soil (Di Maio also announced a second in Rome) without notifying the Italian embassy made matters worse. “To disagree is one thing, to exploit a relationship for electoral purposes is another,” France added.

After France recalled its ambassador for talks, Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte said he hoped the situation could be “cleared up immediately” and praised “Italy and France’s relationship” as one “rooted in history” that “cannot be called into question by events”. Di Maio’s fellow deputy PM, Lega leader Matteo Salvini — who has previously voiced support for the yellow vests and called Macron “a president who governs against his people” — said that he would be happy to hold talks with the French president. But Salvini then added that to “reset” its relationship with Italy, France should address “fundamental” issues, such as migration: “Stop the pushbacks at the borders,” he said, referring to the French policy of refusing to allow migrants to to cross the French border in the Alps.

Immigration is just one of the issues that have led to this historic clash between Italy and France. On 21 June, Macron warned against populism spreading across Europe, comparing it to “leprosy”, and urged voters to fight against “those who hate Europe”. The speech, clearly aimed at the Italian government, prompted Di Maio to respond by claiming that the real leprosy was Macron’s hypocrisy on immigration, after the French president criticised the Italian government for refusing to accept 600 migrants onboard the Aquarius rescue ship (only to turn down the boat’s request to dock in French ports). Italy said it would not accept “lessons from a country that, on migration, has always preferred to turn its back on its partners.”

Italy and France’s rivalry over migration has impacted the already unstable situation in Libya, where the countries support opposing factions. In January, Salvini accused France of not caring about peace in Libya because of its competing energy interests with Italy. Di Maio also claimed that France had played a critical part in causing the migration crisis, stating that France was “exploiting Africa” by printing the CFA franc, the common currency in several former French colonies. “The European Union should sanction France and all those European countries that are impoverishing Africa”, Di Maio concluded.

When France summoned the Italian ambassador to France for an explanation, Salvini called Macron “a terrible president” who “talks a lot but does little”: “He preaches about generosity and solidarity and then pushes back thousands of migrants at the Italian border in Ventimiglia and Piedmont.” When Macron declared that Italy’s populists were irrelevant a few days later, Salvini fired back by posting a photo of Macron with Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister outed by populists.

Immigration is not the only point of contention: in 2018, the Italian deputy culture minister, Lucia Borgonzoni, of Salvini’s Lega, said she was opposed to the loans of Leonardo Da Vinci masterpieces from Italian museums to the Louvre’s major exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the master’s death. “The French can’t have everything,” she declared at the time, adding that “the national interest can’t rank second” regarding the autonomy of Italian museums.

France’s recalling of its ambassador to Italy takes the feud between the two countries to a new level. Hailed as a pro-EU liberal, Macron was the Italian populists’ ideal target. By losing his temper and recalling an ambassador, the French president has proved no more responsible than his counterparts across the Alps.

Such a historically significant decision should signal grave danger; instead, it’s merely the latest episode in a political arm wrestle escalating out of control. If Macron wants to truly defeat the populists, he might want to work harder on forming political alliances ahead of the European elections. On that front, Salvini and Di Maio are far ahead.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.