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French-Italian migrant row caps a history of prickly relations

© AFP/File | Macron won no friends in Rome last week by likening anti-migrant sentiment to 'leprosy'

PARIS (AFP) - 

A war of words between France and Italy over migrants has set the scene for a testy European summit this week after the latest spat between neighbours with complicated relations for centuries.

Emmanuel Macron's rocky relationship with Italy's ruling populists worsened this weekend when far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blasted the French president's "arrogant" stance on immigration.

Salvini further accused Macron of hypocrisy for criticising his hardline approach while France continues to "push back women, children and men" across the border back into Italy.

Macron, who argues that France has taken in more asylum seekers than Italy this year as the massive influx across the Mediterranean has slowed, hit back: "We won't take lessons from anyone."

The heated exchange overshadowed a weekend meeting in Brussels that was supposed to find better ways to handle the hundreds of thousands arriving from Africa, the Middle East and Asia since 2015. European leaders are set to meet on Thursday and Friday in Brussels to discuss the issue as well as eurozone reforms.

Macron was perhaps destined to get on badly with Salvini after coming to power in an election that pitched his pro-EU centrism against the far-right populism of Marine Le Pen.

He won no friends in Rome last week by likening anti-migrant sentiment to "leprosy", and compounded the row by suggesting that with arrival numbers down, Italy did not have a migrant crisis but a political one.

He had already attracted Italy's ire by criticising its refusal to take in 630 migrants onboard the Aquarius rescue ship, and a Franco-Spanish proposal for "closed" migrant camps in arrival countries went down similarly badly.

France's ambassador to Rome was summoned this month over the row, and while Macron is heading to the Vatican Tuesday to meet Pope Francis, he is not stopping in Rome to meet Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

"The political leaders of Italy and France have not treated each other this badly since they were at war," Aldo Cazzullo observed in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

- From Napoleon to Libya -

Analysts say the chill reflects not just a clash of political worldviews but a long history of animosity.

The 20th century saw times of both bitter enmity during World War II and close cooperation as the neighbours worked together to build the EU afterwards.

Gilles Bertrand, co-author of a history of Franco-Italian relations since 1660, sees traces of centuries-old invasions by European powers, including France under Napoleon Bonaparte, in contemporary suspicions.

"Even though they are extremely close culturally, with ties going back to the Middle Ages -- commercial, intellectual, artistic -- it goes down badly when France acts superior," said Bertrand, a professor of modern history at the University of Grenoble Alpes.

More recently, resentment brimmed over the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya -- a former Italian colony -- which was heavily backed by France.

"The Italians are hugely sensitive when it comes to Libya," said Jean-Pierre Darnis, a lecturer at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis who specialises in Franco-Italian relations.

"Their reading of it is that in 2011 France intervened in Libya to dislodge them" in their former sphere of influence, he told AFP.

Italy also views Libya's current lawlessness -- a driving force in the migrant exodus from the North African country -- as the direct result of the intervention, an additional source of anger, he said.

The bombing campaign was before Macron's time, but soon after his arrival in power last year he aggravated tensions over Libya again by organising a spontaneous peace conference independently of Italy.

- 'Economic colonialism' -

The last few years have also seen growing tensions between the neighbours over investment projects.

French companies invested heavily in Italy in the 1990s and 2000s, including luxury group LVMH's acquisition of the Fendi label in 2001 and Bulgari a decade later.

Yet the value of French takeovers since 2000 has been more than five times higher of the value of Italian takeovers in France, according to financial analysts Dealogic -- leading to regular accusations of "economic colonialism".

On this front, again, Macron's presidency got off to a bad start -- he temporarily nationalised the STX shipyard instead of giving a majority stake to Italy's Fincantieri, reneging on an agreement between Rome and the previous French government.

A face-saving deal was eventually worked out to hand the Italian shipbuilder 50 percent of STX, "but it did a huge amount of damage," said Darnis.

"It wiped out pretty much all of Macron's political capital in Italy," he added.

© 2018 AFP