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‘Invader’ Macron: Why French border incursion left Italy fuming

France 24 screen grab | The front page of Il Resto del Carlino, one of Italy’s oldest papers, featuring a picture of a bellicose Macron with the headline, “The Invader”.

Italy’s furious reaction to a border incursion by French customs officers has highlighted growing sensitivity over what many Italians perceive as French arrogance and double standards when it comes to dealing with Europe’s migrant crisis.

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Hours after Italy’s March 4 election witnessed the surge of Eurosceptic forces, a concerned Emmanuel Macron said the results signaled a warning to all Europeans: that they must not pursue lofty ideals without taking into account the strains of immigration and the “suffering” of Italian citizens. Less than a month later, it appears his government has been found guilty of ignoring both – at least in Italy’s view.

Italian officials and media outlets have been fuming since gun-carrying French customs officers turned up at a railway station in the small Alpine town of Bardonecchia late on Friday to confront a Nigerian passenger suspected of carrying drugs. Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into the border incursion and the Foreign Ministry has summoned France’s ambassador in Rome over the “unacceptable” violation of Italian sovereignty.

French and Italian officials have since offered differing version of events, with France’s Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin, who is responsible for customs, arguing that the French officers were merely following procedures laid out in a 1990 agreement. Italy has countered that the office where the Nigerian passenger was compelled to take a urine test – which turned out negative – had been given to a charity that helps migrants, and that French authorities had been told not to enter it.

Darmanin said Sunday he would travel to Rome in the coming days to “explain himself in person”. But by then the Italian press was up in arms over the purported smugness with which the French government had treated the incident, including its pointed refusal to offer an apology – an attitude many south of the Alps regard as the latest evidence of a pattern of French contempt for its southern neighbour and for the principles of European unity and solidarity professed by Macron.

France 24's Philip Willan reports from Rome

“France’s torpid reaction has been unbearable in its slovenliness,” wrote Carlo Bonini in a scathing comment piece published by La Repubblica, blasting the “disdain with which [France] downgraded the whole matter to a mere customs issue, as if we were discussing undue checks on a cargo of cheese”. He added: “Friday evening’s armed incursion was not an ‘unpleasant incident’, a ‘misunderstanding’ or a breach of etiquette. It was a macroscopic violation of sovereignty […] that revealed the true face of France’s Macron when it comes to national borders.”

The Bardonecchia incident was front-page news throughout the weekend and into Monday, with newspaper headlines slamming a “blatant violation” of the country’s borders. In a feature story published by La Stampa, inhabitants of the Alpine town said French officers behaved like conquerors there, routinely stopping local residents to check their ID. The front page of Il Resto del Carlino, one of Italy’s oldest papers, featured a picture of a bellicose Macron under the headline, “The Invader”.

Meanwhile, L’Avvenire, a Catholic daily, noted that both the incident and the subsequent diplomatic rift had received “only muted coverage” in the French press – seemingly reflecting the French government’s view that the Bardonecchia spat was only minor news.

‘No lessons to receive from Macron’

The main port of entry for migrants entering Europe, Italy is deeply resentful of the way fellow EU members have washed their hands of the crisis. Part of the resentment is aimed at France, which has tightened security on its border with Italy and carries out near-systematic checks on trains and traffic coming from its southern neighbour.

France is regularly accused of turning back minors and other vulnerable migrants in violation of international agreements – allegations denied by the French. Days before the latest incident, in the same town of Bardonecchia, French officers reportedly turned back a seven-month pregnant Nigerian woman who was suffering from terminal cancer, and who later died in a Turin hospital while giving birth to a premature baby.

Piero Cruciatti, AFP | French police officers board a Milan-Paris TGV train at the Bardonecchia train station in this January 12, 2018, file photo.
Piero Cruciatti, AFP | French police officers board a Milan-Paris TGV train at the Bardonecchia train station in this January 12, 2018, file photo.

The cases come at a sensitive time for Italy, where Eurosceptic and anti-establishment parties are in the driving seat to form a new government after trouncing the political mainstream at the ballot box. The leader of the surging anti-immigrant League party, Matteo Salvini, has wasted no time in blasting France over Friday’s border incident, promising a more robust foreign policy once he is in power.

"Instead of expelling Russian diplomats [Italy] should return French diplomats," Salvini said, juxtaposing the incident with the furore over the poisoning in March of a former Russian spy in Britain. “Once we’re in government, Italy will hold its head up high in Europe,” he added. “We have no lessons to receive from Macron or [Germany’s Angela] Merkel, and we will control our borders.”

There was also condemnation from Maurizio Martina, the interim leader of the moderate and Europhile Democratic Party, albeit in more diplomatic terms. “This is not how we build the new Europe,” Martina said, referring to Macron’s stated aim to breathe new life into the European project.

In his scathing critique in La Repubblica, Bonini accused Macron of giving free reign to “inhumanity and arrogance along his southern border with Italy in order to keep the populist instincts of his own country in check”. In turn, he added, this “cynicism has boosted the fortunes of Italy’s own chauvinists” – the very ones whose victory last month Macron deplored.

Another comment piece in the centre-left daily, penned by philosopher Michela Marzano, lamented the “contradiction” between Macron’s declarations of principle, including his call for more solidarity between Europeans in the wake of the Italian elections, and the concrete actions of French officers on the ground.

“One cannot claim to stand in solidarity with Italy while also raising barriers as in Hungary, Poland or Slovakia,” Marzano warned. “One cannot pose as a champion of a common European policy and then blatantly violate the pillars on which our human rights stand: dignity, neutrality, impartiality and humanity.”

Video: Crossing the Alps with Guinean migrants on a perilous journey

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