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Gloves off as Italy's populists mount assault on 'coloniser' France

Miguel Medina, AFP | A mural by Italian street artist TvBo, titled "The Social Media War", depicting Italy's deputy prime ministers Luigi Di Maio (left) and Matteo Salvini.

A barrage of vitriolic comments levelled at France and its president have pushed Franco-Italian relations to the brink as Italy’s ruling populist parties kick off their European election campaign with no holds barred.

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The last time Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to the Italian government in Rome, in January 2018, it was all smiles, hugs and warm words between the French president and Italy’s then-prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni. The announcement of a treaty cementing Franco-Italian friendship, to be signed by the end of the year, provided the cherry on the cake.

France’s ties with Italy are “neither in competition with, nor inferior to” the close partnership it enjoys with Germany, the French president told a press conference at the time. The forthcoming Quirinal Treaty, Macron added, would be “complementary” with the Elysée Treaty signed by France and Germany back in 1963.

Twelve months on, the French leader has just signed a whole new agreement further deepening his country’s relationship with Germany, but the Quirinal Treaty – named after the Italian president’s Roman residence – is nowhere to be seen. In fact, Paris and Rome now can barely talk to each other without invective, let alone sign a special partnership.

To suggest relations between the two countries have hit rock bottom would be “premature”, says Pierangelo Isernia, a professor of political science at the University of Siena. “With the current Italian government, things can get a whole lot worse,” he told FRANCE 24. “We better get used to it.”

Colonising Africa

Officials in Paris have been getting used to the radical change of tone ushered in by the new populist and increasingly Eurosceptic government in Rome, generally greeting its provocations with a shrug and a sigh. But when Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, accused France of continuing to colonise Africa in a series of incendiary comments on Sunday, the provocation had gone too far for the French government, which summoned Italy’s ambassador in protest.

Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, had called on the EU to “sanction France and all countries like France that impoverish Africa and make these people leave, because Africans should be in Africa, not at the bottom of the Mediterranean". He added: "If people are leaving today it's because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries."

The deputy PM was unrepentant in later comments, made after the ambassador had been summoned on Monday, describing France as “one of these countries which, because it prints the currency of 14 African countries, hampers development and contributes to the departure of refugees” – a reference to a colonial-era currency that is still underpinned by the French Treasury.

In what has become a recurrent game of one-upmanship, Italy’s other deputy prime minister, the far-right Lega leader Matteo Salvini, soon added his thoughts on the matter, claiming France was looking to extract wealth from Africa rather than helping countries develop their own economies.

"In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy," Salvini told Italian TV late on Monday. In a Facebook post the next day, he added: "I hope that the French will be able to free themselves from a terrible president."

Friendship in peril

The gravity of the accusations levelled at France, a neighbour and ally that is also Italy’s second most important trade partner, has shocked many Italian observers and embarrassed top officials, including President Sergio Mattarella and his prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

La Repubblica, a left-leaning paper that is frequently critical of Salvini and Di Maio, said Mattarella and Conte spent all day Monday frantically trying to “stitch up a relationship that is now largely ripped apart”. The fact that Di Maio had taken aim at France and not just its president, the newspaper added, meant that “the very friendship between the two countries” had been endangered.

Hoping to prevent a diplomatic rupture, Conte’s office released a statement on Tuesday, saying the dispute “does not call into question our historic friendship with France, nor with the French people. This relationship remains strong and steady in spite of any political disputes".

But the trouble for Conte and his moderate foreign minister, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, is that they have been largely sidelined by Italy’s two boisterous – and ever competing – deputy prime ministers. And with both the Five-Star Movement and Lega hoping to score big in European parliamentary elections in May, the jabs at France and its Europhile president are unlikely to cease.

Who’s the best Macron basher?

According to Professor Isernia, the worsening spat between Rome and Paris is a consequence of internal dynamics at play on both sides of the Alps. On the one hand, Macron’s sagging fortunes at home have made him a much easier target than he was only a few months ago. On the other, Di Maio’s party is also in a delicate position, having been outmaneuvered and outshouted by Salvini’s Lega, which won half as many votes in last year’s general election but is now leading in the polls.

“Salvini’s sovereignty pitch is a more natural act. He has allies in Europe and a strategy to seize control of the European Parliament,” he explains. “Five-Star, on the other hand, have no allies and no idea of where they want to go.”

Yellow Vest protesters rally on December 22, 2018, in the border town of Ventimiglia, a persistent focus of tension between Italy and France over the migrant crisis.
Yellow Vest protesters rally on December 22, 2018, in the border town of Ventimiglia, a persistent focus of tension between Italy and France over the migrant crisis. Valéry Hache, AFP

Only ten months ago, Di Maio’s party was in talks with Macron’s En Marche to form a common group at the EU parliament. Now it is competing with Salvini’s Lega to be the French president’s fiercest critic. In doing so, it hopes to recapture the anti-establishment spirit that carried it to victory last year, as evidenced by its enthusiastic support for the Yellow Vest protest movement that has rattled Macron.

‘Suicidal’

“The Five-Star Movement, even more than Salvini, has identified France as its perfect target to score points on the domestic front,” says Professor Isernia. “We’re in a new phase of Italy’s tussle with the EU, one in which France has supplanted Germany as the chief culprit for Italy’s woes.”

Of course France and its president carry their share of guilt for the deteriorated relations, Isernia concedes. It was Macron who first targeted the Italian government’s migrant policy as “inhumane” and lashed at the “nationalist leprosy” spreading across Europe. His government’s decision to close its borders to migrants has created bottlenecks in northern Italy and exposed it to accusations of cynicism and duplicity. Cross-border incursions by French police seeking to stop migrants in the Alps have enraged Italy. And the Libyan dossier has been a persistent thorn in relations, with Paris and Rome competing over who should broker peace talks between rival factions.

But wrecking ties with France won’t necessarily pay dividends for Italy’s ruling parties, cautions Isernia, for whom “the Italian public will find it very hard to see France, a traditional ally, as an enemy”. Furthermore, by alienating Paris, the Italian government is depriving itself of a potential ally in its regular budgetary disputes with Brussels, he adds, describing the anti-French rhetoric as “suicidal” for Italy’s national interest.

 

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