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French ire as Italian deputy PM pays visit to Yellow Vest protesters

Andreas Solaro, AFP | Luigi Di Maio, leader of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, last month accused France of fuelling the migrant influx to Europe by continuing to "colonise" Africa.

The French foreign ministry reacted angrily on Wednesday after Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio travelled to France to meet "Yellow Vest" anti-government protesters, describing his latest provocation as "unacceptable".

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"This new provocation is unacceptable between neighbouring countries and partners at the heart of the European Union," a ministry spokesman said in a statement a day after Di Maio met the protesters on French soil.

"Mr Di Maio, who has governmental responsibilities, should ensure that he does not impair with his repeated interferences our bilateral relations, in the interest of both France and Italy," the spokesman said.

Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S), announced Tuesday he had met near Paris with prominent Yellow Vest protesters Christophe Chalençon and Ingrid Levavasseur, who is heading a Yellow Vest list for European Parliament elections in May.

He invited them and other Yellow Vests to a follow-up meeting in Rome, claiming on Twitter that "The wind of change has crossed the Alps."

Tensions have flared between the two countries since the Five-Star Movement and far-right League party came to power in a coalition in Italy last June.

Di Maio had already drawn Paris's ire last month after he accused France of fuelling the migrant influx to Europe by continuing to "colonise" Africa.

That prompted France to summon Italy's ambassador in protest.

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. In a Facebook post the next day, he added: "I hope that the French will be able to free themselves from a terrible president."

The Yellow Vest protests against fuel taxes began in rural and small-town France in late November, before ballooning into a wider revolt against Macron's policies and governing style.

The French president is hoping to forge an alliance of pro-European centrists ahead of the bloc's parliamentary vote, against a wave of populist movements in several European countries.

His pro-European pitch and his confrontational stance towards populist and eurosceptic parties in Europe have made him a favourite target for the likes of Di Maio and Salvini.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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