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'The Alps just got taller': Italy's populist leaders push Franco-Italian relations to the brink

Jean-Pierre Clatot, AFP | Police checks along the Alpine border between France and Italy are among the many sources of friction betwe of friction between the two neighbours.en

Rome is bracing itself for retaliatory strikes from its neighbour, ally and key trade partner after a barrage of attacks by Italy’s populist leaders pushed Franco-Italian relations to the brink.

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When Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella returned from a trip to Angola late on Thursday, Rome’s Ciampino airport had just been cleared of three bombs buried there since World War II. It was not the only bombshell news, reminiscent of a bygone era, coming from the Italian capital that day. Hours earlier, France’s ambassador in Rome had been recalled amid an escalating row between the two allies and neighbours – a gesture not seen since Italy declared war on the French, already battered by Nazi Germany, back in 1940.

“Our friendship with France must be defended and preserved,” Mattarella declared at once, expressing his “great preoccupation” and urging his government to “immediately re-establish a climate of trust” with the French. In private, he went on to deliver a stern rebuke of the government ministers whose vitriolic comments have shredded the last remnants of diplomatic etiquette in relations between the two founding members of the European Union.

>> Watch: Basta Cosi! France recalls ambassador as row with Italy escalates

The ambassador’s repatriation capped an astonishing deterioration in relations between Rome and Paris, just 13 months after French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s previous government announced plans to sign a Franco-Italian friendship treaty. It followed a series of increasingly personal slurs levelled at Macron by Italy's two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, who formed a populist coalition government last year.

On Friday, Mattarella once again asked his prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, to rein in the more volatile members of the government. But the trouble is Conte has been largely sidelined by his two boisterous – and ever competing – deputies. And with both Di Maio’s Five-Star Movement and Salvini’s Lega hoping to score big in European parliamentary elections in May, the jabs at France and its Europhile president are unlikely to cease.

Domestic imperatives

Analysts have described the worsening spat as a consequence of internal dynamics at play on both sides of the Alps. On 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.

>> Watch: Beyond 'la dolce vita': Italy's uneasy populist coalition (part 1)

Only ten months ago, Di Maio’s party was in talks with Macron’s La République 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 protests that have rattled Macron.

It was Di Maio’s decision to show up unannounced near Paris this week, for a meeting with a prominent Yellow Vest protester who has been on record calling for the military to oust Macron, that finally caused France’s patience to snap.

“This whole dispute is about Italian domestic politics and the Five-Star Movement trying to whip up anti-French sentiment in order to catch up in the polls,” Francesco Bei, a journalist at Italian daily La Stampa, told FRANCE 24, adding that Di Maio and Salvini had underestimated the consequences of their repeated jabs at France and its president.

French 'to fire back with a silencer'

Those consequences were high on the minds of Italian editorialists on Friday as they debated the possible implications of the worst crisis between the two neighbours since World War II.

"The Alps just got taller," wrote Lucio Caracciolo, director of the Limes geopolitical review, in an op-ed published by the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper. “Given the intricate geopolitical, economic and commercial ties between the two countries, there is no shortage of areas in which the French could make us pay for this,” Caracciolo warned, pointing to already festering disputes over migrants trapped at the Franco-Italian border and the complex peace process in Libya, where Paris and Rome are vying for the role of chief negotiator.

He added: “France’s retaliatory strikes will be visible only to those who need to see them, fired with a silencer. Fireworks would merely give importance to those who deserve none.”

Salvini, who is also Italy's interior minister, said Friday he had invited his French counterpart Christophe Castaner to Rome for talks, in particular on how to handle the influx of migrants crossing the Mediterranean for Europe. But in the present context, it is hard to see such a meeting happening. Nor is France likely to be forthcoming on the highly sensitive issue of Italian far-left militants who have been living in exile in France for decades and whom Salvini wants to see behind bars.

Alitalia stranded?

If the fallout has left diplomats aghast, it has also sent jitters through the business world, with analysts noting that France is Italy’s second-most important trading partner, after Germany, and that Italian exports to France outweigh French exports to Italy by more than €10 billion a year.

“The idea that the French capital is invading Italy, when in fact we are net beneficiaries of trade between the two countries, is another of the Five-Star Movement’s mystifications,” said La Stampa’s Bei.

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

Italy’s business lobby Confindustria and its French counterpart, the Medef, both wrote to their respective governments on Friday pleading for “constructive dialogue” to resolve the dispute.

Confindustria’s Vincenzo Boccia was more scathing in private remarks carried by La Stampa, suggesting Italy’s populist leaders had crossed a red line. “Their behavior is incomprehensible, causing damage to the country and particularly the economy,” he said, lamenting an “unprecedented situation in the history of our republic".

The first victim of the spat could well be Italy’s long-ailing national carrier Alitalia, which has been in talks with the French state airline, Air France. Already on Friday, Italy’s main business daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, said Air France was on the verge of pulling out of a deal to rescue the Italian airline – not on economic grounds, but for “political motives”.

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