Macron’s declaration of love an awkward scoop for Italy’s state TV
Aimed at healing a vicious spat between France and Italy, French President Emmanuel Macron’s interview on Italian television has shed light on the battle waged by Italy's ruling populist parties for control of the country’s state broadcaster.
When Fabio Fazio announced he had landed an interview with French President Emmanuel Macron, to be aired during his weekly talk show on Sunday, March 3, the popular presenter must surely have felt he deserved a bravissimo from his boss.
A 25-minute interview with one of the world’s foremost heads of state is a good catch at any time. Coming just weeks after Paris recalled its ambassador to Rome in protest at “unfounded attacks and outlandish claims” by the Italian government, a move not seen since World War II, it was nothing short of a scoop.
Instead, the primetime interview was met with an embarrassed silence at Italy’s state broadcaster RAI. It garnered one retweet from the @RaiUno Twitter account, shortly before the show was aired, and none thereafter. Somehow, it was altogether omitted from the customary teaser that announces the programme and its roster of guests.
“Macron was clearly the most important guest of the evening,” said Carlo Baroni, a journalist at Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera. “To have left him out of the advertising spot is somewhat baffling.”
A thorn in the side of Italy’s populists
To understand why the interview was kept largely under wraps one needs to look at the particular position Fazio occupies in Italy’s media landscape, his relationship with managers appointed by Italy’s dominant political parties, and the wider context of the bitter feud between France’s Europhile president and Italy’s populist, eurosceptic leaders.
A fixture of Italian television for the past three decades, Fazio presents one of RAI’s flagship programmes, “Che tempo che fà”, a three-hour-long mishmash of politics and entertainment that is distinctly more relaxed and urbane than its traditionally rowdy competitors. The show’s general bonhomie is preserved by its soft-spoken presenter, a sharp and subtle mind wrapped in an affable, unassuming character.
As the incorrigible Luciana Littizzetto, Fazio’s in-house humourist, quipped during the programme on Sunday, “[Fazio] getting an interview with Macron was about as probable as me French-kissing Bradley Cooper.”
But there is a good reason why the French president chose “Che tempo che fà” to reach out to Italian viewers: the programme is a thorn in the side of Italy’s government, a rare space where its two boisterous and ubiquitous strongmen, deputy prime ministers Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, don’t hold sway.
“Fazio is seen by the ruling parties as a relic of the left that was ousted from power,” Baroni told FRANCE 24. “And by giving [Salvini's and Di Maio’s] French nemesis a platform on Italian state TV, they believe he is dissing Italy and its government.”
Sovereignist or libertarian?
According to Maurizio Boldrini, a veteran reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Siena, the controversy surrounding Macron’s interview is a by-product of the great tussle for control of the RAI that is currently underway.
“It’s one of the great tragedies of this country that every change of government is promptly followed by an assault on the RAI,” Boldrini told FRANCE 24. The ability to influence the state broadcaster, he added, became all the more vital in the 1990s once the owner of Italy’s main private broadcasters, Silvio Berlusconi, stepped into the political arena.
As per custom in Italy, where control of RAI’s three main channels traditionally reflects political parties’ respective weight in parliament, Salvini’s hard-right Lega party and Di Maio’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement have sought to appoint like-minded managers to head the state broadcaster’s most popular networks.
In this battle for cultural hegemony, Salvini wants RAI to embrace a sovereignist, “Italians first” platform, whereas the Five-Star Movement favours a libertarian slant, Boldrini explains, adding that both camps see Fazio as “embodying the old guard”.
So far, Fazio’s sizeable audience share has made him too big to fire. But the ruling parties have made no secret of their distaste for the presenter, fuelling speculation that his programme may be taken off the flagship Rai Uno channel.
The standoff would explain why the channel’s director Teresa De Santis, seen as close to Salvini’s Lega, was reportedly kept in the dark about the Macron interview – until the presenter announced it in a tweet on Friday.
“The interview was clearly Fazio’s initiative,” said the Corriere’s Baroni, adding that RAI managers’ subsequent silence suggests “they didn’t agree with it”.
Holding France accountable
News of the impending interview triggered a backlash at the weekend, spearheaded by the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which is allied with the anti-immigrant Lega in regional elections.
Echoing recent attacks levelled at France by Salvini and Di Maio, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni released a video in which she urged Fazio to “hold Macron accountable for the neocolonial policies pursued by France in Africa” and to “ask [him] why France won’t allow African nations to develop, only to then lecture Italy because we are not welcoming enough with Africans”.
Meanwhile, the head of the party’s parliamentary delegation said the presenter should go public about the cost of the interview at the Elysée Palace, claiming Italian citizens had “the right to know how public services spend their money”.
As it turned out, Fazio, whose plump salary is a frequent target of attacks, did just that, announcing at the start of the programme on Sunday that he paid for the Paris trip out of his own pocket.
A ‘special place’ in Macron’s heart
Fazio’s critics, however, were right to suspect the French president would not be subjected to a hard-talk grilling. That is not the style of the show, whose presenter is not a press-card-carrying journalist.
“Fazio is neither a political pundit nor an investigative reporter,” Boldrini pointed out. “His segment is primarily infotainment, with the distinction that he strives to give his programme a relatively high cultural level.”
The result was a relatively sedate interview, a cordial and at times intimate conversation that contrasted markedly with the barbs recently traded across the Alps.
"Forse non vedo tutto il percorso ma so che questo cuore ci permetterà di andare al di là degli ostacoli, di oggi. Per l’Europa e per noi.” #Macron e l'appello agli italiani #CheTempoCheFa @fabfazio pic.twitter.com/xsRBsTO8FEChe Tempo Che Fa (@chetempochefa) March 3, 2019
Adopting a conciliatory tone from the outset, Macron spoke at length of his love for Italy and its heritage, noting that the late Neapolitan author Eduardo De Filippo held “a special place in [his] heart” because he met his wife Brigitte while reciting one of his plays.
He played down the violent verbal attacks from the Lega and Five-Star leaders as “vicissitudes”, and made no mention of Di Maio’s visit to Yellow Vest anti-government protesters in France last month, the incident that triggered the ambassador’s recall.
In a gesture to Italians, the French president admitted that European solidarity had been “lacking” while Italy and Greece bore the brunt of the recent migration crisis. He went on to quote another Neapolitan, “Gomorrah” author Roberto Saviano, a fierce critic of Salvini’s anti-migrant policies and rhetoric, in a thinly veiled jab at the Lega leader and his government.
To the dismay of Macron’s Italian foes, the French president was not quizzed about outstanding Franco-Italian commercial disputes, the far-left activists Italy wants extradited from France, or the Libyan dossier that has poisoned relations between Paris and Rome. But neither did he seize the opportunity of a primetime slot on Italy’s main television channel to chastise his political opponents in the country, whom he never once mentioned.
Not that he needed to. By agreeing to sit down for an interview with their least favourite television presenter, and by quoting their fiercest critic Saviano, Macron had already given Salvini and Di Maio a taste of their own medicine.