Macron in Rome to turn populist page

Rome (AFP) –


French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Rome on Wednesday for a lightning visit to reset relations frayed by a year of Italy's previous populist far-right government.

Macron arrived for talks with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinal Palace and was to have a working dinner with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Conte and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement outmanoeuvred anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini, previously interior minister, after he tried to prompt snap elections by pulling the plug on the 14-month League-M5S coalition.

The week-old coalition of M5S and the centre-left, pro-European Democratic Party has effectively turned the page on the rhetoric of Salvini, who branded Macron "arrogant" and a "hypocrite" over immigration.

Macron's Elysee has said the visit is "fundamentally and symbolically" important.

"This is a visit to turn the page on a difficult chapter and show that it's possible to start again on the right foot, without fallout from previous tensions," said Giampiero Gramaglia, European expert at Rome's Institute for International Affairs.

- Immigration -

Immigration is expected to dominate talks between the two neighbours, which are likely also to include discussions on the ambitions of the new European Commission in Brussels and bringing stability to strife-torn Libya.

Salvini spent most of his time in office railing against charity vessels that rescue people at sea, and against migrants themselves.

Rome is trying to initiate an automatic system to distribute migrants who are rescued in the Mediterranean and brought to Italy.

Such a deal would put an end to case-by-case negotiations over who will take in those saved during the perilous crossing from North Africa, which have seen vulnerable asylum-seekers trapped in limbo at sea for lengthy periods.

France and Germany have reportedly given their green light to the new system, which could also involve Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Spain.

Conte and Macron may also discuss a port rotation system for migrant rescue vessels that would include French ports.

Italy on Saturday allowed 82 migrants aboard charity rescue ship Ocean Viking to disembark on the southern island of Lampedusa, a change of approach after Salvini closed Italy's ports to the vessels.

Macron on Monday signalled a tougher line on immigration, arguing that the government must end its "lax" approach to prevent voters from drifting to the far right -- or the sort of government Italy had for the last 14 months.

That message will find resonance in Italy, where Salvini's hardline anti-migrant policies garnered him so many potential votes that he brought down the government convinced he would become premier.

Libya's future is also expected to be discussed by Macron and Conte, with Fayed al-Sarraj, the head of Libya's UN-recognised GNA based in Tripoli, paying a surprise visit to Rome on Wednesday.

Sarraj held talks with Conte on immigration cooperation and stabilising the North African country, Italian media reported, although Paris and increasingly Rome are also seeking dialogue with Sarraj's rival, eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army has been battling since early April to seize the capital from pro-GNA forces.