France believes its relations with Italy have reached a low not seen since the end of World War II (i.e. since Mussolini’s declaration of war in the 1940s, a stab in the back to a country already defeated). In a likewise unprecedented move, the French ambassador in Rome, Christian Masset, has been recalled to Paris for a few days for consultations.
The spokesperson of the French Foreign Ministry, Agnes von der Mühll, said in a statement: “The most recent intrusions constitute a further, unacceptable provocation. They show a lack of respect for democratic choice by a nation that is our friend and ally. They show a lack of respect between democratically and freely elected governments.“
According to the French, the straw that broke the camel’s back, after “several months” of “repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outrageous declarations,” was the surprise visit on Tuesday by the Italian vice-prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, together with M5S higher-up Alessandro Di Battista, to Montargis, to meet with a delegation from a part of the “yellow vests,” which intend to run on their own list, under the name RIC (“Ralliement d’initiative citoyenne” – “Citizens’ Initiative Rally”), at the upcoming European elections.
The meeting ended with a statement by Di Maio that irked many: “The wind of change has crossed the Alps,” a phrase he repeated twice. (Not to mention that one of the “yellow vests” he met in Montargis, Christophe Chalençon, who claimed he was a “spokesman” for RIC, was immediately repudiated by Ingrid Lavavasseur, the founder of the RIC list, and is a character who holds problematic positions, anti-Muslim and close to the far right, and who called for a “strongman” to get Macron to resign, in the person of his former chief of staff, Pierre de Villiers, who resigned in the summer of 2017 after a dispute with the young president).
On Wednesday, the French Foreign Ministry reacted to this “unacceptable provocation.” The strong French reaction should be seen in the context of the tense situation there, following three months of demonstrations by the yellow vest shouting “Macron, resign!”, street violence, questionable repressive measures by the police and political controversy, as the country is having a full-on national debate to find a way out of the crisis.
But there is a deeper meaning behind the rebuke by the French: “The campaign for the European elections cannot justify the lack of respect for each people or for their democracy,” said the French Foreign Ministry spokesperson. “To have disagreements is one thing, to exploit the relationship for electoral purposes is another.”
Emmanuel Macron has been identified by the national-populist front as the man they need to bring down, the representative of the “globalist” trend they want to defeat. Macron responded in kind, casting Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban as symbols for the front that wants to destroy the European project. The French president is also alleged to have said that “populism” is “like leprosy,” a remark that Italians have interpreted as directed specifically at them, after the tensions about their refusal to let the Aquarius land last year.
Salvini has called Macron “a very bad president,” and said that “the sooner he goes home, the better.” On Thursday, the head of the list of the National Rally (former National Front), Jordan Bardella, accused Macron of being “the insult-hurler-in-chief.” However, the French Foreign Ministry underlined, in their statement announcing the recall of the French ambassador to Rome, that “France and Italy are united by a common history; they share a destiny. They built Europe together and worked to achieve peace. France is deeply attached to this strong friendship which fosters cooperation in all areas and closeness between our peoples. The French-Italian friendship is more essential than ever in order to address the challenges we face in the 21st century.”
Italy and France are each other’s second-largest trading partners, and the two countries have many common interests, with numerous ongoing partnerships, such as that between STX and Fincantieri. Paris is also the only ally Italy can hope to have at the European Council on the issue of having more flexibility regarding the budget.
However, the cooling in the relations between Rome and Paris has ended up impeding the organization of the traditional annual bilateral summits in 2018, as well as the updating of the Quirinale Treaty between France and Italy, which has been shelved for now (unlike the new Treaty of Aachen, between France and Germany, which revised the Elysée Treaty of 1963).
A few weeks ago, France had already summoned the Italian ambassador in Paris, Teresa Castaldo, for explanations after Di Maio made very unclear and confused statements attacking the CFA franc and accusing France of colonialism and causing migration.
Previously, Di Maio had offered the “yellow vests” the use of the M5S’s Rousseau platform (an offer that has not found any takers). While the tensions between the two countries have worsened after the arrival of the new Italian government last year, they ultimately originate from earlier times, being tied to the issue of Libya and Nicolas Sarkozy’s war, which Italians saw as an attempt by the French energy company Total to oust the Italian ENI.
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