Interview. We spoke with the former Italian diplomat Sergio Romano to explain the recent tensions between France and Italy, which were prompted by Vice-Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s meeting with yellow vest leaders.

Italy and France have a long history of bickering, but this is serious

The recent row between France and Italy is not the first diplomatic standoff involving the two countries. But, as Sergio Romano points out, this time “things are different.” Romano, a journalist and historian, is a former Italian ambassador to Moscow and liaison to Paris and NATO. We interviewed him to better understand the diplomatic machinations of the current dispute.

Ambassador Romano, after Di Maio’s endorsement of the yellow vests, Paris recalled their Italian ambassador and complained of “unprecedented attacks.” Doesn’t their reaction appear out of proportion?

On the contrary, I think what the M5S leaders did is a very serious matter. If a representative of a national government, who fulfills, among others, a very important role like that of vice-prime minister, considers the leaders of a foreign movement—sometimes referred to as like a semi-insurgency, and whose actions are often accompanied by such violence that even some of its promoters are embarrassed—to be dialogue partners, it is inevitable that the representatives of the institutions of that country would get upset. Indeed, very upset. One should also recall that this is happening after a long series of disagreements that have existed between the two governments.

But this is certainly not the first dispute between the two countries.

Certainly, but now things are different. Let me give an extreme example, so you can understand how I’m seeing this: when Mitterand gave asylum to some Italians whom our country considered to be terrorists, we got very angry, but, all in all, this could be cast as a humanitarian gesture, albeit with obvious political implications. At this point, however, to have dialogue with a representative of the yellow vests, in light of what is happening in France, constitutes a real provocation. And one must react to a provocation. That said, the manner of retaliation, namely the recall of the ambassador for consultations, does not mean the severance of diplomatic relations, but serves to highlight the degree of discontent that has built up in Paris.

Your diplomatic career has also taken you to France, and a few years ago you wrote a book together with the former French ambassador to Italy, Gilles Martinet, about the complex French-Italian relationship: Un’amicizia difficile (“A difficult friendship,” ed. Ponte alle Grazie, 2001). Does the current controversy come with a long historical background?

Certainly. If I were to put together a list of anecdotal clashes between Italy and France in recent decades—not to say over the last few centuries—I would fill many pages. Because, paradoxically, these two countries that have worked together to build Europe have a notable history of bickering and riling each other up: from the days of the Challenge of Barletta, through the era of the Medici and the Savoy, all the way to Berlusconi and Sarkozy. However, I don’t think there are precedents for such a serious conflict as the one we are seeing today, except during the fascist regime, when—on June 10, 1940—Italy declared war on a France that was already defeated. The French called it “a stab in the back” by our country—and rightly so.

But what has caused these recurring issues, on a historical level?

That is truly an old story, in which different reciprocal interests and aims are intertwined. There is, however, somewhere we can start from. During the formation of their national state, Italians enjoyed decisive help from Napoleon III, but he did not think that this help should be seen as support for their desire to make Rome the capital of the country. This was because, in the view of the French, the Eternal City of the age of the Popes was politically untouchable, and, above all, had to continue to enjoy a special relationship with Paris, which considered itself Rome’s natural protector. Since then, many other differences of opinion have built up, although, in the end, we came to join a common path under the auspices of Europe.

Do you agree that what is happening now can also be read from the point of view of the European elections: the yellow-green Italian government is seeking out a confrontation with Macron, who is the last pro-European leader still standing, as Merkel has already announced her retirement, while the Elysee Palace has positioned itself on an anti-sovereignist line, taking Rome as its foil. The two sides are thus made to look like each other’s “ideal foe.”

In part, this is clearly the framework in which these events are being interpreted. But we should not forget the other new element, compared to the long line of controversies that we have mentioned so far. It needs to be pointed out that all this is taking place within the “space” that both Italy and France have contributed to creating: our common European home. Now, however, the Italian government is not only uninterested in this joint project, but is describing it as “unfortunate,” or even “a threat.” So, I think the situation is a serious one. The Five Stars, by supporting the yellow vests, wanted to create a “casus belli” within the EU, unconcerned about the possible negative consequences of their actions, and even counting they would benefit from them. At another time, the two sides would have reconciled in the light of the common European perspective. But that’s not what the current Italian government wants.

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