The French president, Emmanuel Macron, may have brushed off the recent spate of verbal attacks by Italy’s two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, but analysts predict relations between the two countries will deteriorate further in the run-up to the European elections in late May.
Salvini, who heads the far-right League, said Macron was a “terrible” French president and urged French voters not to back his En Marche party in the European parliamentary ballot, while Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, last week accused France of impoverishing Africa and bringing on the migration crisis.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Egypt on Sunday, Macron said the taunts were “of no importance” and that his only counterpart was the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, not his two outspoken deputies. He went on to say that “Italy deserves leaders worthy of its history”.
Over the past decade, relations between the neighbours have often been tetchy, with France’s role in the 2011 military intervention in Libya, persistent migrant issues at the shared border, and a shopping spree under which French firms snapped up prized Italian rivals stoking animosity.
Relations took a turn for the worse after Italy’s populist government came to power last June. Immigration was the first major catalyst as insults were traded over the handling of migrants: Macron blasted Italy for turning away a migrant rescue ship and Italy responded by accusing him of hypocrisy over the thousands of people rejected by France and sent back to Italy. France’s ambassador to Rome, Christian Masset, has twice been summoned over immigration spats.
“There have always been problematic dossiers that tended to be managed diplomatically,” said Jean-Pierre Darnis, a scientific adviser at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.
“But that changed in 2018, especially with the pressure of the League, which takes explicitly anti-French positions, and Salvini, who is trying to establish Macron as a political adversary.”
Hostility resurfaced more recently when Di Maio threw his support behind the anti-government gilets jaunes (yellow vests), who have held protests in France since early December, urging them to “not give up”. His accusation last week that France “hasn’t stopped colonising African states” led to France’s foreign ministry summoning the Italian ambassador, Teresa Castaldo.
Meanwhile, Salvini has tried to bait Macron by parading his friendship with his French far-right counterpart, Marine Le Pen, who was defeated by Macron in the French 2017 elections, and calling on him to “show the same good sense” as the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, in returning 14 Italian fugitives living in France.
Cesare Battisti, a former leftwing guerrilla fighter, was returned to Italy earlier this month after having taken refuge in Brazil.
Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, believes the taunts are more about gaining popularity than anything else, particularly with the impending EU elections.
“They are taking the typical populist approach to politics, in that they need to find an enemy,” he said. “France is a very easy target because of the challenges – on Libya, the economy and even football. Macron is also the kind of elite person they like to attack as he’s exactly the reverse of what they are.”
In his onslaught last week, Di Maio also accused France of manipulating the economies of African countries that use the West African CFA franc as their currency, thus stifling their development and prompting mass migration to Europe.
“It’s a very weak argument because if you take the first eight countries of origin of immigration to Italy, none of them use the CFA,” added Diletti.
The renewal of a friendship pact between France and Germany last week is another potential catalyst for worsening relations. Salvini has promised to break “the France-Germany axis” in the EU ballot as he forges alliances with other European far-right groups, including Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.
“You can make the point that, substance-wise, nothing much has changed [in the France-Germany relationship], but the symbol [of friendship renewal] is not a minor detail,” said Francesco Galietti, the founder of Policy Sonar, a consultancy in Rome. “You are taking away from Rome, and not giving it to a supranational entity but to Paris, and this is when Italians get really mad.”
There may also be fears of France seeking to replace Italy as a prime supplier to Germany of automotive parts and accessories.
“Business-wise there is this idea that France is working very hard to replace Italy in Germany’s economic engine,” added Galietti. “Italian suppliers of car parts and producers of heavy machinery are deeply integrated in the German market.”
Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor and president of the John Cabot University in Rome, said that as the EU elections approach, more differences between the two countries will likely be aired.
“I believe that both governments use each other to vent their dissatisfaction and certainly the EU elections are very important as everyone tries to carve a position,” he added. “But I don’t think things are going to get better. And after the vote we’ll likely have a very different political scenario.”
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