Italy’s deputy prime minister on Friday defended his unannounced trip to meet with anti-government protesters in France this week, which has sparked fury in Paris and the biggest diplomatic crisis between the allies since World War II.
Luigi Di Maio accused French governments on both the left and right of pursuing “ultraliberal” policies that have “increased citizens’ insecurity and sharply reduced their spending power” in a letter to French daily Le Monde on Friday.
“This is why I wanted to meet with ‘yellow vest’ representatives… because I don’t believe that Europe’s political future lies with parties on the right or left, or with so-called ‘new’ parties that in reality follow tradition,” he said.
The latter reference was a dig at Macron’s new centrist Republic on the Move party, which was formed by the 41-year-old French leader in 2016.
“We have never stopped extending a hand to France,” Di Maio added at a campaign event later Friday in Roccaraso, Italy. “But if extending a hand means not being able to talk with any political force besides Republic on the Move, then I think this is a mistake.”
Di Maio’s meeting with candidates in the upcoming European Parliament elections was the latest in a string of slights in a row between Italy’s populist leaders and President Emmanuel Macron.
The surprise trip drew a sharp rebuke from Paris, which on Thursday recalled its ambassador to Rome — a move not seen between the two neighbors since the war when Italy invaded.
“He will return to Italy. We’re not suspending diplomatic relations with Italy,” a senior French diplomat told AFP on Friday. But he warned that “there could still be difficult moments ahead in the French-Italian relationship.”
— Bloomberg TV (@BloombergTV) February 8, 2019
Why This Matters
The escalating war of words began last year after Di Maio’s Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini‘s far-right League won elections and formed a populist and eurosceptic government.
When Italy began preventing charity rescue boats with migrants on board from docking at Italian ports, Macron blasted the government’s “cynicism and irresponsibility” and then compared the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe to leprosy.
With the European Parliament vote looming in May, the Italian leaders have mounted a series of increasingly personal attacks on Macron in recent months, with Salvini denouncing him as a “terrible president.”
They have encouraged the yellow vest protests, which emerged in November over fuel taxes before ballooning into a widespread and often violent revolt against Macron and his reformist agenda.
France’s Europe affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said the decision to recall France’s envoy was meant to signal that “playtime is over”.
“What I see is an Italy in recession, an Italy in trouble; I don’t rejoice over this because this is an important partner for France, but I do think the first thing for a government to do is to look after its people’s welfare,” she told Radio Classique.
Why is France and Italy's relationship at its 'lowest point since World War Two'? pic.twitter.com/v3n8tSmT5L
— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) February 8, 2019
Di Maio did seek to play down the spat in his letter, saying “the political and strategic differences between the French and Italian governments should not impact the history of friendly relations that unites our peoples and our nations”.
And Salvini, who is also Italy’s interior minister, revealed Friday that he had invited his French counterpart Christophe Castaner to Rome for talks, in particular on how to handle the influx of migrants crossing the Mediterranean for Europe.
But Loiseau had already warned last month that working meetings and visits by officials between the two countries were, for the moment, out of the question.
Italian newspapers on Friday described the crisis as the most serious since the declaration of war between the two countries in 1940.
“From today, the Alps are higher,” wrote Lucio Caracciolo, director of the Limes geopolitical review, said in La Repubblica newspaper.
“The recall for consultations of the French ambassador to Rome, Christian Masset, is a sign of an unprecedented crisis in Italian-French relations.”
For La Stampa newspaper, the tensions “could in some ways be expected given how insistent the M5S (Five Star Movement) has been in its approach to the yellow vests.”
But one columnist in Corriere della Sera wrote: “Italy has a lot to lose over this confrontation, by adopting a policy of proud isolation at a time when relations between Paris and Berlin are ever tighter.”
More on the Subject
Even though the retreat of global democracy stopped in 2018, with just 42 countries experiencing a decline last year, compared with 89 in 2017, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index, one E.U. member – Italy – saw a substantial drop in its ranking.