France-Italy: “Je t’aime… moi non plus”

On February 7, 2019 the Italian Vice Prime Minister and leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle Luigi Di Maio had a meeting with French representatives of the “yellow vests” (the French “anger movement” which began in October 2018).
For the French government, a red line has been crossed. President Emmanuel Macron therefore decided to recall for a short period his ambassador to Rome, the first time in the history of France-Italy relationship since 1940.

A few days later the Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini spoke about his “problems with France” in front of his voters in the Abruzzo region. And it seems they are significant.
Indeed Matteo Salvini spoke about “60 000 migrants” pushed back by the French authorities on the border of the Alpine region and the struggle for bringing back “red terrorists” detained in France.
The eloquent dispute between Salvini and Macron, and the recent actions of Di Maio, seem to be part of a deep political confrontation that could harm the European Union, crystallized since the election of President Macron around opposition between the two countries.

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Italian Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and French Rassemblement National (RN) political leader Marine Le Pen.

But does this adversity reveal the development of an anti-French sentiment in the Penisola?
If the 2018 World Football Cup was the occasion for a spike of francophobic tweets in Italy, right after the victory of les Bleus team in Russia, it seems rather that the rejection of France is exacerbated by current political leaders. It is actually sufficient to take a look at the incisive tweets from Matteo Salvini, evoking the superiority of Italian wines on French ones, and Sardinia “more beautiful than Corsica”.
Contrasting with these views, the French journey of Luigi Di Maio has led some municipalities in the Parma region to fly the French flag with the Italian one, illustrating the profound relationship between the two countries.
Criticisms of France and its President are essentially rooted in the Italian two-headed executive represented by Di Maio and Salvini. There is indeed a real affection and a common history stronger than the harsh statements of current leaders, as revealed by the expression “Sisters Nations” from the French historian Gilles Bertrand.
But there are also economic reasons which prevent separation, in particular the sale of Chantiers de l’Atlantique located in Saint-Nazaire, to the Italian shipowner Fincantieri, 72% owned by the Italian State. If the sales agreement was concluded by former President François Hollande, the recent tensions with the Italian executive could make Emmanuel Macron re-evaluate the project, making this acquisition a means to alleviate concerns. Moreover, France and Italy are privileged economic partners, France being Italy’s second most important trade partner, and trade in goods between both countries worth 200 millions of euros per day.
Finally, some leaders of the Lega Nord are locked in the sense that their party, originally representing interests of the industry class in Northern Italy, a vital economic artery of the country, can hardly defend a total or partial rupture with France.

Distrust is also maintained on the French side: Emmanuel Macron evoked without filter the “nationalist leprosy” infecting Europe during a tribute to Georges Clemenceau in last October. The French President at that time directly targeted Matteo Salvini and other populist leaders in Europe. The Vice Prime Minister of Italy responded in turn that Emmanuel Macron is not enjoying a high popularity and that France does not welcome migrants as much as Italy does. The counterattack from Salvini consisted also in real “support” for the French people against their President who does not “defend their interest”. The Italian political leader of the Lega also openly revealed his preference for Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right party Rassemblement National (RN).

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Christian Masset, French Ambassador in Italy

If European populists tend to denounce American interference in the European Union affairs and the power of Brussels and Berlin, Di Maio’s visit appeared equally as a political meddling. French and Italian news were dominated by this issue about the qualification of Di Maio’s whirlwind visit in a Montargis restaurant, accompanied by Christophe Chalençon, one of the most radical leaders of yellow vests, calling for use of the “guillotine” against Macron and paramilitary troops intervention this week.
Di Maio is actually a political leader, head of the 5 Stelle, but he is also now a Statesman, representing the government and the Italian State. It is unusual in Western democracies to have such visits from a “governing”, who let knows the authorities one hour in advance only about his action.
As an explanation for defending Di Maio, in a France Inter radio interview the leader of the RN Marine Le Pen said that Macron is offended by such action while when former U.S. President Barack Obama had called to vote for him, there was no discussion about “interference”. European populists, Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini first, thus speak about interference affected by “variable geometry”. It should not be forgotten however that Barack Obama was no longer, at the time of his support to the candidate Macron, the head of the United States.
Moreover Di Maio supported through his political action only a small faction of yellow vests, in particular the most radical ones as we stated before.

The “French journey” should also be linked to another equally important initiative from Italian governants. Some time before his visit to France, on January 20, Luigi Di Maio said in a TV interview that France is financing its debt with the CFA Franc, a “colonial currency”.
The Italian leader explained that France is still a colonial authority, and that dozens of African States are locked into a “colonial currency”, that is the CFA Franc which finances the French public debt, otherwise France would be the 15th world economic power only. He therefore concluded by stating that Macron must not lecture the Italian government. The Italian Statesman thus relays “fake news” since African central banks actually deposit 50% of their foreign exchange reserves to the Banque de France, but as a simple deposit only, representing a guarantee of financial stability.

The rejection of France finally seems to be the last way for reconciliation between the two “new enemy parties”, that are the Lega and the M5S, as one can see in the results of the local elections in Abruzzo last Sunday.
The balance of power has been reversed indeed since the coalition of June 2018. The Lega, initially defending Northern Italian entrepreneurs turned to the theme of immigration, Salvini thus finding a popular base receiving his message unambiguously. On the other hand, the M5S appears on the eve of the 2019 European elections as a divided movement, with various political currents, sometimes rejecting anti-immigration speeches, basically as it is the case for the yellow vests movement in France.
In conclusion, as Di Maio’s party is dropping in the polls, the Vice Prime Minister seeks close proximity with yellow vests before European elections next May. The M5S will not be connected with the Lega for these elections, therefore the Movement needs support.
M5S had already tried in the past, and this should be recalled, a reconciliation with Emmanuel Macron and his political movement En Marche!, thus demonstrating the lack of clarity of its European vision. As The Post Internazionale reported in February, Luigi di Maio had indeed the occasion to evoke the “sharable themes and positions” between his movement and Macron’s party.

This form of “political amateurism”, however, generated a strong diplomatic response from the French government, that, we therefore hope, will not leave room for a new turmoil in the French-Italian couple…

(PLM)

  1. Arte, « Débat: L’Italie peut-elle faire exploser l’Europe? », 201
  2. BERTRAND Gilles, La France et l’Italie, Armand Colin, 2016
  3. POMMIER Eléa, « France-Italie: La crise la plus grave depuis 1945 », in L’Express, February 2019
  4. VAILLANT Gaël, « France-Italie: Derrière la crise politique, d’importants enjeux économiques », in Le Journal Du Dimanche, February 2019
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