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France Recalls Ambassador to Italy After Minister Meets ‘Yellow Vest’ Protesters France Recalls Ambassador to Italy After Minister Meets ‘Yellow Vest’ Protesters
(about 3 hours later)
France recalled its ambassador to Italy on Thursday, an extraordinary diplomatic rupture between longtime European Union and NATO allies, after a series of provocations by Italy’s populist leaders, culminating in a meeting between a top Italian official and leaders of the “Yellow Vest” protests in France. .
Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the anti-establishment Five Star movement, met with the protesters in France on Tuesday. Italian leaders had voiced support for the protesters before, but to grant them a high-level meeting on French soil, no less was a rare breach of protocol between allies who usually try not to intervene overtly in each other’s politics. It has happened rarely between European Union allies, and not between France and Italy since the start of World War II. But on Thursday, after months of barbed commentary from Italian leaders, the French government said it had had enough: It recalled its ambassador from Rome.
Last month, Mr. Di Maio said that France had “never stopped colonizing” the African nations that are former French colonies. He called for European Union sanctions against France for policies he said continued to impoverish Africa. “This is without precedent since 1940, when Mussolini declared war,” said Marc Lazar, a leading specialist of Franco-Italian relations who teaches at universities in Paris and Rome.
The leader of Italy’s right-wing League party, Matteo Salvini the interior minister and deputy prime minister who is widely seen as the most powerful figure in the government said last month that he hoped French voters would turn against President Emmanuel Macron. “This is very, very harsh,” he added. ‘‘There’s never been anything comparable. And it demonstrates a disturbing exacerbation of bad relations between the French and the Italians.”
“For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outrageous declarations,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday. “This is unprecedented since the end of the war.” More than that, it reflected the mounting strains on Europe’s core that have been placed by populist governments as they seek to gain political points at home by chipping at the European Union and it supporters, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, foremost among them.
The ministry described the Italian remarks as a calculated bid by Italy’s populists to win votes in coming elections for the European Parliament. “To have disagreements is one thing, to exploit the relationship for electoral purposes is another,” it said. The list of insults, particularly on the Italian side, is long. Last month, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy premier and most powerful politician, who has made a sport out of targeting France, called Mr. Macron ‘‘a terrible president.’’
Without mentioning the Yellow Vests meeting explicitly, the ministry said, “the latest interference is an additional and unacceptable provocation.” But the final straw appears to have been cast by Mr. Salvini’s coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio, the political leader of the populist Five Star Movement, who met on Tuesday in France with a Yellow Vest leader who has called for civil war.
The ministry said France was recalling its ambassador “for consultations.” On February 5 Luigi Di Maio, the political leader of the Five Star Movement, and Alessandro Di Battista, a rabble rouser who many consider the party’s leader-in-waiting, posted a picture on their social media pages of a meeting near Paris with Christophe Chalencon, an organizer of the Yellow Vest movement from the south of France.
In the post, Mr. Di Maio said “This is the picture of a beautiful meeting, first of many to come, where we talked about our countries, social rights, the environment and direct democracy. The wind of change has crossed the Alps. I am repeating. The wind of change has crossed the Alps.”
Mr. Di Maio hailed the French popular uprising for ushering in “a new Europe;” the French denounced the meeting with the Yellow Vests as “an additional and unacceptable provocation.”
It “violated the respect that is owed to the democratic choices made by an allied and friendly nation,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement, underscoring the government’s hostility towards the Yellow Vest movement.
Thursday France recalled its ambassador back to Paris. The latest precedent was Hungary’s recall of its ambassador to the Netherlands in 2017 after that country’s ambassador criticized Viktor Orban.
In Franco-Italian relations,
The spat has had comic-opera overtones, with its outlandish insults from the Italians — France should get rid of its “very bad president,” the Italian far right leader and interior minister Matteo Salvini said recently — and its injured dignity on the French side. “Outrageous declarations” had been aimed at France by Italy, the French foreign ministry huffed on Thursday.
But beneath the provocation and posturing there is a serious undercurrent, recognized by both sides: a battle for Europe’s leadership between the forces represented by the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, and the more open, self-proclaimed “progressive” spirit of Mr. Macron, who last summer denounced the populist “leprosy” rising in Europe, in a barb deliberately aimed at Mr. Salvini.
“It’s a confrontation between two very different conceptions of Europe,” said Mr. Lazar — the ultra-nationalist, populist conception of Mr. Salvini, and Mr. Macron’s constant proselytizing for a more unified, transnational Europe.
Mr. Macron’s palpable disdain for the Italian populists has only multiplied Italian fury at the French government.
The dispute between the two countries came to a first boil last summer over the migrant issue. The Italians, having born the great brunt of the migrant wave since 2015, were outraged when Mr. Macron denounced the new Italian government for failing to take in the 629 migrants of the Aquarius humanitarian rescue boat.
The Italian prime minister’s office reacted with fury. “Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons from a country that, on migration, has always preferred to turn its back on its partners.” And it was true that France has made a regular practice of blocking migrants attempting to cross the Italian border.
“The Italians have been justified — a lot of Italians feel that France’s behavior, with its grand speeches but refusal to welcome migrants, is unacceptable,” said Mr. Lazar.