France recalls ambassador to Italy over ‘baseless attacks’ and yellow vest meeting
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio angered Paris by meeting with yellow vest protesters. (Reuters: Benoit Tessier)
French police fire tear gas and water cannons in ninth-straight week of yellow-vest protests
France has recalled its ambassador to Italy — a remarkable diplomatic split between neighbours and European Union allies — over what it described as “repeated, baseless” attacks by Italian political leaders against France.
- The French Foreign Ministry accused Italy of “manipulating the relationship”
- Mr Di Maio defended his meeting with the yellow vests, describing it as “legitimate”
- Ties between the two allies have grown increasingly tense since mid-2018
The rupture, the first withdrawal of a French envoy to Rome since World War II, was announced by the Foreign Ministry.
Diplomats said Paris acted after a series of insults from Italy, capped by Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s decision this week to meet with members of France’s yellow vest movement, which has mounted a months-long and sometimes violent campaign against French President Emmanuel Macron.
“France has been, for several months, the target of repeated, baseless attacks and outrageous statements,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Having disagreements is one thing, but manipulating the relationship for electoral aims is another.”
Mr Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment 5-Star movement, which is in a governing coalition with the far-right League, defended his meeting with the yellow vests and drew a distinction between Mr Macron and the French people.
“President Macron has repeatedly lashed out against the Italian Government for political reasons in view of the European elections,” he said, referring to a European Parliament vote in May that is expected to see a surge among populist parties.
“My meeting as the political leader of the 5-Star movement with members of the ‘yellow vests’… was fully legitimate. I claim the right to talk with other political forces that represent the French people.”
The 32-year-old Mr Di Maio appears keen to cast himself as a youthful rival to Mr Macron, 41, even as his approval rating falls at home.
Mr Macron offered no immediate response to Mr Di Maio.
The yellow vest movement has mounted a months-long campaign against Mr Macron.
(AP: Rafael Yaghobzadeh)
He has spent much of the past month touring France in a “great debate” with citizens to try to lift his own approval ratings and regain the initiative in the face of the protests.
France’s Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said the decision to recall the ambassador was rare but necessary.
“There was behaviour by a member of the Italian Government that we consider unusual, unfriendly and that follows a number of official Italian statements that we find hard to understand in terms of how they help Franco-Italian relations,” she told France Info.
Tensions simmer between allies
Ties between the two traditionally close allies have grown increasingly tense since mid-2018, with Mr Di Maio and his fellow deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini of the League party, firing pot-shots at Mr Macron and France, mostly over migration policy.
Mr Macron has at times responded, criticising Italy last June for its refusal to accept a boatload of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, and taking aim at Rome’s public finances.
But in recent weeks the exchanges have grown sharper and more personal. Mr Di Maio accused France last month of fuelling poverty in Africa, suggesting it was a neo-colonial power.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (left) laughed off the attacks against Mr Macron (right). (Reuters: Francois Mori)
Mr Salvini accused France of exploiting the unrest in Libya to benefit oil company Total, which competes with Italy’s ENI in the development of regional energy assets.
He also said he hoped Mr Macron’s party would lose in May’s European elections.
During a visit to Egypt last month, Mr Macron sought to shrug off the sparring, calling Mr Salvini and Mr Di Maio’s comments “insignificant” and adding that he dealt only with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Mr Conte, a political unknown who became prime minister last year as a compromise between Mr Salvini and Mr Di Maio, was caught on video at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos discussing the dispute with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italian TV channel La7 broadcast footage a week ago showing the two leaders talking at a bar, with Mr Conte telling Ms Merkel that Mr Di Maio was attacking France because he was down in the polls ahead of the European elections and needed an enemy.
“So they say what are the issues that can help us during the campaign … In the political campaign our friend is Germany and so we had to do the campaign against France,” he said, prompting laughter from Ms Merkel.