Europe Politics

Italian and French relations are falling apart fast. Here's why

Key Points
  • The French and Italian relationship has deteriorated markedly since the formation of the Italian coalition government in June 2018.
  • The two countries have opposing political perspectives.
  • Paris is accusing Rome of attacking the French president to whip up a popular vote in European elections.
French President Emmanuel Macron answers a question from student in the audience during a town hall meeting at George Washington University in Washington, April 25, 2018.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

France has now recalled its ambassador to Italy following months of escalating tension, but why has it got so heated between the two — normally cordial — European neighbors?

The latest verbal skirmish between the European countries came after Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio crossed the border to meet with the French anti-government protesters known as the "gilet jaunes" (yellow vests) just outside Paris.

Di Maio took to Twitter to say the "winds of change had crossed the Alps" before inviting the protesters to a follow-up meeting in Rome.

The 32-year-old is the leader of the Italian populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and sees the French protests, with its rural and working-class roots, as a natural ally to his own party's cause in Italy.

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio
Andrea Ronchini | NurPhoto | Getty Images

That foray into French politics incensed Paris with some describing it as the lowest point in their relationship since World War II. Then on Thursday, the French government ordered the immediate return to Paris of its Rome ambassador.

The French foreign office said in a statement: "For several months, France has been the target of repeated, baseless attacks and outrageous statements. Having disagreements is one thing but manipulating the relationship for electoral aims is another."

Populism spreading 'like leprosy'

The French and Italian relationship has deteriorated markedly since the formation of the Italian coalition government in June 2018.

French President Emmanuel Macron is also at odds with the Italian government's other coalition deputy, Matteo Salvini who heads the right-wing Lega party.

Macron was sharply critical when Salvini blocked ports to prevent the landing of a stranded migrant ship and has previously said that populism in Europe was spreading like "leprosy," a comment seized on by Rome as a direct insult.

In January, at the height of Gilet Jaunes protests, Salvini said he hoped the French people would soon be able to "free themselves of a terrible president," encouraging voters to favor French far-right politician Marine Le Pen.

The petulance has even spread to a major doubt over whether Italy will loan France some works by the artist Leonardo Da Vinci for a commemorative exhibition. Da Vinci, an Italian, moved to France where he died.

Why is France protesting?

What does France say?

The French government claim that both Salvini and Di Maio are simply canvassing support ahead of the European Parliament elections in May.

Referencing Di Maio's visit to the Gilet Jaunes, the French foreign affairs ministry said the new provocation was "unacceptable between neighboring countries" and threatened to "undermine our bilateral relations."

Additionally, the French Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, told France Inter radio that Italy should stick to their own affairs.

"Everyone should prioritize the chief concern of dealing with their own country's affairs and ensuring good relations with neighbors," she said.

And Italy?

For his part Di Maio has argued that it is Macron who is in campaign mode ahead of the European elections and that he has every right to meet with French protesters.

"My meeting as the political leader of the Five 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."

ROME, ITALY - NOVEMBER 29: The Vice President of the Council and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini attends the television show 'L'aria che tira'.
Simona Granati - Corbis | Corbis News | Getty Images

Macron's other foe, Salvini, has since offered to meet with Macron to discuss tensions but put three demands ahead of any meeting.

Salvini said in a statement he wanted to reset relations with Paris, but France should first stop pushing migrants back into Italy, end lengthy border checks and hand over Italian leftist militants who have taken refuge in France.

Di Maio and Salvini may be deputies to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte but they are viewed as the power brokers who are driving Italy's agenda.