France Recalls Ambassador to Italy, Sinking Ties to Postwar Low

(Bloomberg) -- France recalled its ambassador to Italy, citing “meddling” in its domestic affairs, in a surprise move that drags relations between two founding members of the European Union to a more than seven-decade low.

The response comes after months of verbal attacks where Italian populist politicians, eager to make gains in European parliamentary elections, have been baiting the French because it plays well with voters -- or so the polls shows -- and distracts attention away from the recession.

“This is unprecedented since the war,” the Paris-based foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday. “Having disagreements is one thing, but using the relationship for electoral purposes is quite another.”

The statement follows Tuesday’s meeting near Paris between Italian Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio and a senior figure of the Yellow Vests movement in France. Di Maio took the opportunity to thumb his nose at the government in Paris while trumpeting support for the grassroots protests against President Emmanuel Macron.

It proved to be a provocation too many for the president, who has had a tough week on the domestic front and has canceled his visit to the Munich Security Conference mid-February to focus on fixing problems back home. The Yellow Vests are a thorn in his side and a controversy around his former bodyguard has resurfaced, threatening to arrest a pickup in his approval ratings.

“Macron is nervous, the country is slipping away from him,” the Italian deputy premier said on Rai television. From his point of view, he said he has every right to begin a conversation with like-minded people: “I claim the right to be able to dialogue with all the European political forces -- we want to create a group in Europe which is neither of the right nor of the left.”

France Recalls Ambassador to Italy, Sinking Ties to Postwar Low

Paris and Rome have been snarling at each other since a populist coalition took power in Italy last year, with budget spending and immigration the main bones of contention.

The big question is whether the spat will have any longer-term repercussions and whether for Italy, it’s worth the short-term gain of having got a rise out of France.

The two countries have periodically argued about commercial issues including shipbuilder Fincantieri’s proposed takeover of France’s STX and a past Italian government’s contention that landline assets constitute a strategic asset. A $10 billion rail project to link the two countries is under threat over Five Star opposition to the plan.

Surprise Move

France’s response appeared to catch Italy off guard.

A senior official at the Italian Foreign Ministry, who declined to be named discussing a sensitive issue, said the French decision to recall the ambassador was completely unexpected. The official said he assumes the move was because of Di Maio’s meeting with the Yellow Vests.

Italy’s elections last March swept away a center-left government whose prime minister was close to Macron, replacing it with an awkward coalition of Di Maio’s eclectic Five Star and the anti-immigration League. The two parties share an ambivalent attitude -- at best -- toward the EU.

Salvini’s Role

Relations with Italy’s new government got off to a bad start when Macron criticized the decision of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to block a humanitarian ship from unloading migrants at an Italian port, while refusing to allow the ship to dock in France. Salvini called Macron a hypocrite; Macron referred to Italy’s populists as lepers.

Salvini and Macron have kept up their attacks on each other, with each seeing himself as the leader of a different coalition in the coming May elections. Macron is pushing for greater European integration while Salvini favors returning more powers to national capitals.

Salvini also recently accused France of sheltering Italian left-wing terrorists from the 1970’s. The interior minister and League chief has been rising in the Italian polls largely because of his success in stemming immigration, while Di Maio has been sliding in surveys, as many of his supporters feel he’s been outmaneuvered by Salvini.

In an interesting development, it’s now Salvini who rather than trying to outdo his rival is instead extending an olive branch to Macron: “We are ready and available with a constructive spirit to turn the page for the good of our people.”

And as always, it’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte who is trying to mend fences that his deputies routinely break.

“The relationship between Italy and France goes back to antiquity, the ties are cultural and economic and cannot be put into doubt,” Conte told reporters in Beirut.

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