Five Star’s Awkward Love for Les Gilets Jaunes

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Yellow Vests have found an unlikely ally just across the Alps. Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, has written a blog post in praise of the French protesters, going as far as offering them organizational support.

The move by Italy’s deputy prime minister smacks of desperation. A little more than a year ago, Di Maio courted French President Emmanuel Macron, the main target of the gilets jaunes. It could also come back to haunt him: It is very unusual for a foreign leader to back protesters against a democratically elected head of state — particularly not when those demonstrations have turned violent.

The Five Star Movement has had a rather confused strategy when it comes to their positioning in the continent’s politics. In the European Parliament, it sits in the euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, alongside the U.K. Independence Party. However, in January 2017, it sought to move to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the parliament’s most federalist grouping, which ultimately rejected it.

This puzzling attitude is now reflected again in the movement’s relationship with France. At the end of 2017, Di Maio wrote an open letter to Macron to underline the similarities between their parties. “The Five Star Movement believes deeply, just like you, in Europe’s refoundation,” he wrote, adding that neither his party nor En Marche! had “any lobby group behind [it] or rent to defend.”

This week, Di Maio took the opposite position. The spirit of the yellow vests “is the same spirit that has animated the Five Star Movement and thousands of Italians since our birth in 2009,” he wrote. For the Five Star leader, Macron is now a defender of the elites, the privileged few, against the people. For this reason, he offers French protesters the ability to use the movement’s own operating system, so that they can better organize their events or choose their electoral candidates online.

Five Star’s move is blatantly hypocritical and diplomatically clumsy. Over the past seven months, the Italian government has hit back against European leaders, warning them to mind their own business on Italy’s economic policies. Now Di Maio has chosen to meddle in another state’s internal politics, and not just by picking a side between different parties, but by backing a protest movement against the president. Not a great start for a force which is trying to build alliances in Europe.

Five Star’s Awkward Love for Les Gilets Jaunes
More likely, Di Maio is simply trying to stop his party’s collapse in the polls, which started since they formed a government with the League. Matteo Salvini, the League leader and Italy’s other deputy prime minister, is flying to Warsaw this week to seek an alliance with the hard-right “Law and Justice” party, having already displayed mutual support with the leaders of France’s National Front and Hungary’s Fidesz. Salvini has also shown some sympathy for the gilets jaunes. Di Maio is desperate to steal the show from his government ally, and to burnish his credentials as a man of the people.

But the longer he stays in government, the harder it is for him to defend his various incarnations without losing credibility. Whatever their political motives, the Yellow Vests would be wise to ignore the embrace of Five Star.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

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