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- After eight months of constant jibes and snipes from populist leaders in Italy, embattled French President Emmanuel Macron has had enough. He has recalled his ambassador.
- The final straw was when the Italian deputy prime minister met leaders of the wildly anti-Macron Gilets Jaunes or “Yellow Vest” protesters.
- The seat of The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Quai d’Orsay, called the made-for-social-media meeting, and its accompanying tweet, an “unacceptable provocation.”
- In the view of the French foreign ministry, relations between the two neighbors, are at their lowest ebb since French President Charles de Gaulle and Italian dictator, Generalissimo Benito Mussolini traded barbs during World War 2.
Paris has struck an extraordinary diplomatic alarm in its unprecedented recall of the French ambassador to Italy Christian Masset. It is undoubtedly the ugliest diplomatic spat, amid what is also the worst bilateral crisis between two of the more neighborly European nations in more than 70 years.
The symptoms are varied, centering mainly around Libya – where both France and Italy have strategic interests – and immigration, where they have no interest at all.
But the cause is a deep, implacable political ambivalence, government-to-government.
For seven months, rumbling tensions have been rising between right-wing populist Rome and the left-wing reform-minded Paris, with Vesuvian inevitability.
Ever since the June election of Italy’s populist government, an eruption of some kind has been due, with the French President Emmanuel Macron lighting the fuse and the Italian leaders gleefully pouring on the fuel.
Under tremendous pressure at home and increasingly abroad, Macron has wed his leadership to the defense of “liberte” from international populism – which he memorably described with one eye on Rome, as spreading from the Americas across to Europe, “like leprosy.”
“You see it on the ascent, like a leper, a little all over Europe. Vous les voyez monter, comme une lèpre, un peu partout en Europe,” Macron notoriously said.
Italy’s two equally firebrand deputy prime ministers, the far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini and the populist leader Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5S), took umbrage and have been undermining Macron with increasingly open hostility ever since.
In December, for example as anti-Macron protests began to gain steam, Salvini called Macron a “laboratory product.”
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And then, last month, with Macron still reeling from the nationwide protests that consequently paralyzed all of France, Salvini took the opportunity to say how hopeful he was that the people of France would be able to soon “liberate themselves from this terrible president.”
Fast-forward to this week, when Di Maio met with anti-Macron Gilet Jaune leaders, and tweeted more or less directly at the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the president of France, that the “winds of change have crossed the Alps and that a “new Europe has been born from the yellow vests.”
Boom. The French Foreign Ministry in a statement said that was that.
“France has been, for several months, the target of repeated, baseless attacks and outrageous statements without precedent since World War Two.”
Agnes von der Muhll, a foreign-ministry spokesperson, said the ambassador is being recalled for “consultations.”
The ceaseless goading of Macron from Rome, ahead of European Union elections in May has, for Élysée Palace, evolved from a cheap political trick into a threat on its democratically elected government and its sovereignty.
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“Having disagreements is one thing but manipulating the relationship for electoral aims is another,” Von der Muhll said. “They violate the respect that is owed to democratic choices made by a nation which is a friend and an ally. All of these actions are creating a serious situation which is raising questions about the Italian government’s intentions towards France.”
In the first sighting of an olive branch in months, Salvini said on Wednesday that he doesn’t want “a row with anyone.”
“I’m prepared to go to Paris, even by foot, to discuss the many issues we have,” he said.
But following a few more overtures, he accused Macron’s police force of secretly ferrying migrants across the border into Italy and demanded the return of some leftist Italian militants that he thinks Macron is hiding.