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Italy’s deputy PM met with yellow vest protesters in Paris — and the French are fuming

"France has been the target of repeated criticism, baseless attacks and outrageous declarations"

by Tim Hume
Feb 7 2019, 12:58pm

Getty Images

France recalled its ambassador to Rome Thursday in protest at an "unprecedented" series of provocations from Italy's leaders, most recently a meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio and French anti-government protesters.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio's cozy meeting with senior figures from the "yellow vest" movement Tuesday — at which he hailed the similarities between the French anti-government protesters and his own anti-establishment party — appears to have been the last straw for Paris. The French Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador Christian Masset Thursday, saying that repeated meddling by the leaders of Italy's populist coalition government had driven the relationship between the neighbors to a post-war low.

"For several months, France has been the target of repeated criticism, baseless attacks and outrageous declarations that everyone knows about," the ministry said, without identifying specific incidents.

Labelling the latest interference an "unacceptable provocation," the ministry said the repeated attacks had created a "serious situation that questions the intentions of the Italian government with regards to its relationship to France."

"This is unprecedented since the end of the war. To have disagreements is one thing, to exploit the relationship for electoral aims is another."

French officials said the move was the first time it had recalled an ambassador to Italy since Rome's declaration of war in 1940.

The remarkable diplomatic escalation came after Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, met with leading members of the yellow vests — a broad anti-government movement behind large, violence-tinged protests in French cities in recent months.

Di Maio tweeted a picture Tuesday, showing himself standing alongside yellow vest leader Christophe Chalençon and the movement’s candidates to European Parliament elections in May at their meeting in Paris.

“The wind of change has crossed the Alps,” wrote Di Maio, who — along with fellow deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini — has previously expressed his support for the demonstrators.

READ: Macron keeps folding to the yellow vest protesters — but it might not be enough

In a statement, Five Star said the yellow vests had many commonalities with the anti-establishment party, and that their two movements would soon hold another meeting in Rome.

“We have a lot of common positions and values, such as the defense of citizens, social rights, direct democracy and environment,” the statement said.

The flare-up is just the latest deterioration between Rome and Paris, neighbors at the heart of the European project whose bilateral relations have plummeted to rare depths in recent months. Since Italy’s populist coalition government — made up of the anti-establishment Five Star and the far-right Lega — came to power in June 2018, it has repeatedly come into conflict with the government of French President Emmanuel Macron, who styles himself as a pro-European liberal.

France summoned Italy’s ambassador to Paris last month after Di Maio said the French had "never stopped colonizing” African countries, while Salvini, head of the nationalist Lega, has also butted heads with Paris over his brutal clamp down on immigration.

While the French government expressed concern that Italy is drifting away from European principles, and Macron has lamented that populism was spreading across the Continent like "leprosy," Salvini returned fire by attacking the French leader last month as a “terrible” president who needed to be removed.

The harsh French response appeared to catch Rome by surprise Thursday, drawing a more conciliatory approach from Salvini. He said in a statement he was available to meet with Macron to discuss an approach to issues such as immigration, border control, and terrorism.

“We are ready and available with a constructive spirit to turn the page for the good of our people,” Salvini said.

Cover Image: Luigi Di Maio speaks to the media after the flash mob for the 'Restitution day' on February 6, 2019 in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)