(CN) – Italy and France are in a nasty diplomatic fight that threatens to become a protracted clash over a wide spectrum of disagreements – both new and old – touching on Libya, immigration, Africa policy, the future of the European Union and even Italian communist militants long shielded by France.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the extraordinary step of recalling his ambassador in Rome. The last time that happened was during World War II.
The French, fed up with accusations by Italy’s new populist government, said it temporarily was pulling the ambassador to send a message.
The final straw, the French embassy said, was an unannounced meeting last week between Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio and French protesters in Paris seeking to oust Macron from power. Di Maio supports the protesters, the so-called “yellow vests.”
“This is not about dramatizing the situation, it’s about saying playtime is over,” said Nathalie Loiseau, France’s minister for European affairs. French authorities said Di Maio was meddling in France’s domestic affairs.
This diplomatic row is both easy to understand and a trip into a labyrinth of history and conflicting interests.
The easy part is this: It’s a political clash between two very different governments fighting over the future of the European Union in the run-up to European Parliament elections in May.
For both Macron and Italy’s populists, much is at stake in doing well in the elections. Macron, a political newcomer, needs a win to shore up his government weakened by weeks of violent protests; and Italy’s populists, seen as a danger by Europe’s establishment, are seeking validation too.
Ideologically, they are miles apart.
Macron talks about expanding the EU and increasing its powers. He sees a stronger Europe, and a larger role for France, as crucial for Europe’s future in a world increasingly complicated by trans-national crises, such as climate change, global conflict over resources and immigration. But he also advocates a pro-business and neo-liberal agenda.
Contrast that with Italy’s leaders, made up of the anti-establishment direct-democracy 5-Star Movement and the League, a far-right nationalist party. They see the EU as having seized too much power and influence over national affairs. They are leading voices for a movement of nationalists and anti-establishment forces demanding radical changes inside the EU.
This conflict was set into motion when Italy’s populist government took office last June. Its outspoken leaders said they were fed up with Italy’s weakened position inside a Europe dominated by France and Germany and they vowed to shake things up.
And they quickly lived up to those promises by lashing out at the EU’s status quo, which they argue benefits Germany and France. But their fiercest fire was directed at Macron.
For the past eight months, Italy’s leaders, sounding like an aggrieved party, have dragged out a plethora of complaints against France.
The conflict broke out as soon as the populists took office and centered on an issue defining Europe’s present politics: What to do about refugees and immigrants from Africa and Asia.
In June, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the League, refused to allow a humanitarian ship with 629 asylum-seekers aboard it from docking at an Italian port.
Macron then called Italy’s government “irresponsible.” His spokesman was even more blunt, saying Italy’s position made him “want to vomit.” Later, in widely published comments, Macron compared Italy’s new populist government to a “leprosy” spreading across Europe.
In an atmosphere of intensifying and increasingly testy European politics, Italy’s new leaders were quick to respond and accused France of hypocrisy.
Italy pointed out that France had been turning back asylum-seekers by the thousands at the Italian-French border in the Alps.
The populists also blasted France for not accepting asylum-seekers more generally. For years, Italy complained that other European nations, especially Germany and France, turned their backs on Italy, leaving it on its own to deal with an influx of asylum-seekers.
In taking power, Salvini vowed to stop immigration into Italy; he got the support of the 5-Star Movement and a majority of Italians.
Simultaneously, Italy and France were sparring over the fate of Libya.
Italy’s leaders accused France of turning Libya into a failed state. France’s then-President Nicolas Sarkozy backed the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, rejecting Italy’s objections to a military intervention. Italy has deep ties in Libya, a former Italian colony and an important source of oil for Italy.
The overthrow of Gaddafi, though, led to civil war and divided the country into warring factions. In the chaos that followed, Libya became a principal departure point for refugees and immigrants looking to enter Europe via Italy.
Adding another complexity to the conflict, France and Italy began backing different factions inside Libya and have been working at cross-purposes as they carry out separate peace negotiations. Italy accuses France of seeking to exert more influence in Libya, which Italy considers inside its sphere of influence in the Mediterranean Sea.
“In Libya, France has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy,” Salvini said recently on Italian television.
Also, Di Maio has started accusing France of acting like a colonial power in Africa and keeping Francophone African nations impoverished by imposing the use of French-backed currencies that are pegged to the euro.
According to this accusation, sub-Saharan African nations are in a fiscal stranglehold because their currencies are artificially too strong, leading to high prices and low wages. This, the argument goes, stunts economic growth and has led many people to flee poverty – often by heading toward Europe, and in turn, risking the crossing from Libya to Italy.
“Instead of recalling the French ambassador in Italy, I’d suggest French President Macron recall all those French managers who are still dictating the law in the central African banks,” said Alessandro Di Battista, a top leader with the 5-Star Movement.
Salvini added a new wrinkle to the row in January by demanding that France turn over Italian communist militants accused of terrorism who were long shielded from extradition by France.
Italy reportedly wants France to extradite 15 people connected to crimes committed during the 1970s and 1980s, a bloody period in Italian history involving communist militants, the mafia, secret services and other forces.
La Repubblica newspaper reported that at least three of those 15 were convicted for their roles in the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
The French justice ministry said it would examine the extradition requests.
In the 1980s, former French President Francois Mitterrand implemented a policy shielding militants from extradition. A socialist, Mitterrand charged that the Italian justice system would not have given the militants a fair trial. This policy, known as the “Mitterrand Doctrine,” came to an end in the early 2000s.
“In the last two years on the border between France and Italy the generous and hospitable French sent back to us 60,000 immigrants and have for decades hosted 15 terrorists who should be in prison in Italy,” Salvini said at a recent rally.
On the French side, the rhetoric has been heated too.
“If you want to beat back the nationalist leprosy, if you want to beat back the populists, if you want to beat back the challenge to Europe, the best way to do that is to behave well with your partners,” said Benjamin Griveaux, a spokesman for Macron’s government. “Italy’s meddling is unwelcome.”
He called the attacks by Italy unfounded. Neither the French nor Italian foreign ministries replied to messages seeking comment from Courthouse News.
This conflict extends into economic areas too.
France and Italy are at odds over the construction of a railway through the Alps that is meant to link Turin with Lyon. The 5-Star Movement doesn’t believe the project is worth it, but the French have already dug about 15 miles of the railway and say the project must proceed to avoid losing EU funding. But the 5-Star Movement claims the $9.7 billion project will end up costing Italy a net loss of $7.9 billion.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)