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(Mohamed Abd-El Ghany and Ludovic Maren/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters; Ludovic Maren/AFP/Getty Images)

In an extraordinary sign of the growing tensions in Europe, the French government recalled its ambassador to Italy on Thursday. The move marked a startling deterioration of relations between the centrist government of French President Emmanuel Macron and the ruling populist coalition in Rome.

In recent months, Italy’s two deputy prime ministers — Luigi Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right leader Matteo Salvini — have stepped up their criticism of Macron and expressed support for France’s anti-government “yellow vest” protesters. The final provocation appeared to be a meeting this week between Di Maio and leading figures among the yellow vests, who intend to field candidates in Europe’s parliamentary elections in May. The “wind of change has crossed the Alps,” Di Maio tweeted.

French officials were aghast that a senior Italian government official broke protocol this way, fraternizing with the opposition without even giving notice to his counterparts in Paris.

“France has been, for several months, the object of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outrageous declarations that everyone knows and can recognize,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “This is unprecedented since the end of the war.”

It’s not yet clear how long Christian Masset, the French envoy ordered home “for consultations,” might remain in Paris. What is clear is the mounting sense of crisis in the relationship between the European neighbors and partners. “The recall was a marked departure from the typically congenial politics of postwar Western Europe, where differences among neighboring allies have rarely reached a fever pitch,” noted my colleagues James McAuley and Chico Harlan.

Both Salvini and Di Maio fired back on social media. “To me that meeting was not a provocation against the current French government, but instead an important meeting with a political force with whom we share quite a lot, including the need for direct democracy to give more power to citizens,” Di Maio wrote on Facebook.

“Journalists called me because France called back the French ambassador in Italy to summon him to Paris because they felt offended,” Salvini said Thursday afternoon in a live video on Facebook. “I just replied, ‘I don’t want to argue with anyone. I don’t care about arguments. I want to solve problems.’”

Both politicians nurse real grievances with France and Macron. They criticize the French government for not doing enough to take in migrants who cross the Mediterranean from Africa. They bridle at Macron’s lecturing on European values and integration. And they blame politicians like Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for perpetuating fiscal policies that have locked Italy into cycles of debt.

“France is a very easy target because of the challenges — on Libya, the economy and even football,” Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, told the Guardian. “Macron is also the kind of elite person they like to attack as he’s exactly the reverse of what they are.”

Salvini has vowed to break “the France-Germany axis” in the E.U. elections, and he has courted other far-right groups as well as illiberal governments in Eastern Europe. Di Maio recently accused French policies of fueling poverty and migration on the other side of the Mediterranean. France “never stopped colonizing Africa,” he said — remarks that led to the French government summoning the Italian ambassador.

As my colleagues report, the heated tensions are in part a reflection of the rivalry between Di Maio and Salvini themselves. In an interview with Today’s WorldView in late 2017, Di Maio insisted that his party had “no intention of isolating Italy” or “exalting nationalistic sentiments.” But once his anti-establishment Five Star Movement entered a coalition government with Salvini’s League — an unapologetically far-right, anti-immigrant party — Di Maio has been forced to make awkward accommodations for his partner’s strident nationalism. With the E.U. elections around the corner and the country’s two deputy prime ministers running rival campaigns, Macron has served as a useful punching bag for both, a symbol of the stale centrism and elitist affects of the continent’s mainstream.

Macron-bashing also offers a distraction as Italy’s economy continues to slump — according to some accounts, the country has already slipped into recession.

“It’s one of the consequences of national populism, which is to try to find enemies,” said former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Thursday. “You need to find enemies inside and outside your country to keep the consensus united.” But, Gentiloni added with concern, “you can’t identify an enemy in a neighbor and friendly country.”

For his part, Macron has largely brushed off the attacks from across the Alps. Opinion polls show his popularity rising, even as the “yellow vests” morph from a social-media-driven protest movement into a sustained political challenge.

But the continent’s fault lines are deepening. Far-right and nationalist parties are expected to do well in the May elections, adding to the already profound angst wafting around Brussels. The ugliness of Brexit has cooled other anti-E.U. movements on the continent, but the simmering backlash against Europe’s liberal establishment remains. Right-wing leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban envision a new axis of nationalists, Salvini among them, that will refashion the continent’s politics — and, by extension, its social and cultural identity.

The squabbles between Italy’s populists and Macron may seem like petty politicking, but they are also skirmishes in a war that is only just starting.

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