PARIS — In May, Emmanuel Macron’s victory over his opponent, the far-right populist Marine Le Pen, was seen as a win for the European Union or, as Macron put it, a “Europe that protects.”
But three months later, many across the continent have begun wondering whether Macron really is the drum major for European unity he says he is or whether he will become another French president out to defend national interests above all else.
Nowhere is this truer than in Italy, France’s southern neighbor, where leaders have begun to feel slighted by the new president’s bid to launch himself and his country as major players on the world stage.
“Precisely because the French election developed the way it did — with the ‘European leader’ on one side vs. the extreme nationalist right wing on the other — there was a fundamental misunderstanding of who Macron was and what he represented,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute for International Affairs and a special adviser to E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
“Because it was such an extreme presidential election, we kind of forgot at the end of the day that it was also a national election,” Tocci said.
Recently, Macron and his administration have pursued multiple initiatives that have rankled his Italian counterparts, who have said they were deliberately excluded from discussions that directly concern their interests.
These perceived slights have ranged from the specific to the general, from infighting over a Lyon-Turin railway to more substantive issues such as Europe’s migration crisis and Middle East foreign policy.
In Rome, there is now the perception that Macron may be less of a team player than he was initially considered.
This sense first emerged in the aftermath of Macron’s recent Libya summit, during which the new president invited the country’s two rival leaders — the U.N.-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and the military strongman Khalifa Haftar — to a chateau outside Paris to discuss a cease-fire agreement.
Conspicuously absent was an Italian delegation, despite the reality that, as Tocci put it, Italy is the “European member state that has the most granular understanding of the situation on the ground.”
At stake in particular was the issue of migration. Italy now receives the bulk of Europe’s incoming migrants, with many arriving across the Mediterranean directly from Libya.
So far in 2017, Italy has received about 95,000 along this route, prompting the Italian government to petition the European Union for assistance in handling the new asylum seekers.
“There is the very strong impression in Rome of having been left alone with the migrant question,” said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute for International Relations, in an interview.
Last month, France — along with Germany — reluctantly promised to help in relocating migrants more quickly, although critics say details of that plan remain vague and that little action has been taken since.
In any case, after his meeting with the two Libyan leaders, Macron — without Italian input — announced plans to open “hot spots” in Libya later this summer, which would theoretically curb the flow into Europe.
For Gomart, however, any French action on migrants cannot be separated from the reality that France, when compared with Germany and Italy, has not taken anywhere near the same proportions of asylum seekers.
“This for me is the biggest cause of the tensions that have materialized — and it’s a barometer of European solidarity,” he said.
Then came a French move that, for many in Italy, was even more surprising.
Before an Italian firm, Fincantieri, could close on the purchase of France’s largest shipyard, known as STX, Macron — who had campaigned on promises of easing government regulations and even of attracting foreign investment — temporarily nationalized the facility and prevented the sale, in an effort to protect French jobs.
To assuage the immediate Italian accusations of economic protectionism that followed, Macron called Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, whose office later told reporters that the conversation was “friendly.” He then dispatched Bruno Le Maire, France’s economy minister, to Rome on Tuesday to meet with his Italian counterpart.
French officials were quick to dismiss any notion of soured relations with Italy.
“We will continue to exchange with our Italian partner at all levels on Libya,” said a French diplomatic official.
But the consensus in Italy was different. As Italian economy minister Pier Carlo Padoan told reporters after the Tuesday meeting: “During our conversation with minister Le Maire, we’ve first of all ascertained that between Italy and France there are still unresolved differences.”
Foreign policy analysts see Macron’s actions on Italy as evidence that his image as a dogged advocate of European integration could soon change.
Said Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to the United States and the E.U.: “At the end of the day, if you look at the way Europeans are watching Macron, one cannot help but notice that for many of our European counterparts, there is the impression that this president is very French and merely promoting French interests.”
Stefano Petrelli contributed to this report.