The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France recalls ambassador to Italy, an unusual rift among European allies

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, left, and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, center, seen Jan. 18, 2019. (Claudio Lattanzio/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

PARIS — France has recalled its ambassador to Italy in response to verbal attacks from Rome and other provocations, the French Foreign Ministry announced Thursday.

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. The last time France withdrew its ambassador to Rome was in June 1940, when Italy was under the control of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and declared war on France and Britain.

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

Those criticisms have come primarily from Italy’s populist leaders, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, who have used France’s pro-Europe president, Emmanuel Macron, as a foil for their Italy-first agenda.

Several thousand “yellow vest” protesters marched through Paris and other French cities Feb. 2 on the 12th weekend of action against the government. (Video: Reuters)

France’s recall of its ambassador could play further into that strategy. “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.’ ”

It was not immediately clear how long the French ambassador, Christian Masset, would be recalled. The Foreign Ministry said only that he would return to Paris “for consultations.”

The war of words between the Italians and Macron has touched on immigration, nationalism, neocolonialism and European values. It has spilled over into culture, threatening a planned loan of works by Leonardo da Vinci for a major exhibition at the Louvre in October.

Macron as recently as last week had brushed off critiques from Salvini and Di Maio, but the tension erupted when the deputy prime minister met with two “yellow vest” protesters in Rome.

The protests — hostile to the French government but especially to Macron — have roiled French politics for nearly three months, campaigning against what they see as rising social inequality and a government largely indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people.

Di Maio, head of a party that began on social media and grew into a real political faction, has been encouraging the yellow vests from the beginning.

“We are in power and those who taunted us have disappeared today from the political scene,” Di Maio wrote in a letter to the protesters last month.

Paris on Thursday condemned what it saw as efforts by a neighboring ally to meddle in its domestic politics for electoral gain.

“To have disagreements is one thing; to exploit the relationship for electoral purposes is another,” the Foreign Ministry’s statement said.

Political analysts say Di Maio’s aims are clear: He is looking for potential allies in the upcoming European elections, widely seen as a standoff between those in favor of further European integration, such as Macron, and those like Salvini and Di Maio who advocate an anti-Brussels, anti-system withdrawal from the postwar aspiration of an “ever closer” European Union.

“They’re looking out for partners,” said Rosa Balfour of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

“They see that the [yellow vests] are getting a lot of traction, that the French government is responding to their request. It fits into their anti-elite agenda,” Balfour said.

Massimiliano Panarari, who has written a book on Di Maio’s Five Star Movement, sees the deputy prime minister’s recent spectacle as part of an ongoing competition with Salvini to show who is the most “anti-French.” In the European Parliament, their parties do not belong to the same groups, and they are now vying for the same voters.

But Panarari said the effort to seem anti-establishment while governing represents a “huge paradox” for Di Maio, who is “one of the most important Italian institutional figures” and who has now contributed to a diplomatic crisis.

“It’s a huge tension that has been exploited for the needs of the electoral campaign,” Panarari said.

Relations between Paris and Rome began to sour before Italy’s populist government took power in June. In 2017, Italy took offense when Macron excluded the Italians from a summit to discuss a cease-fire in Libya, and when he temporarily nationalized France’s largest shipyard before Fincantieri, an Italian firm, could close its planned purchase of the facility.

For years, Italian governments have complained that its European neighbors have not taken their fair share of incoming migrants. France is no exception, having not yet taken in all the refugees it promised to accept from the front-line countries of Italy and Greece in 2015.

About 478,000 people have applied for asylum in Italy since 2015.

Despite Macron’s regular, lofty remarks that emphasize the need to welcome those fleeing oppression in accordance with European values, France has adopted a severe stance on economic migrants and refused to admit many migrants from the sprawling camps that line the France-Italy border, especially in Ventimiglia.

To the Italian government, Macron is a hypocrite. Last summer, when Macron decried nationalism as a “leprosy” spreading across Europe, Di Maio fired back that “real leprosy is the hypocrisy of someone who pushes back immigrants at Ventimiglia.”

Salvini, citing Macron’s border policies, said the French president should “not give lectures to the Italians.”

The rancor has only continued. Di Maio last month blamed mass migration to Europe on French neocolonialism, and Salvini called Macron “a terrible president.”

The petty exchanges between the two countries do not necessarily justify a diplomatic break, said Nathalie Tocci, director of Rome’s Institute of International Affairs.

“What’s significant is that precisely because things are bad and getting worse, it’s precisely the time in which you need diplomacy,” she said.

Harlan reported from Rome. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

Do France’s ‘yellow vests’ have a future as a political party?

Macron under fire after attempted search of French news outlet Mediapart

Macron touts Europe’s interests, but early actions put France first

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news