Paris has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassador from Rome, in the worst crisis between the two neighbouring countries since the second world war.
France blamed what it called baseless verbal attacks from Italy’s political leaders, which it said were “without precedent since world war two”.
Italy’s two deputy prime ministers, the far-right Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio of the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, have in recent months criticised the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on a host of inflammatory issues, from immigration to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) anti-government demonstrations.
Di Maio this week met leaders of the gilets jaunes seeking to run in May’s European parliament elections as he declared the “wind of change has crossed the Alps” and a “new Europe is being born of the yellow vests”. France said the comments were an unacceptable “provocation”.
Announcing the immediate return to Paris of its ambassador for talks, the French foreign office said in a statement: “For several months, France has been the target of repeated, baseless attacks and outrageous statements. Having disagreements is one thing but manipulating the relationship for electoral aims is another.
“All of these actions are creating a serious situation which is raising questions about the Italian government’s intentions towards France.”
Salvini responded by saying the Italian government did not want to fall out with France and suggested a meeting with Macron to fix the relationship.
“I don’t want to row with anyone, I’m prepared to go to Paris, even by foot, to discuss the many issues we have,” he said.
But, in a further dig at Macron, he said France must first address three issues: French police must stop pushing migrants back into Italy, end lengthy border checks blocking traffic and hand over around 15 Italian leftist militants who have taken refuge in France in recent decades.
The long-running political spat between Italy and France has been viewed as the biggest bust-up between the countries since 1945. Both sides were initially seen to be using their differences for electoral reasons: Salvini to push his far-right agenda and Macron to style himself as a centrist counterweight against populism in May’s European parliamentary elections.
Relations soured after Italy’s populist government came to power last June. Macron, who was under pressure at home for not accepting the Aquarius migrant ship that Salvini turned away from Italian ports, said populism was spreading across Europe “a bit like leprosy”.
He did not name Italy but the leprosy comment was taken to be directly aimed at Rome.
Salvini has called Macron a dire French president. “I hope the French will be able to free themselves of a terrible president,” he said in one Facebook video, urging French voters not to back Macron’s La République En Marche party in the European vote.
Salvini is close to Macron’s presidential rival, the French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party is currently neck and neck with Macron’s in polls before the European elections.
Di Maio last month accused France of impoverishing Africa and bringing on the migration crisis. He said France was encouraging immigration to Europe “because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries”. Furious, the French foreign office immediately summoned the Italian envoy in France for talks over what it called “hostile” remarks.
Already, relations were so strained that France and Italy failed to hold a traditional joint summit last year. Tensions had been mounting steadily over immigration and France’s role in the 2011 military intervention in Libya.
The countries have even been at odds about celebrations for the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, with Italy raising doubts about loaning works for a major commemoration show at Paris’s Louvre museum.
During a visit to Egypt last month, Macron sought to shrug off the sparring, dismissing Salvini and Di Maio’s comments as “insignificant”.
The French Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, told France Inter radio: “We don’t have the same political choices as Matteo Salvini’s League or Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement, but everyone should prioritise the chief concern of dealing with their own country’s affairs and ensuring good relations with neighbours.”