8 Feb 2019

France recalls ambassador to Italy as diplomatic row deepens

3:20 pm on 8 February 2019

A diplomatic row between France and Italy has deepened, with France complaining of "unfounded attacks and outlandish claims" by Italian leaders.

French president Emmanuel Macron

French president Emmanuel Macron Photo: AFP

France recalled its ambassador to Italy for talks on Thursday, saying the situation was "unprecedented" since the end of World War Two.

The latest spat began after Italian Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Five Star Movement, met leaders of the anti-government French "yellow-vest" protest near Paris on Tuesday.

He posted a picture of himself on Twitter with yellow-vest leader Christophe Chalençon and members of a yellow-vest list who are standing in elections to the European Parliament in May.

France warned him not to interfere in the country's politics.

Relations between the two countries - both founding members of the EU - have been tense since Italy's populist Five Star Movement and right-wing League party formed a coalition government in June 2018.

The two governments have clashed over a range of issues, including immigration.

What has France said?

"For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims," the foreign ministry said on Thursday.

"The most recent interferences constitute an additional and unacceptable provocation. They violate the respect that is owed to democratic choices made by a nation which is a friend and an ally. To disagree is one thing, to exploit a relationship for electoral aims is another."

Italy's fellow Deputy PM Matteo Salvini later said he would be happy to hold talks with President Emmanuel Macron.

But to "reset" relations he said France had to address "fundamental" issues. He called on Paris to hand over left-wing militants wanted by Italy and to stop returning migrants. He also complained of lengthy French border checks causing traffic jams at the frontier.

Mr Di Maio defended his decision to meet the protesters and described the French people as "friends and allies".

"President Macron has on several occasions attacked the Italian government for political reasons in view of the European elections. This has not affected the feeling of friendship that ties our two countries and never will," he said.

Italian PM Giuseppe Conte, speaking on a visit to Beirut, said he hoped the situation could be "cleared up immediately".

"Italy and France's relationship is rooted in history and cannot be called into question by events," he said.

Mr Salvini launched a direct personal attack on Mr Macron last month, saying he hoped the French people would soon be able to "free themselves of a terrible president".

Why has this row broken out?

Analysis by Paul Kirby, BBC News Online Europe editor

The French have had enough of months of provocative words and acts emanating from Italy's two populist leaders. Even Italian diplomats are "completely disoriented by this quarrel and just as surprised" by the positions taken by Italy's ministers, according to Corriere della Sera columnist Massimo Franco.

For France, the reason behind the spat is as clear as a bell. Matteo Salvini of the League and Five Star's Luigi Di Maio are simply electioneering ahead of the European Parliament elections in May.

What has that got to do with France? Neither leader likes the pro-European Emmanuel Macron.

For Mr Di Maio, the yellow vests challenging the French establishment are natural bedfellows, while the right-wing interior minister Mr Salvini finds common cause with President Macron's far-right rival Marine Le Pen.

There may be votes in it, but there are big diplomatic risks too.