In a phone call late Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron and his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella “recalled that France and Italy, who together built the European Union, have a special responsibility to work together for its defence and revival,” according to Macron’s office.
The statement came a week after Paris recalled its ambassador to Rome for the first time since 1940 in response to an ongoing war of words between France’s government and Italy’s two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini.
Paris was angry that Di Maio met French gilets jaunes or Yellow Vest protesters, who have staged months of anti-government demonstrations that have featured regular outbreaks of rioting, vandalism and clashes with police.
But Di Maio and Salvini – respective leaders of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right League parties – have been launching increasingly virulent attacks on Macron and his administration since forming a coalition government in May 2018.
Di Maio has accused successive French governments of pursuing ultra-liberal policies that have “increased citizens’ insecurity and sharply reduced spending power”, while Salvini has called Macron “a terrible president” and accused France of driving migration from Africa by meddling in the continent’s politics.
Changing landscape of European politics
Much of the war of words has to do with the two Italian parties’ ambitions on the European political scene.
“A lot of it has to do with the European election [on 26 May], and in more general terms, it has to do with both the Five Star Movement and the League trying to own the issue of criticising the direction the European Union has taken,” says Daniele Albertazzi, a researcher in European politics at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
For Di Maio and Salvini, Macron fits into this narrative as a figure that embodies “a neoliberal approach that is in favour of migration and neoliberal values, but in the economy ends up favouring big interests and crushing the small man”.
And while Macron has sought at times to strike a demure tone, as in his conversation with Mattarella, at others he and his administration have been more than eager to accept the terms of the opposition.
The pro-EU, liberal Macron said last year that populists like Salvini were right to consider him as their main opponent, and both the French president and his administration have denounced the Italian government’s immigration policy as a “nationalist leprosy” harming European unity.
“It suits Macron’s agenda as well, and he’s made several statements that suggests he is actually quite comfortable with that dichotomy,” Albertazzi says.
Italian parties’ changing fortunes
A closer look at the Italian landscape shows that the two parties articulate their opposition to Macron and all things European in different ways.
“[The League] say they are against Europe, but they don’t want to leave the European Union, and they don’t want to get rid of the euro,” says Jean-Pierre Darnis, associate professor at the University of Nice.
“On the Five Star side, they are much more undefined. Their founder Beppe Grillo had some ideas against the euro, but they understood that saying you are against Europe frightens people. And then, other leaders come out unprepared.”
The distinctions are also evident on the strategic level, as well.
“The League has been in government many times before and is much better at picking fights that matter,” Albertazzi says. “Salvini has attacked Macron mainly on the issue of migration, and there is a lot of anger in Italy about how the migrants are returned at the border from France back into Italy.”
On the other hand, Di Maio’s attempt to align his party with the Yellow Vest protesters succeeded in angering Paris, but it has not necessarily done him any favours at home.
“They’ve picked a fight that doesn’t really matter in Italy, in the sense that you’re not going to gain many votes by being seen to be on the side of those who are...criticising Macron and taking to the streets,” Albertazzi says.
The coherence of the two parties’ positions and strategies seems to reflect their changing fortunes at home.
The Five Star Movement and the League respectively won 33 and 17 percent of the vote in last year’s general election, but an election in the region of Abbruzzo east of Rome on Sunday showed the trend to be reversing, with the parties taking 19 and 28 percent of votes.
And an Ipsos poll published Monday showed the League is not favoured by 34 percent of voters, a dramatic change suggesting that not just Five Star voters are being won over by its hard stance on immigration.
Lyon-Turin rail link would be ‘negatively profitable’
The Five Star Movement may find it all the more tempting, then, to champion the issue of the high-speed rail link between Italy and France – which it has criticised as a misuse of public funds and promised to block.
The long-term Lyon-Turin project, currently due to be completed in 2025, would cut rail travel time between Paris and Milan from seven to four hours via a 57.5-kilometre tunnel beneath the Alps.
But according to the Five Star-commissioned report delivered on Tuesday, the link would be “very negatively profitable”, costing Italy seven billion euros over the course of several decades.
Five Star is looking for issues to champion and will want to avoid backing down on a promise. The League has long favoured the link but Salvini said he would wait to see the report before adopting a position.
“If the government goes ahead and follows this advice, that is going to cause a lot of problems as well, because this is now halfway completed and I can’t see France taking it very well,” Albertazzi says.
If the government acts on the report’s recommendations, it would be hard to see the outcome having a positive impact on the two countries’ relations.
Already, Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party noted that five of the report’s authors had previously slammed the project and that the sixth refused to sign off on it, while a France-based committee on the link said the analysis was “remarkably partisan”.
France and Italy risk unintended consequences
In the context of approaching elections, shifting political landscape and ideological polarisation, Paris and Rome have already seen unintended consequences of political gestures.
“When Di Maio went to France the other day, I don’t think he was expecting to trigger such a reaction,” Albertazzi says of the Italian politician’s meeting with the Yellow Vests.
“Things might degenerate without Five Star or the League even meaning it initially, but then ending up in a position whereby objectively there is a clash of interests. The link between Turin and Lyon is an example of that.”
France also has an interest in taking the issues confronting the two countries seriously.
“They understand there are some serious areas, like industries and investment but also diplomatic issues in Libya and Africa, which have been conflicting with Italians, sometimes with very good reason on the Italian side,” says Darnis.
“And when France and Italy both say they do not want immigrants, it is for the same reason, because internal political consensus is based today on the fight against immigration. This has been the case in France since the 1980s, it’s more recent in Italy, and it explains why Matteo Salvini’s League has become so strong.”
And the League’s strength does not detract from the Five Star Movement’s role.
“It might not seem as dangerous,” Darnis says. “But very often, their imprecision is highly dangerous, too.”