“An unprecedent crisis,” says the front page of centrist paper Le Monde.
“A duel in the shadow of the European elections,” is how right-wing Le Figaro sees the spat between the neighbours.
Left-leaning Libération notes that France has recalled its ambassador from Rome, accusing the Italians of “interfering” in French affairs.
“France furious,” fumes a front-page headline in the normally staid business daily Les Echos.
What exactly is going on?
Paris feels that the Italian authorities have exceeded their mandate with a series of provocative messages in support of the gilets jaunes, the yellow vest protestors who have been rocking the boat here in France for the past several months.
A photo of the Italian government’s number two, Luigi Di Maio, smilingly congratulating a group of French gilets jaunes, including Christophe Chalençon, one of the group’s most controversial figureheads, was a step too far for France. Chalençon has, notably, warned that civil war is inevitable on this side of the Alps.
A severe document from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris says the situation is of a gravity unequaled since the end of the war. This is the first time since the birth of the European Union that a member state has recalled its ambassador from another EU capital.
A row that's been brewing for a while
The first blow was struck in January when Rome accused France of using the CFA franc to deliberately sustain African poverty.
And there’s the vexed question of the high-speed rail link between the French city of Lyon and Turin in Italy. Sixty kilometres, most of it under the Alps, at a cost likely to exceed the nine billion euro mark.
Luigi Di Maio has already said he wants to stop the project, citing a cost-benefit analysis sharply contested by Paris. Italian voters are lapping it up, despite the fact that the original partnership was conceived as a trans-Alpine partnership to the benefit of the two nations.
Di Maio’s government partners, Salvini’s Ligue, are big supporters of the rail-link, pointing to the 50,000 jobs the project will generate and the downstream economic benefits.
There are also, of course, important difference between Rome and Paris on the question of illegal immigration, and on the judicial status of Italian alleged terrorists currently living in France.
And let's not forget...
With European parliamentary elections just three months away, France knows what the neighbours are up to: “it’s OK to have a disagreement,” says the official statement on the ambassador’s withdrawal, “but using this sort of dispute for electoral purposes is a different game of marbles entirely.” That’s a rough translation.
Behind the carefully coded diplomatic language is the clear suspicion that Rome’s extremely right-wing rulers are hoping to establish a profitable electoral alliance with at least some French yellow vest supporters.
And by meeting Christophe Chalençon on friendly terms, Luigi Di Maio crossed the red line which is supposed to prevent any contact between a foreign politician and a local figure who has called for the overthrow of the French government.
What will happen next?
The Italians were yesterday doing a lot of apologizing, with Di Maio and his boss Matteo Salvini both offering to meet Emmanuel Macron and the French government.
Several commentators have suggested that the real problem is Italy’s disastrous economic situation and divisions within the ruling coalition.
To have France as an external enemy is a very useful strategy. Especially since France’s Macron has pitched himself as the chief continental opponent of the anti-system, anti-European forces mobilized by Salvini and Di Maio.
In practical terms, contacts between the two governments will continue, but will have to pass through the Foreign Affairs Ministry, since there’s no ambassador, which will certainly slow things down.
The situation could, of course, get worse. Under the terms of the 1964 Vienna Convention, the recall of an ambassador is just the second of five options available in this kind of diplomatic digging-match. Paris can still expel Italian diplomats, close its embassy in Rome, or demand the closure of the Italian outpost here in Paris. We are, let’s hope, a long way from any of that.
The French position is quite clear: the people at Foreign Affairs say it is now up to Rome to react to re-establish friendly and respectful relations, “worthy of the shared history and destiny of our two nations”.
That’s diplomatic for “on your knees lads, and be quick about it!”