Italy's conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi has given his full support to France's controversial decision to forcibly repatriate thousands of Roma people to Eastern Europe.
And in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, he appeared keen to exploit the row by calling for tougher EU-wide limits on immigration.
"On the question of the repatriation of the Roma, I support Nicolas Sarkozy," he said. He rebuked EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, saying she should have "confronted the French government privately" instead of making public comments comparing France's expulsion of Roma with the Nazis' deportation of Jews.
Mr Berlusconi's comments raised the prospect of an unofficial anti-immigration pact between the centre-right leaders of two of the EU biggest members, even if the German government appeared wary of the Franco-Italian stance. "We hope that this Franco-Italian convergence will shake Europe and make it confront the problem with coordinated policies," Mr Berlusconi said.
"Europe," he added, "had not yet woken up to the fact that the Roma problem is not a uniquely a French or Italian, Greek or Spanish problem. President Sarkozy, on the other hand, is fully aware of this."
Mr Berlusconi's decision to follow his conservative instincts on immigration issues and strengthen Italo-French relations by backing President Sarkozy will also go do down well at home, particularly with the powerful anti-immigration Northern League partner in his coalition government.
Rome has also has clashed with Brussels over a crack down on illegal immigration, notably over its controversial policy of sending boat loads of destitute immigrants back to North Africa.
In May, Mr Berlusconi was criticised by the Catholic Church and the opposition for saying Italy should not be a multi-ethnic society. He said: "The Left's idea is of a multi-ethnic Italy. That is not our idea, ours is to welcome only those who meet the conditions for political asylum."
The impression of a shared hard line on immigration between the French and Italians was reinforced by Gianfranco Fini, a "progressive" centre-right figure and Berlusconi rival, who supported France's decision to ban the burka in public. "This ban is not only just but opportune and necessary," said Mr Fini, Italy's Parliamentary speaker. He cited the Italian constitution's requirement that "the dignity of women be upheld", and that they "not be subject to violence or rules outside of the law".Reuse content