France warns Italy ‘not to meddle in our internal affairs’ after recalling ambassador from Rome in diplomatic spat

Italian governing populist chief met with French protesters in Paris suburb 

Jon Stone
Europe Correspondent
Friday 08 February 2019 15:15 GMT
A soldier guards the main entrance of the Palazzo Farnese, site of the French embassy in Rome
A soldier guards the main entrance of the Palazzo Farnese, site of the French embassy in Rome (AFP/Getty)

France has taken the unusual step of recalling its ambassador from Italy – stating it is a warning to its ally not to meddle in its internal affairs.

A spokesperson for the French government said it took the decision after months of “unfounded attacks” by Italy’s populist government about migration and economic policies.

France is currently being wracked by the gilets jaunes protests – and the movement has been egged-on and endorsed by politicians in Italy’s government.

Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Italy’s governing Five Star movement, most recently met with protesters in a Paris suburb who are looking to stand as MEPs in the upcoming European elections – against Emmanuel Macron’s governing party.

French government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux told the Europe-1 radio broadcaster on Friday that the unannounced meeting violated “the most elementary diplomacy”.

He said the withdrawal of France’s ambassador to Italy was temporary but called on the Italian government to “behave better towards partners”.

Earlier this month Italy’s de facto leader, interior minister Matteo Salvini, from the far-right Northern League party, said he hoped French voters would throw Emmanuel Macron out of government.

Mr Salvini and his coalition partners have positioned themselves in opposition to Mr Macron’s centrist liberalism – particularly on the issue of migration.

The French government faces a struggle in the upcoming European elections in the face of domestic discontent and Mr Macron’s flagging approval ratings. He is being criticised from both the right and left about accusations he is “president of the rich”.

Mr Salvini’s anti-immigration party is set to make significant gains in the European parliament elections. The Northern League and other far-right groups have talked about creating an anti-immigration “axis” in the EU to change the bloc’s policies – provocatively borrowing terminology associate with the Third Reich.

The Italian government sees its closest allies as Hungary, Poland and Austria, which all have a varying flavour of populist right-wingers in government.

One rival of Mr Macron in France is Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, which has since rebranded as “National Rally”. The French far-right has done well in the presidential contest in recent decades, but has so far failed to make a breakthrough into first place.

Ms Le Pen would likely be an ally of Mr Salvini’s on the European stage, as both have a similar political agenda.

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