Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has been accused of behaving “like Pontius Pilate” – the Roman official who avoided responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Mr Salvini has led a popular crackdown on immigration since assuming office in June, closing Italy’s ports to migrant and refugee ships travelling from Libya.
The policy has placed a strain on the relationship between Rome and Paris and other EU nations.
In the latest instance, where Italy refused to let a rescue vessel dock, France, Portugal, Spain and Germany agreed on Tuesday to take in the migrants aboard.
“Mr Salvini today, he’s like Pontius Pilate. It’s obscene,” Nathalie Loiseau, the French minister for European affairs, told RTL radio.
The comments came hours after French president Emmanuel Macron was quoted as saying Italy had “decided to no longer follow international law, in particular humanitarian maritime law”.
Mr Salvini, who is head of the far-right Northern League, accused Mr Macron of hypocrisy on Wednesday, claiming France had turned back more than 50,000 migrants from the Italian border “in recent months”.
“We do not accept lessons on rights or humanity from Mr Macron,” Mr Salvini said in a statement.
Mr Salvini has vowed to work together with fellow far-right politician and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban to obstruct Mr Macron’s European agenda on migration.
Italy has taken in more than 650,000 migrants over the past five years, which has placed a strain on reception centres and local services.
Under European Union regulations, asylum seekers are meant to stay in the first EU country they enter until their application has been processed, which can take several years.
But many migrants reaching Italy want to travel swiftly onto richer countries, including France. The French have stopped migrants crossing the borders, saying EU rules have to be respected.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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