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Italy's Di Maio defends French 'yellow vests' visit as ties fray

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Italy's Di Maio defends French 'yellow vests' visit as ties fray
(L-R) Italy's Interior Minister and deputy PM Matteo Salvini, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian co-deputy PM Luigi Di Maio. Photo: AFP
15:59 CET+01:00
Italy's deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio defended his unannounced visit with anti-government protesters in France, which has sparked the biggest crisis between France and Italy since the end of World War II.

Di Maio accused French governments on both the left and right of pursuing ultraliberal policies that have "increased citizens’ insecurity and sharply reduced their spending power", in a letter to French daily Le Monde.

"This is why I wanted to meet with 'yellow vest' representatives ... because I don't believe that Europe's political future lies with parties on the right or left, or with so-called 'new' parties that in reality follow tradition," he said.

Di Maio's visit with members of the yellow-vest list for the coming European Parliament elections and other leaders drew a sharp rebuke from Paris, which on Thursday recalled its ambassador to Rome for consultations.

Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

"It's not a permanent recall, but it was important to make a statement," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told Europe 1 radio on Friday.

Di Maio and his fellow deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini should focus on their own challenges instead of taking swipes at French President Emmanuel Macron, he added.

"Snide remarks from Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini haven't stopped Italy falling into recession," he said.

"What is of interest to me is that people in Europe do better and if we can beat back the nationalist leprosy, populism, mistrust of Europe," he added.

Relations between the two capitals, usually close allies, have deteriorated sharply since Di Maio's Five Star Movement and Salvini's far-right League formed the European Union's first populist-only coalition government in June last year.

When Italy began preventing rescue boats with migrants on board from docking at Italian ports, Macron blasted the government's "cynicism and irresponsibility", comparing the rise of far-right nationalism and populism to "leprosy."

With the European Parliament vote looming in May, the Italian leaders have mounted a series of increasingly personal attacks on Macron in recent months, with Salvini denouncing him as a "terrible president".

They have encouraged the yellow vest protests, which emerged in November over fuel taxes before ballooning into a widespread and often violent revolt against Macron and his reformist agenda.

France has largely refused to respond to a series of inflammatory comments from Italy, and previously said it would not be drawn into a "stupidity contest" with Italian ministers.

Now, France's Europe affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said the decision to recall France's envoy was meant to signal that "playtime is over".

"What I see is an Italy in recession, an Italy in trouble; I don't rejoice over this because this is an important partner for France, but I do think the first thing for a government to do is to look after its people's welfare," she told Radio Classique.

READ ALSO: France summons Italian envoy over Africa 'colonisation' comments

Di Maio did seek to play down the spat in his letter. But, he wrote, "the political and strategic differences between the French and Italian governments should not impact the history of friendly relations that unites our peoples and our nations".

And Salvini, who is also Italy's interior minister, revealed Friday that he had invited his French counterpart Christophe Castaner to Rome for talks on a range of issues.

Loiseau however had already warned last month that working meetings and visits by officials between the two countries were, for the moment, out of the question.

Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Italian newspapers on Friday described the crisis as the most serious since the declaration of war between the two countries in 1940.

"From today, the Alps are higher," wrote Lucio Caracciolo, director of the Limes geopolitical review, said in La Repubblica newspaper.

"The recall for consultations of the French ambassador to Rome, Christian Masset, is a sign of anunprecedented crisis in Italian-french relations." 

For La Stampa, the tensions "could in some ways be expected given how insistent the M5S (Five Star Movement) has been in its approach to the yellow vests".

But one columnist in Corriere della Sera wrote: "Italy has a lot to lose over this confrontation, by adopting a policy of proud isolation at a time when relations between Paris and Berlin are ever tighter."

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