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Recalled French ambassador to return to Italy after diplomatic spat

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Recalled French ambassador to return to Italy after diplomatic spat
France's ambassador to Italy, Christian Masset, who is set to return to Rome. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP
09:20 CET+01:00
France's ambassador to Italy is set to return to Rome on Friday after being recalled for a week as a protest, but analysts warn that relations between the two neighbours are likely to remain rocky.

"He will return today to Rome," Nathalie Loiseau told RTL radio on Friday, one week after the envoy was recalled.

Relations between the two countries are at their lowest level since the end of World War II due to repeated clashes between Italy's populist leaders Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini and France's centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

ANALYSIS: What's behind Italy's spat with France?


From left: Matteo Salvini, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Luigi Di Maio. Photos: Vincenzo Pinto/Ludovic Marin/Alberto Pizzoli/AFP 

"I am very happy that the ambassador is on his way back to Italy," deputy prime minister Di Maio told reporters in Rome. "I shall meet him, I want to ask him for a meeting. In the meantime I wish him a good trip back," he said.

France announced on February 7th that it was recalling its ambassador to protest "unfounded attacks and outlandish claims" by Italy's coalition government, as well as an unannounced visit to France by Di Maio. 

The government in Paris was left incensed when Di Maio made a surprise visit to France on February 5th to meet with a group of radical 'yellow vest' protesters who have led months of demonstrations against Macron.
 
"The wind of change has crossed the Alps," Di Maio wrote afterwards, adding that he was preparing a common front ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

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French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a "line was crossed" with the visit, which was organised without French authorities being informed.
 
The last time Paris recalled its ambassador to Rome was during World War II when Italy, under leader Benito Mussolini, invaded France in 1940. 
 
Tunnel tensions
 
The current icy ties between two founding members of the European Union has many analysts wondering about the consequences for the bloc, given that French-Italian ties have been a generally stable axis in a bloc.
 
It already risks complicating a major infrastructure project between the countries that would result in a tunnel being bored under the Alps to link the important regional cities of Lyon and Turin.
 
 

Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP
 
Work on the 57.5-kilometre tunnel, set to cost an estimated €8.6 billion, is currently suspended pending a green light from the Italian government. Di Maio's party, the Five Star Movement, is opposed to the project, while his coalition partner the League, headed by Salvini, is in favour. 
 
"France clearly respects the time that our Italian partners wanted to take. But today we are saying clearly to the Italians that this decision needs to come," French Transport Minister Elizabeth Borne told the Public Senat channel on Friday.
 
Post-election compromise?
 
Analysts and diplomats say that relations between the countries have been affected by the fundamentally different outlooks of Macron, a pro-European centrist, and the eurosceptic government in Rome, which includes the far right.
 
There are also deep-running economic tensions, competition for influence in Libya, and a sense in Italy that France has done little to help its neighbour cope with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in recent years.
 
Posturing ahead of the elections for the European parliament have exacerbated these tensions, observers say. A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Di Maio and Salvini's recent criticism of Macron and France was driven by competition between the two men.
 
 

Photo: Valery Hache/AFP
 
"Di Maio and Salvini are in competition against each other. Their vision is that at some point there will be only one of them," the diplomat said, saying that the European elections in May would be vital. "At the moment there's a sort of feverish election campaigning," he said.
 
Dominique Moisi, a foreign affairs analyst at the Montaigne Institute think-tank in Paris, told AFP recently that there was a "greater chance of compromise" after the elections.
 
"I can't see them [both sides] being reconciled, that's not possible," he said. "But limiting the tensions, there's room for manoeuvre," he said.
 
By AFP's Valérie Leroux and Adam Plowright
 
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