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Recalled French ambassador to return to Italy after diplomatic spat

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.

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

“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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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy’s elections

Scandal-plagued former premier Silvio Berlusconi said he plans to return to Italy's parliament in upcoming elections, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy's elections

“I think that, in the end, I will be present myself as a candidate for the Senate, so that all these people who asked me will finally be happy,” the 85-year-old billionaire and media mogul told Rai radio on Wednesday.

After helping bring down Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month by withdrawing its support, Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party looks set to return to power in elections on September 25th.

It is part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

Berlusconi brushed off reports he is worried about the possibility of Meloni – whose motto is “God, country and family” – becoming prime minister.

Noting the agreement between the parties that whoever wins the most votes chooses the prime minister, he said: “If it is Giorgia, I am sure she will prove capable of the difficult task.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

But he urged voters to back his party as the moderate voice in the coalition, emphasising its European, Atlanticist stance.

“Every extra vote in Forza Italia will strengthen the moderate, centrist profile of the coalition,” he said in a separate interview published Wednesday in the Il Giornale newspaper.

League party leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi pictured in October 2021. The trio look set to take power following snap elections in September. Photo by CLAUDIO PERI / ANSA / AFP

Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but has dominated public life for far longer as head of a vast media and sports empire.

The Senate expelled him in November 2013 following his conviction for tax fraud, and he was banned from taking part in a general election for six years.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, however, and threw his hat in the ring earlier this year to become Italy’s president — although his candidacy was predictably short-lived.

Berlusconi remains a hugely controversial figure  in Italy and embroiled in the many legal wrangles that have characterised his long career.

He remains on trial for allegedly paying guests to lie about his notorious “bunga-bunga” sex parties while prime minister.

Berlusconi has also suffered a string of health issues, some related to his hospitalisation for coronavirus in September 2020, after which he said he had almost died.

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