Categorized | Europe, European Union, France, World

Dissecting the Diplomatic Feud Between France and Italy

Strong criticism of French president Emmanuel Macron by Italian leaders has created a diplomatic firestorm between the long-time European allies. The current tensions between the two neighbours is fresh evidence of how two competing political visions of Europe are clashing ahead of EU parliamentary elections.

I hope the French will be able to free themselves of a terrible president.” (Matteo Salvini)

The opportunity will come on May 26 (the day of European elections) when finally the French people will be able to take back control of their future, destiny [and] pride, which are poorly represented by a character like Macron.” (Matteo Salvini)

European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries. (Luigi Di Maio)

In the last few weeks, the two Italian Vice-Prime Ministers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, leaders of a populist coalition, have publicly criticized President Macron on a regular basis. Last Thursday, the French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs recalled its Ambassador to Rome for consultations after a series of what it deemed “unacceptable provocations” by the Italian leaders. It is surely the worst crisis between the two countries since the end of World War Two.

To understand this historical diplomatic quarrel between Paris and Rome, one must focus on the genesis of the crisis in June 2018 when the anti-establishment Five Star movement and far-right League Party assumed the leadership in a coalition government, even as the French president made combating populist movements in Europe his number one priority. The current spat is structured around three contentious areas:

The migration crisis

A few weeks after the coalition took power in Italy in spring 2018, the French President spoke out against the “nationalist wave” in Europe, comparing it to leprosy. Italy’s refusal to take in refugees saved from the Mediterranean during the Aquarius saga was the first sticking point between the two governments.


Vice-Prime Minister Di Maio criticized France for being partly responsible for the migratory flows coming from the African continent and suggesting it was a neo-colonial power. According to the Italian leaders, France still exploits the sub-Saharan people through its monetary policy towards the CFA franc – a currency used in 14 West and Central African countries and guaranteed by the French treasury – and which they argue has helped boost the exodus of migrants towards Europe. A member of the Italian Parliament belonging to Di Maio’s party even tore up a CFA franc banknote on public television. However, most of the Mediterranean migration does not originate from countries which use the CFA franc.

Support for the gilets jaunes movement

The gilets jaunes movement, which was initially born out of opposition to fuel tax increases, turned into a broader challenge to Macron’s policies and governing style. These protests have been throwing France into a major social and political crisis since November 2018. Five Star had already offered the gilets jaunes the use of their digital platform in order to help their campaign. Luigi Di Maio travelled to France on February 5th in order to meet representatives of the movement, provocatively tweeting: “The winds of change have crossed the Alps”. Matteo Salvini, moreover, showed support to the anti-Macron movement with a clear objective: helping Le Pen’s political party, Rassemblement National, win the European elections to be held in May.

The last part of this diplomatic drama, which the Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau described as an “undue interference”, led Paris to recall its ambassador to Rome for the first time since 1945. “The most recent interference constitutes an additional and unacceptable provocation. They violate the respect that is owed to democratic choices made by a nation which is a friend and an ally,” said the Ministry in a statement.

Although withdrawals of ambassadors have happened within the EU – Hungary suspended diplomatic ties with the Netherlands in 2017 in response to comments made by the Dutch ambassador to Budapest –, this decision is historical as it takes place between two longstanding allies and founding members of the Union. This squabbling could therefore have consequences for the EU given that the two countries’ ties have constituted a traditionally stable axis in a bloc that is becoming more fragile with Brexit and other tensions on the continent.

How could the situation evolve? If France and Italy do not find a common ground, the situation could escalate. Rome could declare the French ambassador persona non grata at any time on the basis of Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, while Paris could recall its ambassador for an unlimited period of time and close the embassy. However, these scenarios are options of last resort and are unlikely to happen, given the important partnership these two neighbouring countries have at all levels.

This unprecedented diplomatic standoff seems to confirm the Europeanization of (domestic) politics that we are witnessing. At a time when the EU is facing new challenges and appears fragmented in the wake of the withdrawal of an important member, jeopardizing the European project cannot be a viable option. The French Foreign Ministry stated that “to disagree is one thing, to exploit a relationship for electoral aims is another”.

The Home Affairs Minister Christophe Castaner was, however, recently invited to Rome by his Italian counterpart Salvini in order to discuss different issues which concern the two countries, while the French Ambassador has now returned to the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, home of the French Embassy.  This could be a first sign of easing of tensions and normalization of diplomatic relations. At a time when the EU needs unity like never before this is an important first step.

Image courtesy of Gobbler at wikivoyage shared [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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About Galatée Fouquet

Galatée Fouquet has a dual background in law and international relations. She is currently studying an advanced Master’s degree in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies at the College of Europe (Bruges, Belgium). Previous entries include publications in law reviews and Global Politics.

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