On Thursday, France took the “extraordinary” step of recalling its Rome ambassador, marking a new low in the “worst crisis between the two neighbouring countries since the Second World War”, says The Guardian.
Tensions between France and Italy have simmered since last year’s Italian elections, which produced a coalition between two populist parties – the right-wing, anti-immigrant Lega and the broadly anti-establishment grass-roots Five Star Movement.
Meanwhile, Italy’s co-deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, have barracked Macron with “a series of increasingly personal slurs”, says news site France 24. The two governments have also clashed repeatedly over Europe’s response to migration.
Tensions came to a head last week, when Di Maio visited Paris to meet representatives of the so-called gilets jaunes, the protestors who have brought French cities to a standstill every weekend for almost three months.
An ideologically diverse group of disenchanted voters, many of the protesters’ core concerns – the rising cost of living, a disconnected political class, establishment bias in the media – chime with those of Italy’s populist rulers.
Di Maio uploaded a photo on social media showing him posing alongside gilets jaunes members who are standing as candidates in the European Parliament elections in May, with the caption: “The winds of changes have crossed the Alps.”
Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at the University of Oxford, told France 24 that for Di Maio and Salvini, Macron “represents the liberal establishment they detest so much” – while the French president has “relished the confrontation with Europe’s populists”.
What will happen next?
Former Italian PM Enrico Letta, now dean of Science Po’s Paris School of International Affairs, told CNN that the row was so politically valuable for both parties that reconciliation before the EU elections in May was unlikely.
Macron “was elected as a shield against a big populist” in the shape of far-right leader Marine Le Pen and believes that setting himself up as the bulwark of moderation “can be successful for him in Europe” too, says Letta.
Indeed, as long as this raucous duo remain in power, “it’s difficult to imagine the French-Italian brawl breaking up without someone’s nose being broken”, he concludes.