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

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.

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

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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‘We hoped for better’: How Italy’s government has floundered on migration

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has admitted she had hoped to do "better" on controlling irregular migration, which has surged since her party won historic elections a year ago.

‘We hoped for better’: How Italy’s government has floundered on migration

Having come to power on pledges to curb mass migration, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party has since enacted a series of policies which have not stopped a soaring number of sea arrivals in 2023.

“Clearly we hoped for better on immigration, where we worked so hard,” she said in an interview marking the win, broadcast late Saturday on the TG1 channel.

“The results are not what we hoped to see. It is certainly a very complex problem, but I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party was elected in large part on a promise to reduce mass migration into Italy.

But the number of people arriving on boats from North Africa has instead surged, with more than 130,000 recorded by the interior ministry so far this year – up from 70,000 in the same period of 2022.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind Italy’s soaring number of migrant arrivals?

After 8,500 people arrived on the tiny island of Lampedusa in just three days earlier this month, Meloni demanded the European Union do more to help relieve the pressure.

Brussels agreed to intensify existing efforts, and this week said it would start to release money to Tunisia – from where many of the boats leave – under a pact aimed at stemming irregular migration from the country.

Blaming Germany

But Meloni’s main coalition partner, Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party, has been dismissive of EU efforts to manage the surge of arrivals that he dubbed an “act of war”.

The League this weekend also condemned Germany for funding an NGO conducting at-sea rescues in the Mediterranean, saying it represented “very serious interference” in Italian affairs.

Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, a member of Meloni’s party, weighed in on Sunday, telling La Stampa newspaper the move put Italy “in difficulty”.

“If Germany cared about the fate of people in difficulty and really wanted to help us save lives, they could help… (with plans) to seriously combat criminals who traffic people,” he added in a statement on Sunday evening.

IN NUMBERS: Five graphs to understand migration to Italy

Several charity rescue ships operate in the Central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest sea crossing for migrants, although they only pick up around five percent of arrivals to Italy, according to Crosetto.

The German foreign office confirmed it was providing between 400,000 euros and 800,000 euros each to two projects, “for the support on land in Italy of people rescued at sea and an NGO project for sea-rescue operations”.

People gather outside the migrant reception centre on Lampedusa, south of Sicily, on August 14th 2023. The island has recently struggled to cope with a large number of sea arrivals.

People gather outside the migrant reception centre on Lampedusa, south of Sicily, on August 14th 2023. The island has recently struggled to cope with a large number of sea arrivals. Photo by Alessandro Serranò / AFP

‘Protection money’

While interior minister in a previous government in 2019, Salvini blocked several charity ships from disembarking rescued migrants in Italy, a move that saw him prosecuted in Sicily on charges of kidnapping.

Since taking office in October, Meloni’s government has restricted the activities of the ships, which it accuses of encouraging migrants, while vowing to clamp down on people smugglers.

In April, weeks after more than 90 migrants died in a shipwreck near the town of Cutro on the coast of Calabria, it declared a six-month migration ‘state of emergency’, allocating 5 million euros to address the situation.

This was followed in May by the passage of the Cutro decree, which all but eliminated Italy’s special protection status for certain categories of asylum seekers and introduced harsher sentences for traffickers.

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida sparked controversy at the time by saying Italy was facing “ethnic substitution” as a result of migration – comments opposition leader Elly Schlein dismissed as “disgusting” and as having “the flavour of white supremacism”.

Most recently, the government has sought to boost repatriation of arrivals ineligible for asylum, including by building new detention centres and extending the time migrants can be held there.

It emerged this week it would also be requiring migrants awaiting a decision on asylum to pay a deposit of 5,000 euros or be sent to a detention centre, prompting accusations the state was charging “protection money”.

The move was an “inhuman” gesture that unfairly targets “those fleeing famine and war,” parliamentarian Riccardo Magi of the +Europa party told reporters.

The centre-left Democratic Party said earlier this week that “on immigration, the Italian right has failed”.

“It continues on a path that is demagogic and consciously cynical, but above all totally ineffective both in the respect and safeguarding of human rights, and for the protection of Italy’s interests,” it said in a note.

The criticism of Germany comes after Berlin temporarily stopped accepting migrants living in Italy, after Rome itself suspended EU rules governing the distribution of migrants.