A diplomatic crisis is going on between France and Italy. Salvoes of insults proffered by deputy prime ministers Matteo Salvini (extreme right) and Luigi Di Maio (anti-establishment) are flying across the Alps. A red line was crossed when Di Maio went to France and met with the most radical gilets jaunes who openly demand the resignation of the French president and the overturn of all political institutions.
This constituted a provocation and a never-seen before interference by one member of the European Union (EU) into another’s internal affairs. While on an official visit to Cairo, French President Emmanuel Macron disregarded these heinous remarks with total indifference. Paris recalled its ambassador to Italy – the first time since June 10, 1940 when André François Poncet left Rome following the declaration of war by Mussolini to defeat France. (The French ambassador is already back in Rome)
Tension is high. It is part of the long history of a difficult relationship between the two countries. During the unification of Risorgimento (1848 -1861), France often came to the rescue. At the famous battle of Solferino (1859), a Franco-Sardinian army led by Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II defeated the Austrians under Emperor Franz Joseph I. In contrast, the annexation of the county of Nice and the Savoie region to France, decided by the Treaty of Turin, was deeply resented by Italy, as was the loss of 550 sq. kms. including the mountain passes of Tende and La Brigue in February 1947.
The second cause of friction between the two countries stems from remnants of a colonial past. Italy often challenged France’s intrusion into what it considered its zone of influence. It never really accepted the Bardo Treaty of 1881, which created France’s protectorate over Tunisia. In 1911, Italy had colonized Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, which were to become Libya. So, when the French and British conducted air strikes over Libya with UN support in 2011, Italy complained of having been kept out of the loop.
Economic and commercial dissensions between the two countries are not unusual. Some might recall that Italy refused to participate in the World Fair of 1889 in Paris. Today the STX shipyard of St Nazaire may pass under the control of the Italian company Fincantieri in spite of France’e efforts to retain a majority vote. At stake in this confrontation is construction of the largest cruise ships in the world, such as “Harmony of the Seas,” which has become the latest vessel to join the Royal Caribbean fleet.
While Italy and France often behave like quarrelsome siblings, they are more than close culturally: they are complementary. Take art for instance. At the turn of the 20th century, France may have been the center of the art world with Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin and others, but at the same time, a new school of painting called “Futurism” was growing in Italy with artists like Marinetti, Boccioni, Cora, Bala, and Severini. The lattet were champions of the fast pace of the city, depicting cars, planes and all forms of modernity as well as being pioneers in the expression of movement and speed.
On a lighter side, a Franco-Italian film currently showing on French screens, is the perfect illustration of the closeness of those two “cousins.” The plot of the Estivants (the vacationers), directed by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi – sister of Carla Bruni, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife – is set in a beautiful residence on the Cöte d’Azur. A well-off and rather dysfunctional Franco-Italian family spends long hours on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean framed by cypress trees. Mixing the two languages, the guests discuss every subject under the sun, including societal conflicts evoked by the servants. Well-known actor Pierre Arditi is perfectly odious in the way he makes disparaging remarks about the lower classes while he older mother is at the grand piano playing the background score created by a talented Italian composer.
The present crisis between France and Italy is linked to the flow of migrants since 2015. Due to the “Dublin rule” making the European country of entry responsible for the refugee status and because only 200 kilometers separate Italy from the African shores, Italy has been on the front line in facing the surge. Salvini accused other EU members, particularly France, of not sharing the burden of welcoming refugee seekers.
The Italian government worked with the Libyan authorities to block the departure of migrants from Africa and prevented humanitarian ships from entering Italian ports. The “Aquarius” had to remain on the high seas for two weeks with dozen of migrants on board. it is worth noting that both France and Italy have about the same percentage (10 percent) of immigrants. Also, more than two-thirds of the sub-Saharan migrants come from former Italian colonies.
Di Maio is erroneously accusing France of investing the “Franc CFA ” (African Financial Community currency) in its own economy. The fact is that eight African countries asked Paris to put the money in the Banque de France‘s vaults for safe-keeping.
For Salvini and Di Maio, Macron is the prime target. For them, the French president crystallizes the policies rejected by their populist government: a progressive, multilateralist program with an integrated Europe. Their plan is to create an axis through Italy, Poland and Hungary of authoritarian and non-liberal states capable of countering the actions of the Franco-Germanic “couple” – an ominous trend for Europe.
The Italian economy is sitting on a time bomb. Its public debt is 133 percent of the GDP, only second to Greece’s. It ranks at the bottom in Europe for GDP growth. The populist program of increasing minimum wages, lowering retirement age and other social measures, is bound to increase the deficit. Scolded by Brussels. the Italian government had to revise its budget. Of course, the fact that Pierre Moscovici, the Commissioner for Financial Economic Affairs in Brussels, is French, contributes to the sour relations.
What does this crisis hold for the future? Seen from here, the histrionics of the Italians are not always taken seriously. Paolo Levi, Paris correspondent of La Stompa recently commented that Salvini was able to intercept a malaise and his political movement might not last.
How sad that both France and Italy were founding members of the EU that was created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 …
Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.
About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.