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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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UKRAINE

France, Germany firm up ties as European ‘driving force’

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz and France's President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday pledged to drive Europe forward together, as the German leader visited Paris to celebrate 60 years of post-war cooperation despite recent strains.

France, Germany firm up ties as European 'driving force'

The historic partnership has been under pressure from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and broader tectonic shifts.

But in a speech at the capital’s Sorbonne University, Scholz said upholding strong ties was key for the continent.

“The future, like the past, rests on cooperation between both our countries as the driving force of a united Europe,” he said.

Macron said that “Germany and France, because they cleared the path to reconciliation, must become pioneers to relaunch Europe”.

He cited the need to “build a new energy model”, encourage “innovation and the technologies of tomorrow”, and ensure the European Union is “a geopolitical power in its own right, in defence, space and diplomacy”.

The two leaders were then to take part in a joint cabinet meeting. The personal relationship between both men has been less than warm since Scholz assumed office in late 2021.

But “there are structural problems that go further than the personal relationship”, said Jacob Ross, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

The frictions are even felt by the public, with 36 percent of French respondents and 39 percent of Germans telling pollster Ipsos this week that relations were suffering.

Support for Ukraine

The 1963 Elysee Treaty signed between post-World War II leaders Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle provided for everything from military cooperation to youth exchanges.

Since then, France and Germany have often built the foundation for joint crisis response in Europe, and other nations are looking to them again now.

Top issues to address include the Ukraine conflict, climate and energy, and European competitiveness faced with a new wave of “buy-American” subsidies in the United States.

Scholz on Sunday pledged continued support to Kyiv after Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour almost 11 months ago.

“We will continue to provide Ukraine with all the support it needs for as long as necessary. Together, as Europeans, to defend our European peace project,” he said.

But Germany is still undecided on whether to deliver — or allow allies to deliver — its Leopard 2 battle tanks to Kyiv.

READ ALSO: Poland slams ‘unacceptable’ German stance on Leopard tanks

The impression that “there is a united coalition, and that Germany is standing in the way is wrong”, newly installed Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said Friday.

France has been pressing Germany to move faster, dashing ahead on mobile artillery in April and light tanks this month.

Elsewhere, moves to jointly develop next-generation fighter jets and tanks are dragging, while France is absent from a 14-nation Sky Shield anti-missile initiative led by Germany.

Ross suggested that part of the problem lies in France’s clinging to a historic self-image as a sovereign, nuclear-armed power with a seat on the UN Security Council — in contrast to a Germany happy to leave defence questions primarily to the US in recent decades.

There are early signs of change on both sides, with France re-energising its NATO role since the Ukraine invasion and Germany’s 100-billion ($108 billion) revamp of its armed forces.

‘Put to the test’

Away from defence, interlinked trade and energy conundrums are hitting both France and Germany.

For Berlin, “things have got very complicated because Germany’s economic and political model is being put to the test,” said Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, a former French ambassador to Berlin.

Without cheap Russian gas or nuclear power, Berlin has been forced to turn back in part to coal as renewables still cannot yet make up the difference.

France, by contrast, is scrambling to repair and replace its ageing nuclear reactor fleet.

Some in Berlin now fear China will follow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by making a grab for Taiwan — which it sees as a breakaway province — potentially severing Germany from a vital market.

And leaders across Europe fear distortions in transatlantic trade from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which will pour billions of dollars into American-made, climate-friendly technologie.

Macron is expected to push Scholz Sunday to join a joint response, after securing backing from Spanish leader Pedro Sánchez this week.

For France and Germany in particular, there are also fundamentals that must be tended to preserve the relationship into the future.

The relationship has become less real” for ordinary French and Germans, said Gourdault-Montagne, and “lost some of its emotion”.

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