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POLITICS

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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ENVIRONMENT

French energy firms urge ‘immediate’ cut in consumption to avoid shortages this winter

France's top three energy providers are imploring the public to reduce their energy consumption this summer in order to save resources and avoid shortages this winter as cuts to Russian gas and oil begin to bite.

French energy firms urge 'immediate' cut in consumption to avoid shortages this winter

In a rare joint statement, the leaders of the three top French energy companies came together to urge the French public to reduce their energy consumption.

The heads of TotalEnergies, EDF and Engie published an open letter in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday calling on the French to “immediately” reduce their consumption of petrol/gasoline, diesel, oil, electricity and gas in order to help stave off the shortages and soaring prices that could threaten “social cohesion” in France this winter.

The letter begs people to begin “acting this summer,” on cutting energy and fuel usage, adding that this “will allow us to be better prepared to face next winter and in particular to preserve our gas reserves.”

Why is there a risk of shortage this winter?

In light of the war in Ukraine, deliveries of Russian gas to France and other European nations via pipeline have been significantly decreased. Thus France, like the rest of Europe, is attempting to fill its gas reserves in preparation for this upcoming winter. The goal is to have French gas reserves at 100 percent by this fall

As Americans prepare for ‘driving season’ (when many families use their cars to go on vacation) and China begins to relax some of its lockdown measures, the world oil market is looking at high demand that may not be in line with current production capabilities. 

France is a relatively small consumer of Russian gas, but does depend heavily on domestic nuclear plants for energy – production of nuclear energy is however threatened by two things; droughts that mean shortages of water for cooling purposes at plants and maintenance issues that have lead to several plants being temporarily shut down for safety

Concern for adequate energy resources has been on the minds of energy providers for several years, according to the manager of France’s Electricity Transmission Network (RTE).

France has been anticipating that the winters of 2018 to 2024 would be “delicate” as this is a pivotal period for energy transition after several coal-powered plants were closed. France’s oldest nuclear plant, Fessenheim, was also shut down and disconnected from the French grid in 2020.

As of late May, almost half of France’s nuclear reactors were offline due to planned closures, as well as issues related to corrosion.  

What is the real risk of shortage this winter?

“There is no risk of shortage in the short term,” assured France’s Ministry of Environment in May, as there are up to “90 days worth of strategic stocks, as well as commercial stocks, which can both be distributed throughout the country as needed.” 

Experts like Professor Jan Horst Keppler, from Paris-Dauphine University, also do not anticipate a widespread shortage, though, “potential spot shortages are possible.”

Horst Keppler clarified that it is not possible in many cases to substitute one quality of oil for another, which could mean that some refineries may experience “spot shortages.” Therefore, he urged that consumers and providers will have to pay close attention to “the availability of gasoline, diesel and heating oil” even more so “than the availability of crude oil.”

Other European countries, however, are sounding the alarm. Germany, for example, will return to coal-powered energy in order to meet demands this winter. 

What are the energy companies doing to combat risk of shortage?

According to their statement, the heads of France’s top energy providers accept their “responsibility to act on the supply side” by implementing short term plans such as “diversifying gas supplies, proactively filling storage facilities, speeding up liquified natural gas (LNG) imports, and reactivating ‘mothballed’ facilities.”

Additionally, the leaders hope to launch a “major energy efficiency program” and a “national hunt for waste.”

In addition to ensuring adequate energy stocks for the winter, the three leaders also urge the French public to consider reducing consumption as a means for increasing household purchasing power in the fight against rising cost of living, as well as an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also said that reducing energy “immediately” will show solidarity with other European nations at greater risk, particularly those in Eastern and Central Europe. 

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