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DIPLOMACY

France: We must work with Italy to solve diplomatic spat

The French Interior Minister said France and Italy "had to" work together on security issues, two months after a diplomatic spat led to Paris briefly recalling its ambassador.

France: We must work with Italy to solve diplomatic spat
Photo: AFP

Relations between the two countries fractured in February following repeated clashes with Italy's populist coalition government.

Paris was incensed when Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio made a surprise visit to France on February 5th to meet a group of radical “yellow vest” protesters who have led demonstrations against France's centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

READ ALSO What's behind Italy's spat with France?


Christophe Castaner arriving for the meeting i Paris on Thursday. Photo: AFP

France's Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and his Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini met at a meeting of G7 interior ministers in Paris on Thursday.

“I think I can say that the issues of combating illegal immigration or terrorism should not divide us…. We cannot deal with these issues on our own,” Castaner said after a meeting with Salvini.

“When we talk about real life, concrete things, there is no room for arguments, we have to agree,” Salivini added, at a separate news conference.

The Italian minister said he was no longer interested in the “past” and highlighted areas of agreement between the two countries, particularly on the management of the Franco-Italian border.

Salvini said France and Italy had a “common position… on defending external borders” and that France – as Italy had already done – was ready to provide “boats, men and equipment to the Libyan coastguard”.

Castaner, however, was more vague, simply saying G7 ministers had agreed “to strengthen our support for Libya and Morocco through the presence of coastguards”.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in February that a “line was crossed” with Di Maio's visit, which was organised without French authorities being informed.

Analysts and diplomats said relations were affected by the fundamentally different outlooks of Macron, a pro-European centrist, and the eurosceptic government in Rome.

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.

The last time Paris recalled its ambassador to Rome was during the World War II when Italy under leader Benito Mussolini invaded France in 1940.

Foreign ministers from the G7 – the United States, Italy, France, Canada, Germany, Britain and Japan – are to meet on Friday and Saturday in the northern French resort of Dinard.

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IMMIGRATION

Migrant row between France and Italy caps a history of prickly relations

A war of words between France and Italy over migrants has set the scene for a testy European summit this week after the latest spat between neighbours who have had complicated relations for centuries.

Migrant row between France and Italy caps a history of prickly relations
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: AFP
Emmanuel Macron's rocky relationship with Italy's ruling populists worsened this weekend when far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blasted the French president's “arrogant” stance on immigration.
   
Salvini further accused Macron of hypocrisy for criticising his hardline approach while France continues to “push back women, children and men” across the border back into Italy.
   
Macron, who argues that France has taken in more asylum seekers than Italy this year as the massive influx across the Mediterranean has slowed, hit back: “We won't take lessons from anyone.” 
   
The heated exchange overshadowed a weekend meeting in Brussels that was supposed to find better ways to handle the hundreds of thousands arriving from Africa, the Middle East and Asia since 2015. European leaders are set to meet on Thursday and Friday in Brussels to discuss the issue as well as eurozone reforms.
 
'Irresponsible': France blasts Italy but defends not taking in stranded migrant ship
Photo: AFP
   
Macron was perhaps destined to get on badly with Salvini after coming to power in an election that pitched his pro-EU centrism against the far-right populism of Marine Le Pen.
   
He won no friends in Rome last week by likening anti-migrant sentiment to “leprosy”, and compounded the row by suggesting that with arrival numbers down, Italy did not have a migrant crisis but a political one. He had already attracted Italy's ire by criticising its refusal to take in 630 migrants onboard the Aquarius rescue ship, and a Franco-Spanish proposal for “closed” migrant camps in arrival countries went down similarly badly.
   
France's ambassador to Rome was summoned this month over the row, and while Macron is heading to the Vatican Tuesday to meet Pope Francis, he is not stopping in Rome to meet Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
   
“The political leaders of Italy and France have not treated each other this badly since they were at war,” Aldo Cazzullo observed in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
 
From Napoleon to Libya
 
Analysts say the chill reflects not just a clash of political worldviews but a long history of animosity.
   
The 20th century saw times of both bitter enmity during World War II and close cooperation as the neighbours worked together to build the EU afterwards.
 
Gilles Bertrand, co-author of a history of Franco-Italian relations since 1660, sees traces of centuries-old invasions by European powers, including France under Napoleon Bonaparte, in contemporary suspicions.
 
“Even though they are extremely close culturally, with ties going back to the Middle Ages — commercial, intellectual, artistic — it goes down badly when France acts superior,” said Bertrand, a professor of modern history at the University of Grenoble Alpes.
 
'I never meant to offend you': Macron tries to smooth over migrant row with Italy
Photo: AFP
   
More recently, resentment brimmed over the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya — a former Italian colony — which was heavily backed by France. 
   
“The Italians are hugely sensitive when it comes to Libya,” said Jean-Pierre Darnis, a lecturer at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis who specialises in Franco-Italian relations. “Their reading of it is that in 2011 France intervened in Libya to dislodge them” in their former sphere of influence, he told AFP.
 
Italy also views Libya's current lawlessness — a driving force in the migrant exodus from the North African country — as the direct result of the intervention, an additional source of anger, he said.
   
The bombing campaign was before Macron's time, but soon after his arrival in power last year he aggravated tensions over Libya again by organising a spontaneous peace conference independently of Italy.
 
Photo: AFP
 
'Economic colonialism'
 
The last few years have also seen growing tensions between the neighbours over investment projects.
   
French companies invested heavily in Italy in the 1990s and 2000s, including luxury group LVMH's acquisition of the Fendi label in 2001 and Bulgari a decade later.
   
Yet the value of French takeovers since 2000 has been more than five times higher of the value of Italian takeovers in France, according to financial analysts Dealogic — leading to regular accusations of “economic colonialism”.
   
On this front, again, Macron's presidency got off to a bad start — he temporarily nationalised the STX shipyard instead of giving a majority stake to Italy's Fincantieri, reneging on an agreement between Rome and the previous French government.
   
A face-saving deal was eventually worked out to hand the Italian shipbuilder 50 percent of STX, “but it did a huge amount of damage,” said Darnis.
   
“It wiped out pretty much all of Macron's political capital in Italy,” he added.
 
By AFP's Katy Lee and Marie Wolfrom
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