The last time France recalled its ambassador to Rome was back in 1940. Benito Mussolini’s Italy had just declared war on France – an opportunistic “stab in the back”, said the then ambassador André François-Poncet as he hastily left the Palazzo Farnese, the elegant Renaissance palace housing the French embassy.
“That’s what happened in the old days: first you recalled your ambassador, then you went to war,” said Paolo Feltrin, a professor of political science at the University of Trieste, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
With an armed conflict between the two neighbours and allies now unthinkable, France’s decision to recall its Rome envoy on Thursday is “first and foremost a theatrical move”, said Feltrin, describing the escalating dispute between two founding members of the European Union as a “stunt” dictated by domestic concerns on either side of the Alps.
The ambassador’s repatriation caps an astonishing deterioration in relations between Rome and Paris, just 13 months after French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s previous government announced plans to sign a Franco-Italian friendship treaty.
"For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims," the French foreign ministry said in a statement announcing the decision to recall its envoy for consultations. "This is unprecedented since the end of the war," the statement added.
The move follows a series of increasingly personal slurs levelled at Macron by Italy's two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, who formed a populist coalition government last year.
The taunts reached tipping point this week when Di Maio, who heads the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, paid a visit to French Yellow Vest anti-government protesters outside Paris.
Oggi con @ale_dibattista abbiamo fatto un salto in Francia e abbiamo incontrato il leader dei gilet gialli Cristophe Chalençon e i candidati alle elezioni europee della lista RIC di Ingrid Levavasseur.Luigi Di Maio (@luigidimaio) February 5, 2019
Il vento del cambiamento ha valicato le Alpi. pic.twitter.com/G8E0ypLalX
Di Maio said the aim of the meeting was to prepare a common front for European parliamentary elections in May, boasting on Twitter that "the wind of change has crossed the Alps". For Paris, the 32-year-old bragging marked "an additional and unacceptable provocation".
Officials in Paris had been getting used to the radical change of tone ushered in by the new populist and increasingly Eurosceptic government in Rome, generally greeting its provocations with a shrug and a sigh. But their stance changed last month after Di Maio accused France of continuing to colonise Africa in a series of incendiary comments.
The Five-Star leader had called on the EU to “sanction France and all countries like France that impoverish Africa and make these people leave, because Africans should be in Africa, not at the bottom of the Mediterranean". He added: "If people are leaving today it's because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries."
In what has become a recurrent game of one-upmanship, Italy’s other deputy prime minister, Lega leader Salvini, soon added his thoughts on the matter, claiming France was looking to extract wealth from Africa rather than helping countries develop their own economies.
"I hope that the French will be able to free themselves from a terrible president," the far-right leader added in a Facebook post.
“The demise of diplomatic etiquette is a global phenomenon,” he said. “The emergence of a new generation of social-media-savvy politicians has shattered the old rules of the game. Politicians now routinely use foreign policy to meet domestic goals, knowing that what was once a secretive activity is now a factor in shaping public opinion.”
A consequence of this changing landscape is a loss of influence and autonomy for the career diplomats that staff foreign ministries and are more accustomed to diplomatic language.
In Italy’s case, the government’s foreign policy is essentially being dictated by its two boisterous – and ever competing – deputy prime ministers: Salvini, who is also the interior minister, and Di Maio, who holds the labour and economic development portfolio.
"In what other country is foreign policy run by the labour minister?" asked Feltrin, noting that Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his moderate foreign minister, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, have been largely sidelined.
Tellingly, Thursday’s diplomatic breakdown came as both Conte and Milanesi were out of the country – the first in Lebanon, the second in Latin America. Not that anyone would have noticed.
In Milanesi’s absence, his deputy Manlio Di Stefano, a member of the Five-Star Movement who recently suggested Macron suffered from “small-penis syndrome”, slammed France’s decision to recall its ambassador as a “provocation”.
Analysts say the worsening spat between Rome and Paris is a consequence of internal dynamics at play on both sides of the Alps. On the one hand, Macron’s sagging fortunes at home have made him a much easier target than he was only a few months ago. On the other, Di Maio’s party is also in a delicate position, having been outmaneuvered by Salvini’s Lega, which won half as many votes in last year’s general election but is now leading in the polls.
Only ten months ago, Di Maio’s party was in talks with Macron’s La République en Marche to form a common group at the EU parliament. Now it is competing with Salvini’s Lega to be the French president’s fiercest critic. In doing so, it hopes to recapture the anti-establishment spirit that carried it to victory last year, as evidenced by its enthusiastic support for the Yellow Vest protests that have rattled Macron.
“The Five-Star Movement, even more than Salvini, has identified France as its ideal scapegoat to score points on the domestic front,” said Pierangelo Isernia, a professor of politics at the University of Siena, in an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after the row over France's role in Africa. “We’re in a new phase of Italy’s tussle with the EU, one in which France has supplanted Germany as the chief culprit for Italy’s woes,” Isernia added.
Macron vs the rest
France and its president carry their share of guilt for the deteriorated relations. It was Macron who first targeted the Italian government’s migrant policy as “inhumane” and lashed at the “nationalist leprosy” spreading across Europe. His government’s decision to close its borders to migrants has created bottlenecks in northern Italy and exposed it to accusations of cynicism and duplicity. Cross-border incursions by French police seeking to stop migrants in the Alps have enraged Italy. And the Libyan dossier has been a persistent thorn in relations, with Paris and Rome competing over who should broker peace talks between rival factions.
Above all, Macron has relished the confrontation with Europe’s populists, from Italy’s Salvini to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, just as much as they have.
“President Macron sees those anti-establishment figures as ideal targets – but the opposite is also true,” Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at the University of Oxford, told FRANCE 24, noting that the French president “represents the liberal establishment they detest so much”.
Zielonka said France’s decision to recall its ambassador would hand the Italian government “an opportunity to score points ahead of the European elections”, describing the move as “unprecedented, even exaggerated”.
Shortly after the French announcement, both Salvini and Di Maio issued statements saying they were available to talk to Macron and the French government, and denying they were looking for a tussle with France.
But Sebastien Maillard, who heads the Jacques Delors think-tank in Paris, suggested there was little reason for the Italians to call off the fight. He added: "I don't quite see what Di Maio and Salvini could gain by calling off the battle which serves their domestic political goals."