Migration at the heart of French-Italian crisis

The very frosty relations between Rome and Paris may offer a taste of what is to come.
Sunday 03/02/2019
A migrant walks past an inscription reading, in French, “Neither Salvini, nor Macron” in the Alpine border town of Claviere, some 100km west of Turin. (AFP)
Two sides of the same coin. A migrant walks past an inscription reading, in French, “Neither Salvini, nor Macron” in the Alpine border town of Claviere, some 100km west of Turin. (AFP)

“The EU should 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. If people are leaving [Africa] today, it’s because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries.”

This most undiplomatic outburst from Italian Finance Minister and leader of the Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio has become a regular feature of French bashing, the norm since the Five Star Movement and League political parties rose to power last June.

Things got off to a bad start after French President Emmanuel Macron last summer spoke about “populist leprosy” in a reported dig against the new government but the migrant crisis, which has bedevilled Europe for years, and the migrants themselves are at the heart of the ongoing Franco-Italian crisis.

Both countries have been hampered by the absence of a unified EU policy on mass migration and have been squabbling over where the thousands of desperate people saved in the Mediterranean should go.

Some observers see Di Maio’s and the acerbic Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s comments as just rhetoric, especially when the latter calls on French voters not to support Macron’s En Marche party in May’s European elections.

To stoke the fire further, Luca Morisi, Salvini’s social media strategist, posted a photo of the minister with Marine Le Pen, his French far-right counterpart who was defeated by Macron in the 2017 presidential elections, on his Facebook page with the caption: “Matteo+Marine, Macron’s worst nightmare.”

Di Maio and Salvini are campaigning before the vote and are eager to show they have broken with the consensual politics of the centre-left and centre-right parties. The men share a common interest in targeting France.

Their support for the Yellow Vest movement is an unprecedented step in recent EU politics; leaders of one EU member do not support the opposition in a neighbouring country.

The Italian outburst provoked a withering response from Paris where European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau dismissed comments that she said could only trigger a “competition of the stupidest,” in other words a race to the bottom. There is little doubt that Italy’s reactions are disproportionate and counterproductive.

Colonialism is guaranteed to raise hackles in France. During the 2017 presidential campaign, Macron caused fury on the French right after describing French behaviour during the war of liberation of Algeria (1954-61) as “a crime against humanity.” The dirty deeds of colonialism continue to prompt a form of denial as well as nostalgia among certain groups in France.

That said, Italy is hardly blameless. The treatment the Italians meted out to Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea was every much as cruel as French deeds in North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Where the Italian leaders have a point is when they accuse French policy in Libya of being reckless. Macron’s attempt to pull the diplomatic rug from under Italian feet on Libya last spring only to fail to reconcile Libyan factions is hardly the stuff of clever diplomacy and neither is his continued support for Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Italy’s Eni and France’s Total have separate joint ventures in Libya but former French President Nicolas Sarkozy never bothered to hide his desire that France should enjoy a greater share of the Libyan oil and gas cake when he took the lead in topping Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi proved incapable of stopping the French-led and UK-, US- and NATO-backed military operation.

Where Italian leaders are on shakier ground is when Di Maio accuses France of manipulating the economies of African countries that use the CFA franc as their currency, stifling their development.

First of all, most immigrants do not come from countries that use the CFA. Second, having that currency might be good for some and not for others but it is voluntary and for the countries to decide whether to use it.

That said, rational debate is not what is at stake today. Macron is trying to forge an anti-populist coalition ahead of the European elections while Italian leaders are seeking to cement alliances between anti-establishment parties whose gains in May will determine the shape of the European Union.

Pessimists are less sure that the Italian bashing of France is simply a diplomatic spat. It is worth remembering that Italy used to be fervently pro-European Union. Throughout the 1990s, Italians feared missing the bus for Europe and being left out of the euro.

The introduction of the euro in January 2002 was greeted with huge celebrations but the European Union has fallen out of favour as the European Union came to be seen a demanding stepmother, a mask concealing austerity-obsessed Germany and French presumption that treated Italy as a second-rank country.

The European Union has become a scapegoat — as in the United Kingdom — demanding higher taxes, lower public spending and leaving Italy the cost of accommodating hundreds of thousands of immigrants from across the Mediterranean.

Conspiracy theories were a hallmark of the late co-founder of the Five Star Movement, Gianroberto Casaleggio. The movement has campaigned against vaccination and cast doubt on the moon landing.

In such an atmosphere, with racist attacks against migrants rising, immigrants moved around the country with no warning, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis brushed aside, the very frosty relations between Rome and Paris may offer a taste of what is to come.

For the time being, it looks like opera buffa but let us not forget that Salvini’s rate of approval resembles that of the man who was arguably the greatest demagogue in Italy: Benito Mussolini.