It was a show of displeasure without precedent since the end of the second world war. President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the two parties in Italy’s populist coalition, Matteo Salvini of the Northern League and Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5M), had been taunting each other since the Italians formed a coalition government last May. Mr Macron sees himself as the leader of Europe’s open, liberal order; Mr Salvini, in particular, as a leader of a more nationalist movement. But what seems to have provoked Mr Macron’s fury was a meeting in Paris between Mr Di Maio and prominent figures in France’s yellow jackets movement, a sometimes-violent mass protest against Mr Macron and the entire French ruling class.
At the weekend Messrs Di Maio and Salvini turned their attention to criticising the Bank of Italy and the stock market regulator. Before doing so, they held out olive branches to the French government. But they did so in such a clumsy—or, French critics may well suspect, provocative—fashion that their peace offerings were swept aside contemptuously.
Closing his party’s campaign for regional elections in Abruzzo, Mr Di Maio denied the interpretation the French government had put on his visit, saying “I didn’t go to tell the yellow jackets: ‘Overthrow Macron’. The French will do that.” Hardly emollient.
Mr Salvini offered to go to Paris to see the president “even on foot”. But, like Mr Di Maio, Mr Salvini is a deputy prime minister. As the French government’s spokesman remarked, protocol dictates that Mr Macron’s interlocutor in Rome is their nominal boss, Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister. The clear implication was that Mr Salvini’s offer was more presumptuous than conciliatory—though this in itself is a perhaps deliberate failure to recognise the true status of Mr Salvini.
The same could also be said of his second apparent effort at appeasement. Mr Salvini, who is also interior minister, said he intended “summoning” his French counterpart to discuss the question of former Italian terrorists living in France, an issue he is far keener to resolve than most French politicians. Christophe Castaner, the French interior minister, replied that he was not for “summoning” by anyone.
France’s sheltering of men and women wanted by the Italian courts is an issue that has long bedevilled relations between the countries. Another is French involvement in Libya, a former Italian colony where Italy has extensive commercial interests, particularly in oil and gas.
But it was only after the formation of Italy’s populist government that these and other disputes became toxic. Mr Macron set the tone when, soon afterwards, he warned of outbreaks of political “leprosy” in neighbouring countries.
The two sides have since wrangled over Italy’s closing of its ports to migrants rescued in the Mediterranean; incursions by French police into Italian territory in an area of their common frontier that migrants use to move northward, and the takeover by Italy’s state-controlled shipbuilder Fincantieri of the French firm Chantiers de l’Atlantique, formerly STX (a deal Mr Macron initially blocked).
More important than any specific disagreement, however, is the ideological distance that separates the parties on either side of the border at a time when they are gearing up to fight the European elections in May, seen as a crucial test of the popularity of populism in Europe.
Though Mr Macron’s party, La République en Marche, is just as disruptive and even younger than either M5M or the League, it represents a radically different vision of Europe, liberal and cosmopolitan. For Messrs Di Maio and Salvini, as for other populist leaders including Viktor Orban in Hungary, the French president is the adversary of choice: a former banker and énarque (graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration). In the context of May’s vote, what is bad for Franco-Italian relations is not necessarily bad for the M5M, the League, or indeed Mr Macron.