PARIS — France’s pro-EU government and Italy’s populist leaders sparred anew Friday, as business giants from both countries appealed for calm amid the neighbors’ biggest diplomatic spat since World War II.
France said the stunning recall of its ambassador to Italy was a temporary move — but an important signal to its historical ally not to meddle in internal French affairs.
In Italy, the deputy prime minister who’s the focus of French anger stood his ground, renewing criticism of France’s foreign policy.
France and Italy are founding members of the European Union, born from the ashes of World War II, and their unusual dispute is rippling around the continent at a time of growing tensions between nationalist and pro-EU forces.
French officials said Friday that this week’s recall of French Ambassador Christian Masset was prompted by months of “unfounded attacks” from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, who have criticized French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic and migration policies.
But the main trigger for the crisis appeared to be Di Maio’s meeting in a Paris suburb this week with members of the yellow vests, a French anti-government movement seeking seats in the European Parliament.
French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the visit violated “the most elementary diplomacy” because it was unannounced. Referring to Italy’s populist leaders, he criticized a “nationalist leprosy” eating away at Europe’s unity and said EU members should “behave better toward partners.”
A participant in the meeting, French activist Marc Doyer, told The Associated Press that it was initiated by Di Maio’s populist 5-Star movement and aimed at sharing advice on how to build a “citizens’ movement.”
Doyer said it provided useful technical and other guidance to potential yellow vest candidates and their supporters, and called the diplomat spat an overreaction.
“It’s a political game by certain people,” he said. “Free movement exists in Europe, and the meeting didn’t cost the French taxpayer anything.”
Di Maio said he had done nothing wrong by meeting with the yellow vest protesters without informing the French government.
A borderless Europe “shouldn’t just be about allowing free circulation of merchandise and people, but also the free circulation of political forces that have a European outlook,” he said in a Facebook video while visiting Abruzzo.
Di Maio again blamed France for policies in African countries that he said had impeded their growth and fueled the flight of economic migrants to Europe. He also implicitly blamed Paris for the chaos in Libya that has led to years of instability and growth of migrant smuggling networks following France’s involvement in the NATO-led operation in 2011 that ousted former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power.