When one thinks about France and Italy, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the grand avenues of Paris, and fine cuisine come to mind. What doesn’t come to mind is political trench warfare. And yet that is precisely what French and Italian political leaders have been participating in for close to a year now. The French government of President Emmanuel Macron and the populist administration of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have been punching each other in the nose over a litany of issues in a brawl over which at least Conte has very little control.
There is no love lost between Macron and Italy’s two rambunctious deputy premiers, the right-wing Matteo Salvini and the leftist-populist Luigi Di Maio. Macron is a politicians’ politician, someone who attended France’s elite Sciences Po university and entered French political society at a very young age. His world is one of industrialists, politicians, ministers, and influencers snacking on caviar courtesy of the taxpayer. The 41-year-old French president is a gifted orator and an engaging presence when he wants to be. His politics are strictly centrist and pro-business. He was swept into office with 66 percent of the vote partly because he was seen as a non-ideological technocrat who wasn’t beholden to the country’s political parties.
Salvini and Di Maio live in a whole different universe. While Salvini has been in politics for years, he has been effective at fashioning himself as an everyday Italian who eats pizza, spreads Nutella on his bread, and takes shirtless selfies on the beach. He’s also incredibly ambitious and clever, knowing how to take issues that grate on a large segment of the Italian population and turn them into votes. In a span of five years, his League party has been transformed from an asterisk (4 percent of the vote in 2013) to a national political force (just under 18 percent of the vote in 2018). Its numbers have only gone up since it formed a coalition with the Five Star movement, nearly doubling in popularity.
The battle between Paris and Rome is as much about personality as it is issues like illegal migration, EU regulatory reform, foreign policy, and even the artwork of Leonardo Di Vinci. Lock Macron, Salvini, and Di Maio in a room, and they’re more likely to pummel each other than to pursue agreement on a shared problem. When Salvini calls Macron “a terrible president,” and Macron in turn refers to populist Italian politics as a “populist leprosy” on European society, it’s hard to envision the bilateral spat dissipating any time soon.
In fact, it may get worse before it gets better. The words are becoming sharper, the tone is becoming more undiplomatic, and the positions are becoming more irreconcilable. For the first time since the fascists ruled Italy during World War II, France has pulled its ambassador from Rome. Paris did this last week to protest Di Maio’s powwow with the anti-Macron yellow vest demonstrators who have shaken the French capital every weekend since last November. The fact that the Italian deputy prime minister was on French territory when he met with the movement was likely seen as a humiliation that Macron couldn’t ignore. Di Maio has yet to apologize and doesn’t seem to have any intention of doing so.
To the European Union, having two founding members throwing rhetorical grenades at each other is not a great look. The commissioners and ambassadors in Brussels are all about unity and consensus. That’s the whole point of the EU: to ensure nationalism doesn’t get out of control, the European family of nations doesn’t break apart, and the continent is an international player on par with the U.S. and China.
These days, it’s looking more like the EU family is living in an unhappy home, and that the parents are about ready to separate.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.