Benedict Spence

How Italy’s populists stepped up their war with Macron

How Italy's populists stepped up their war with Macron
Text settings

The war of words between the governments of Italy and France escalated last week, after Italy’s deputy Prime Ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, gave their support for the gilets jaunes movement against French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two sides have repeatedly come to blows over all manner of issues, from immigration to economics, via a whirlwind of thinly veiled insults. But the latest move marks a changing dynamic between the two sides; a once confident and resplendent President Macron now finds himself on the back foot, whilst the Italian leadership, emboldened, have begun to assert themselves across Europe, even to the point of inserting themselves into the affairs of other countries.

Di Maio and Salvini broke all precedent by backing the protest movement, urging them not to ‘give up’ in the face of a ‘president who does not serve his people’ in separate statements last weekend.

It prompted a fierce response from Paris, with French minister for European affairs Nathalie Loiseau suggesting Italy needed to ‘get its house in order’ before criticising the French government. At its heart is the fear in France that such an endorsement could give the gilets jaunes political legitimacy, at a time when they are facing increasingly brutal responses from police. But that would be an outcome that would suit Italy just fine.

There is a growing sense of confidence within the Italian government. The protests across France have shattered the illusion that Macron’s political messages, of embracing more Europe, not less, has won over the French electorate. Though he defeated Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon in 2017, the president has not defeated the discontent that made them viable rivals; the same discontent that ultimately led to the M5S and League entering government across the border.

Macron won few friends beyond the Alps in June when he referred to populism as having sprung up ‘like leprosy in neighbouring countries’, in what was widely interpreted as a dig at Italy. It came in the wake of French police crossing the border to release migrants into Italy. Embarrassingly for Paris, Macron had previously criticised Rome for acting ‘cynically and irresponsibly’ over its hardened stance on NGO ships docking at Italian ports.

Di Maio and Salvini called Macron a ‘chatterbox’ in response, adding that ‘the real leprosy at the heart of Europe is the hypocrisy of the French President.’ The French Ambassador was subsequently summoned to the foreign ministry and given a thorough dressing down.

‘Double standards’ then became the watchwords in Rome, as EU Economic Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, suggested Italy’s controversial budget proposals, which exceeded EU spending rules, were not comparable with France’s, when Macron appeared to break the same rules when attempting to placate the gilets jaunes protestors late last year.

But despite the animosity, the discontent that fueled the protests didn’t go unnoticed in Rome.

In postwar Europe, a government openly supporting violent protests against another is unheard of, and it marks a sea change in the attitude of the M5S. In 2017, Di Maio even compared his movement to En Marche! claiming the two shared the belief in ‘Europe’s refoundation.’ Not anymore. Last week, Di Maio compared the spirit of the M5S to the gilets jaunes instead, saying: 'A new Europe is being born. Gilets jaunes, do not give up!’ La Repubblica reported he even held meetings with the movement, offering them use of the Five Star’s online platform 'Rousseau', to help them organise.

Salvini also weighed in, saying ‘Support for decent citizens who protest against a president who does not serve his people.’

Personal animosity has played its part in the spat, especially between Macron and Salvini. The two men hold themselves in high regard, and have low opinions of each other. To that end, Macron’s embarrassment with the gilets jaunes will come as a great source of comfort, especially for the League.

But by endorsing them, and encouraging their organisation, the Italians are backing the legitimacy of the gilets jaunes as a political movement. In an ideal world, they would love for that legitimacy to turn into a political party to bridge the divides between populist left and far right, much as the League and Five Star have achieved in Italy.

For now, that remains a pipe-dream. But the protestors are a useful tool for the coalition to demonstrate that for all the hostility and lecturing, Paris is on fire, not Rome. It is a vindication of their policies and rhetoric - that they ‘got’ the public from the beginning, and that Macron was wrong.

But beyond that, Italy now finds itself the largest and most influential member of a growing bloc within Europe; what many call populists, but which consider themselves ‘Sovereigns’ -- movements keen to take back powers from Brussels and reassert national identity. It is an ideological battle, ushered in by Brexit, but now fought on the continent. Salvini, for example, visited Poland last week to drum up support for a ‘European Spring’ to break the ‘Franco-German axis’, in anticipation of EU elections later this year where record numbers of eurosceptics are set to be elected.

The issue is, the disparate Eurosceptic groups lack unity. Even the League and M5S will be running on very different platforms in those elections. The message then, should a ‘European Spring’ happen, will have to be about what unites the factions rather than divides them; supporting the creation of a political movement in France to take on Europe’s golden boy fits that criteria nicely.