Who needs the Comédie-Française when there is Emmanuel Macron in the Élysée? France's recall last week of its ambassador from Italy for consultation was pure theatre on the part of the president. And it was a decision more for the benefit of his domestic audience than for the coalition government in Rome.
In a statement explaining why Christian Masset had been ordered home, the foreign office said that for several months France has been subjected to outrageous statements that have created a 'serious situation which is raising questions about the Italian government’s intentions towards France.'
France blamed the recall on Luigi Di Maio, the Italian deputy prime minster, who flew to Paris last week to meet members of the Yellow Vest protest movement. After the meeting, the leader of the anti-system Five Star Movement uploaded a photograph of the meeting on to social media and declared that 'the wind of change has crossed the Alps'. It was a silly stunt from Di Maio, one which revealed his political naivety, and also his desperation to boost his party's flagging fortunes within the coalition.
France’s European affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said that the decision to recall the Ambassador was 'not about being dramatic...[but] about saying 'playtime is over.''
Her words were soon contradicted by government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, who declared that France doesn't indulge in 'snide' remarks, before rather undermining that claim by saying 'we can beat back the nationalist leprosy, populism, the mistrust of Europe.'
Macron first used the 'leprosy' metaphor last June, a description that infuriated Matteo Salvini, Italy's other deputy prime minister, who has distanced himself from Di Maio's antics. Nonetheless, the leader of the right-wing League regards Macron as the incarnation of EU hypocrisy; the president talks of the importance of European solidarity but frequently acts in France's best interest. In 2017 Macron nationalised the country's biggest shipyard at St-Nazaire to stop it passing into Italian ownership, and on the migrant crisis he fails to practise what he preaches. In June last year Salvini claimed that France had intercepted more than 10,000 migrants, including women and handicapped children, and returned them to the Italian side of the border.
Macron is struggling to win this war of words because contrary to what the foreign office statement said, the Italian's attacks are not 'baseless' but based on empirical evidence. Furthermore, while Di Maio's Five Star is on the wane, Salvini's approval ratings are on the up: if populism is leprosy, then a great many people in Italy are happy to be infected. The same goes for France where the leper-in-chief is Marine Le Pen.
Macron believes he is the antidote to Le Pen, the National Rally leader, and her remarkable rehabilitation in the last six months. Le Pen has profited most from the Yellow Vest movement that is flourishing three months after it first emerged. A recent opinion poll revealed that 64 per cent of people still support the protestors and 77 per cent believe them justified in their demands.
Macron has made concessions, including raising the minimum wage and scrapping the fuel tax, and he's launched a Big Debate; his weekly monologues in town halls that have demonstrated his thespian talent but done little to dilute people's disaffection.
One reason is the number of protestors' hands that have been blown off and the eyes shot out by police weapons that are banned in Britain and most EU nations. This has allowed Le Pen to plant her flag on the moral high ground. 'The French aspire to order,' she tweeted last month. 'But order is not the mutilation of political opponents and the use of unreasonable force by Macronien power.'
The recall of the ambassador from Italy is viewed by many French as part of the president's European election campaign. If Macron is to stand any chance of defeating Le Pen (who came top in the 2014 European elections with 24 per cent of the vote) he must weaken her support among the Yellow Vest movement. Di Maio's visit to Paris was a good launchpad.
He arrived in France on the same day the hard-left CGT union organised a general strike. Neither the meeting with Di Maio or the strike action met with widespread approval among the protest movement because if the rank and file Yellow Vests have any political affinity it's broadly in line with Marine Le Pen's brand of national socialism. The violent demonstrators who cause chaos in city centres each Saturday are not representative of the movement; they are mainly far-left extremists and professional agitators, disowned by the real Yellow Vests, who remain committed to the cause but now avoid city-centre marches.
In recalling the ambassador and issuing a melodramatic statement about Italy's intentions towards France, Macron was appealing to the patriotism of the Yellow Vests. They may hate their president but they love their country, and Macron hopes that internal divisions can be healed by creating an external threat.
Macron is portraying the European Elections as a fight for the soul of the continent. The populists are a menace to us all, he is saying, and even old friends like Italy can no longer be trusted. The trans-Alpine stand-off also puts Le Pen in a bind, as Macron intended. She and Salvini are good friends and have talked of working together to reform Europe. But if Italy is inimical to France's interests, then isn't she guilty of collaborating with the enemy?
Le Pen knows she must tread carefully, which is why it took her 24 hours to respond to the recall of the ambassador. Describing it as a 'diplomatic fault' on the part of the government, she said that contrary to what Macron states he is not Europe's fulcrum 'but a source of tension and immaturity'.
The rift overshadowed the EU veto last week of the proposed merger of French and German rail companies Alstom and Siemens because it would have eliminated competition in the European market, a decision that drew an angry response from France.
Britain should take comfort. The insults and intransigence that have hamstrung Brexit talks are characteristic of a continent that is growing ever more ideologically and economically divided.