France has added fuel to its worst diplomatic row with Italy since the war by deriding the populist coalition as being part of a “nationalist leprosy” sapping the European Union.
France recalled its ambassador to Italy for the first time since 1940 on Thursday after what it called months of “unfounded attacks” from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini.
They have criticised President Emmanuel Macron’s economic and migration policies, with Mr Salvini calling him a “terrible president”.
Referring to the ambassadorial withdrawal, French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said: “It’s not a permanent recall, but it was important to make a statement because Italy is a historic ally and is also a founding member of the European Union.”
While the row had been brewing for months, Paris removed the gloves this week after Mr Di Maio, head of the Five Star movement, held a surprise meeting with the leaders of “yellow vest” protesters in France who have called for Mr Macron to resign.
“The most basic courtesy would have been to notify the government,” said Mr Griveaux.
France’s Europe affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said the decision to recall France’s ambassador “isn’t about being dramatic. It’s about saying ‘playtime is over'”.
Mr Griveaux dismissed suggestions that France had sparked the spat because of Mr Macron’s previous criticisms of Mr Di Maio and Mr Salvini, the far-Right leader. “If they felt targeted, that’s their problem,” he said, adding that their “snide remarks” had not stopped Italy falling into recession.”
“We don’t make snide remarks,” said Mr Griveaux, before going on to equate nationalism with leprosy – a comparison Mr Macron had already made in June, angering Mr Salvini.
“What is of interest to me is that people in Europe do better and if we can beat back nationalist leprosy, populism, mistrust of Europe,” he said.
Mr Di Maio, meanwhile, remained unrepentant about his visit with anti-government protesters in France.
In a letter to French daily Le Monde, he accused successive French governments of pursuing ultraliberal policies that have “increased citizen’s insecurity and sharply reduced their spending power”.
“This is why I wanted to meet with ‘yellow vest’ representatives … because I don’t believe that Europe’s political future lies with parties on the Right or Left, or with so-called ‘new’ parties that in reality follow tradition,” he said.