Cold Wind Across the Alps: Franco–Italian Rivalry and the Europeanization of Political Competition
Camilla Pagani 1 July 2019

2019 will be remembered as a peculiar and unpredictable year in the bilateral relations of Italy and France. Last February, French Ambassador Christian Masset was recalled from Rome to Paris after months of tensions. Quai d’Orsay officials defined the crisis as “unprecedented”, a rupture on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Nonetheless, since we are now increasingly confronted with an unpredictable political landscape—from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump—we might as well accept that contemporary politics sometimes overcomes fantasy.

An array of disagreements and provocations on both sides of the Alps have deepened the divide between these two historical partners. Their common project to sign a “Quirinal Treaty”, on the model of the Franco–German “Elysée Treaty”, is now on hold. Several diverging interests are on the table of negotiations, from the situation in Libya to the migration crisis. The casus belli came as Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, met with Cristophe Chalençon—one of the more controversial Yellow Vest leaders—in February. Coming after a raft of similar intrusions, this was interpreted as an explicit and direct provocation of the French government from a representative of the Italian government.

Eventually, on the occasion of Leonardo da Vinci’s 500th-anniversary celebrations in May, presidents Emmanuel Macron and Sergio Mattarella met and officially resolved to close the dispute and move ahead, underlying the two countries’ solid partnership. But is that really the end of the matter?

Beyond these diplomatic incidents, the first question to address is how this situation—which would have been inconceivable only a year ago—became possible in the first place. What triggered distrust between these two historical EU partners? Secondly, we shall consider the European framework as a potential answer to the question. The former can indeed only be fully understood through a careful analysis of the latter. We should not forget that 2019 has seen the European Parliament up for election, so it is fundamental to interpret the crisis through that lens.

Both Italy and France have been historical players in the construction of the European Union, but ironically both countries now host two of the largest Eurosceptic populations in Europe. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) took 23.3% of the vote in the recent European elections, besting the share (22.4%) won by Macron’s La République en Marche (LRM)—albeit by less than 1%. On the other side of the Alps, Matteo Salvini’s Lega beat all expectations with a very strong result (34.3%). The anti-establishment Five Star Movement received 17%.

Could we deduce that these tensions were part of an electoral battle beyond national borders? Or should we rather interpret them as the consequence of too many diverging interests?


Playing a dangerous game


Last May, a panel of prominent analysts—Marc Lazar, professor of political history and sociology at Sciences Po and LUISS Guido Carli, Michele Salvati, emeritus professor of Political Economy at the University of Milan and Antonio Villafranca, Research Coordinator and Co-Head of the Europe and Global Governance Centre at ISPI—gathered in Milan to try and answer those questions at a conference organised by the Italian section of the Sciences Po Alumni Association.

According to Lazar, four main elements provoked these tensions. The first is diverging approaches to the Libyan crisis. Since the French intervention in Libya in 2011, Italy and France have pursued opposite strategies in the region, reflecting their diverging national interests. While Rome backs Fayez al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Paris supports the head of the so-called Libyan National Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Both countries have their own economic interests in the oil sector. But this alone cannot justify such a reaction.

Secondly, since 2013 Italy has felt abandoned on the question of migration. Every European country has been blindly following a parochial approach, putting electoral expediency and national interests first. The French–Italian border has become the object of strict migration control, causing several delays in transport, from trains to highways. For the local population who are used to crossing the border between Menton and Ventimiglia like most people cross the street, this has caused difficulties in everyday life. Indeed, the border at Clavière saw a few provocative incidents happen last October. Italy set up a special border patrol in response to French police intrusions on Italian territory during several migrant expulsion operations. This provoked a dispute between Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, and his French counterpart, Christophe Castaner.

Thirdly, Alessandro Di Battista, a leader of the Five Star Movement, directly accused France of following neo-colonial policies with the use of the CFA franc in Sub-Saharan Africa. His colleague, deputy prime minister Di Maio, added that “France is one of those countries that by printing money for 14 African states prevents their economic development and contributes to the fact that the refugees leave and then die in the sea or arrive on our coasts”. This was nothing more than a provocative electoral ploy, without any evidence to back it up. In fact, most migrants come from countries that do not use the CFA franc.

The last straw was Di Maio’s explicit support for the Yellow Vest movement in a very delicate moment for President Macron and the entire French government. On 5 February, Di Maio met in France Christophe Chalençon and Ingrid Levavasseur, the most radical representatives of the Yellow Vests. He posted a picture with them, tweeting “The wind of change has crossed the Alps” (in Italian). This was immediately interpreted as a direct interference in French politics by a leading representative of the Italian government. Quai d’Orsay officials condemned “this new provocation unacceptable between neighboring countries and partners at the heart of the EU”.

Although misunderstandings arise between the two countries from time to time, this diplomatic tension reached an unprecedented level. Indeed, France’s image among the Italian public has deteriorated sharply. According to a poll published in January for La Repubblica, the share of Italians reporting trust in France dropped to 24% in 2019 from 41% in 2014 (Demos & Pi).


A complementary partnership


Nevertheless, diplomatic spats aside, Italy and France remain tightly bound, especially in their economic relations. The “real world” seems somehow immune from electoral games. In 2018, Italian–French trade reached a record of € 81.4 billion, continuing an upward trend in effect since 2000. According to Business France, “more than 1,700 French companies are controlled by an Italian investor”. This confirms the important role played by Italy, with 94 new investment projects in France (7% of all foreign direct investment in France in 2018). France is thus the first country of destination for Italian investment projects in Europe (37% of Italian projects).

On the trade side, France and Italy are very complementary and interdependent. France is Italy’s second-largest trading partner (after Germany), with a share of 9.6% of all Italian trade, while Italy is France’s third-largest (after Germany and Belgium) making up 7.7% of all French trade.

As far as job creation is concerned, Italy and France present many synergies. According to the French embassy in Rome, there are 1,100 French companies in Italy, employing nearly 240,000 people, with a turnover of more than € 100 billion. On the other side of the Alps, there are 1,300 Italian subsidiaries that provide work to about 110,000 people.

In research and technology, Italy and France have plenty of partnerships and common projects, especially in the university field. There are currently 230 dual French–Italian diploma courses enrolling students. This makes it one of the most prominent cross-national academic platforms in Europe. On this ground, a widespread petition to Presidents Macron and Mattarella signed by Italian and French citizens in the aftermath of the diplomatic row dared to call this community “Frantalia“, one that—if it were a country—would have a population bigger than Luxemburg.

More than that, Italy and France share many common goals within the Eurozone, as Antonio Villafranca pointed out. In particular, Italy will need France’s support during the negotiations for the next Multiannual Financial Framework starting in 2021 as well as for Eurozone reform. They share a common vision of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and both countries call for further flexibility from the European Commission regarding national deficits and the Stability Pact. On this point, they both need to convince Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries to offer some concessions. As Lazar recalled, there is indeed nothing new in this alliance between Rome and Paris in Brussels: Italy was actually able to adopt the Euro currency in 1999 thanks to French support.

Therefore, despite some temporary diverging interests, Italy and France should look at their structural complementary economies and common objectives, by adopting a more realistic approach.


A new level for political competition


What seems a competition between contending countries might, in reality, be an electoral game being played by opposite parties across Italy and France and more generally across Europe. This should be analysed as a sign of a “Europeanization of the political debate”, rather than a simple rivalry between countries. Emmanuel Macron gave a 30-minute interview on the Italian state channel RAI last March, whereas former Italian prime minister and Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi debated against Marine Le Pen on French TV.

Di Maio and Salvini’s main political opponent—as it emerges from their own propaganda —is not Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Italian Democratic Party, but the French President Emmanuel Macron. This is the clearest confirmation that the electoral competition between conservative and socialist parties has now shifted towards a Europe-wide opposition between Eurosceptics and Europhiles. But, as highlighted by Michele Salvati, while conservative and socialist forces shared the same liberal koiné, the gap between Eurosceptic and Europhiles is very deep. The entire European system, with its values, norms and beliefs, has become the very object of controversy.

Although the two Italian deputy prime ministers do not belong to the same group in the European political spectrum, they both defy the traditional European elite. Matteo Salvini, with the new EU Parliament political group “Identity & Democracy”, is trying to consolidate an alliance with Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and other European populist leaders by strongly fighting the European liberal model. Di Maio, with his ambiguous support to the Yellow Vests movement and renewed anti-establishment line, is clearly defying Macron’s ambitions. The growing distance between the two sides of the Alps, in short, has its origins in a double populist attempt—both from Lega and the Five Star Movement—to fight Macron’s European liberal project to build a more political Europe.

In conclusion, two major elements fall into sharp focus. On the one hand, European elections are now increasingly political, rather than an element of technocratic governance. These elections called citizens to choose between a stronger and ever closer Union and the opposite—a Europe of nations.

What has surprisingly emerged from these elections is the highest turnout in 20 years, with more than 50% of EU citizens voting. Turnout increased in 21 countries in 2019. In France, 2019 turnout was 50% (up from 42% in 2014), 61% in Germany (up from 48%), 64% in Spain (43%), 66% in Denmark (56%), 59% in Austria (45%) and 45% in Poland (up from 23%). This indicates that the EU is now becoming an object of citizens’ political vision, or at least their political interest.

Italy is an exception, though. Italian participation at the European elections fell to 54% in 2019 from 57% in 2014, continuing a sharp decreasing trend, which started with the elections of 2009 when the turnout was 66% (it was 71% in 2004). This result suggests that the growing Italian Euroscepticism or “Euro-disenchantment” is driving lower turnout at European elections.

On the other hand, political competition has become truly transnational. Consequently, what has been interpreted as diplomatic tension between two countries should rather be analysed as a new way of doing politics within a populist framework and across borders. What is generally considered as political interference from another country is, in reality, a reflection of merciless competition between opposing parties. And if the tone is impolite and undiplomatic, it is because the whole political realm has become populist. In their latest book (Popolocrazia. La metamorfosi delle nostre democrazie, Laterza 2018), Ilvo Diamanti and Marc Lazar call this new overall trend “peoplecracy”. It is a new way of doing politics, which defies the representative model of democracy and tries to immediately link citizens with a strong leader, bypassing all traditional channels of intermediation and spreading in all elements of political communication.

This new European political game has thus become more populist, more aggressive, and more politicised. However, the good news is that Europe itself has finally become political.

Photo: Philippe Wojazer / AFP

Camilla Pagani is Doctor of Philosophy and lecturer of Political Theory at MGIMO-University, Moscow. Her research interests include political theory, identity politics, international organizations and museum studies.




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