Macron’s Meloni Snub Lays Bare the Strain on France-Italy Ties

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(Bloomberg) -- Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni didn’t paper over her contempt for the French President this past week – and Emmanuel Macron made clear that the feeling was mutual.

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The spat took place on Thursday after Volodymyr Zelenskiy met Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Ukrainian leader’s request for dinner at the presidential Elysée Palace. Meloni, who was not informed about the dinner ahead of time – or offered a seat at the table – characterized the meeting as “inappropriate,” prompting Macron to retort that France and Germany have a “special role” in supporting Ukraine.

Officials from both countries say the problem is that the leaders are fundamentally incompatible.

Macron sees Meloni as an Italian equivalent of the French populist Marine Le Pen, who has spent years attacking his pro-market policies. For Meloni, the French president is just the kind of arrogant elitist that she built her movement to bring down.

According to two people familiar with the dinner incident, such a failure of communication would not have happened when Meloni’s predecessor Mario Draghi was in power.

Within Italy, the dinner incident has revealed the vulnerability of Meloni’s governing coalition, particularly around the war in Ukraine and the government’s relations with France. While Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has remained steadfast in its support for Ukraine, coalition parties the League and Forza Italia have in the past allied themselves with Russia and Vladimir Putin, and have clashed hard with Macron.

In 2018, a junior member of Macron’s cabinet said Italy’s migration policy “makes you vomit.” At the time, they were overseen by Matteo Salvini, Meloni’s current deputy and leader of the League.

The following year, France recalled its ambassador to Rome after Italian deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio met with anti-government Gilet Jaunes protesters.

Interpersonal tensions are undermining what should be a high point in relations between France and Italy. Earlier this month, the Quirinal Treaty, a cooperation pact that Macron signed to great fanfare in 2021 with Meloni’s predecessor, Mario Draghi, came into effect, easing the way for the counties to work together on issues such as migration, trade deals, and relations with Libya.

While the treaty stipulates that the leaders must regularly schedule bilateral government meetings, arrange embassy personnel exchanges and develop joint strategies on Mediterranean policy and security, the ideological gap between Meloni and Macron has made meeting even the most basic requirements more challenging.

A prime example, according to people involved in the planning, is Meloni’s first visit as prime minister to Paris, which has not yet taken place. French government officials say that Meloni has been welcome to visit since her first day in office; Italian officials say that planning conversations are still ongoing.

A spokesperson for the Italian government declined to comment on the matter. Italian Newspaper la Repubblica reported Sunday that President Sergio Mattarella is concerned that the latest tensions could undermine the cooperation treaty and reverse gains made since it came it to force in February. Mattarella previously intervened to ease tensions after a spat between the two countries over immigration, the newspaper reported.

“The bickering among the two will only impact Meloni, who has shown limited political ability to handle relations with Paris,” said Teresa Coratella, a political analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Rome. “This will increase Italy’s isolation in the European Union.”

To be sure, bilateral relations between Italy and France remain solid, with diplomats and defense officials collaborating closely on a daily basis. The two countries have also committed to providing Ukraine with an anti-missile system know as SAMP-T, which they jointly developed and produced.

Still, the clash at the very top is a stark reversal from recent years, as Draghi and Macron were personal friends, and relations between the countries hit an all-time high while the Italian was in office.

An early indication of the trouble to come happened at the end of last year, shortly after Meloni was sworn into office. In November, interior ministers from both countries clashed over Italy’s decision to refuse entry to a boat carrying migrants. Italian officials demanded that France step in and help, leading to a row between the countries, and the Ocean Viking ship ultimately docked in the French city of Toulon.

In a half-hearted attempt to ease tensions early on Friday, Macron referred to the joint SAMP-T project as an example of productive cooperation. But in a veiled criticism of Meloni, he added that he always respects other people’s choices.

In an indication of how much the dinner incident had bothered her, Meloni said on Friday that the gathering was “politically wrong” and that she likely would not have gone had she been invited.

(Updates with new lede and report on Italian president’s concerns in 12th paragraph)

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