Monday , August 26 2019

Macron is happy to fight with Italy

Emmanuel Macron has followed the old adage: Never waste a good crisis.
As relations with Italy go from bad to toxic, the French president has taken the unprecedented step of recalling his ambassador from Italy — the kind of diplomatic spat that doesn’t usually happen between big EU member states. It’s calculated to embarrass Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, who brazenly met with the gilets jaunes protesters on French soil.
But it’s also a relatively risk-free way for Macron to assert himself on the international stage, a useful opportunity as he tries to regain the political initiative from yellow vest movement ahead of the European Parliament elections this year. It doesn’t hurt to invoke a bit of national pride when you’re competing for attention with a populist movement. Macron’s chief concern is getting back to the project of fixing France’s stuttering economy, by tackling high spending, high taxes and red tape, a task that’s been made more difficult by the domestic rioters.
His escalation looks justified given Di Maio’s regular provocation of France’s pro-EU president. After accusing France of colonial exploitation in Africa via local currencies pegged to the euro, and encouraging the gilets jaunes to ‘keep going’ after violent protests against Macron’s policies, Di Maio met with a faction of the group. It was ostensibly an effort to build a future political relationship in European Parliament should gilets jaunes become a party, but deliberately designed to rile Macron.
By responding with such diplomatic force, France has effectively put Italy on the spot for Di Maio’s actions, according to Jean-Pierre Darnis, adviser at think tank IAI. It’s notable that Matteo Salvini — head of Italy’s right-wing League and Di Maio’s partner in populist coalition government — was quick to offer dialogue to Paris. Salvini has had his own complaints about France before, notably around its hypocrisy on migration, but a way out of crisis is possible.
France and Italy have very close business ties, with about 77 billion euros in yearly trade between them. That should be unaffected by the diplomatic spat, says Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.
With Macron slowly clawing his way back from rock-bottom approval ratings, and using a “grand debate” on the economy to build support for his reform program, he’s keen to neuter the political appeal of the yellow vests. More than two-thirds of French people want some kind of referendum on the debate’s conclusions, according to a YouGov survey, an idea that Macron is flirting with.
The French president still thinks the country needs to take some tough economic medicine. But it’s not certain whether he will succeed.

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