February 08, 2019
Macron turns stand-off with Italy into a game changer
France called back its ambassador to Italy, an unprecedented move since WW II. The trigger was a meeting between Luigi di Maio and the gilets jaunes, But there is more at stake.
Di Maio and Matteo Salvini have been attacking Emmanuel Macron for months. Until now the French president shrugged off these attacks as insignificant and insisted that he only dealt with the Italian prime minister. What has changed? To elevate a political crisis into a state affair is quite an extraordinary move that will have political consequences. Did Macron think this through?
Let's first look at the trigger itself: Di Maio met with members of Ingrid Levavasseur's list and one of the other most outspoken representatives of the gilets jaunes, the controversial Christophe Chalençon. Di Maio then posted a photo of them all together with an enthusiastic tweet on twitter. Levavasseur herself was not there, she has even warned that di Maio was about to spoil what their project is about and insists that even if there were members from her list present it has nothing to do with it. So was this photo just a smoke screen, intended for Italian Five Star voters? Is this to serve his strategy to stir up sentiment against the French president as a way to raise his profile ahead of the European elections? According to the Italian TV channel La 7, Giuseppe Conte told Angela Merkel last week that Di Maio aims to attack France to recover lost ground ahead of the European elections, as he is lagging behind Salvini who already claimed the theme of immigration for himself.
Now that Macron responded in such a strong-armed manner, the game has changed. The fact that Chalençon has called for a military coup in the early weeks of the gilets jaunes helps the French government to argue the case about why it is a state affair after all. But it does not seem to us an essential link. The ambassador himself was surprised by Macron's move to call him back to Paris. Les Echos quotes a former ambassador to Italy who considers it an overreaction and who expects this to be of a short duration.
What does it bring Macron? At the European level, Macron may hope to revive his anti-populist front. It sends a strong image of a president who acts if provoked. French right-wing voters who found Macron too subservient to German interests at the Aachen treaty may cheer at this strong response against Italy. But will this staging have any lasting effects? Will it not come back to haunt Macron if he tries to form a transnational alliance for the European elections himself?