High Unemployment? Stagnant Economy? Just Bash the French

Flags compete during a Yellow Vests demonstration in December in Ventimiglia, Italy, near the French border. Credit Valery Hache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Flags compete during a Yellow Vests demonstration in December in Ventimiglia, Italy, near the French border. Credit Valery Hache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

White sauce and migration, the fork and the Mona Lisa, a fast train and an African currency — the points of contention are many. Since coming to power eight months ago, the most unpredictable and quarrelsome government Italy has ever known has managed to pick a colossal fight with, yes, France.

On Thursday, the French government called back for “consultations” its ambassador to Italy. Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, both deputy prime ministers of Italy, had said that they gave their full support to the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), who have been protesting throughout France for weeks, rattling the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. Then, after meeting representatives of the movement a few days ago, Mr. Di Maio declared that a “new Europe is being born.” The French foreign ministry called the statement yet more “provocation” and manipulation for “electoral aims.”

Italy’s two-headed government — an opportunistic alliance between the extreme-right League of Mr. Salvini and the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement of Mr. Di Maio — has made a sport of going after France, especially Mr. Macron.

Mr. Di Maio, in particular, has called out France’s supposedly neocolonialist relationship with its former territories in Africa, which supposedly impoverishes the continent and causes its people to flee — for Italy. On a popular TV talk show recently, Alessandro Di Battista, a prominent leader of the Five Star Movement and the group’s unofficial economic theorist, pulled out of his pocket a copy of a C.F.A. franc bank note. The C.F.A., which is used in 14 African states, is pegged to the euro and guaranteed by the French treasury against those states’ foreign reserves. Mr. Di Battista tore the bill apart angrily, blaming the currency for keeping Africa down and under France’s yoke.

He didn’t mention Italy’s own adventures in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Italian troops are said to have raped, murdered and gassed civilians, bombed the Red Cross and starved children held in detention. (Those facts still hardly feature on the history curriculum of Italian schools.) Nor did he mention that many asylum seekers who arrive in Italy today come from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia — an area once colonized in parts by Italy.

This flimsy anticolonial stance may be designed to give the Italian government a patina of idealism, but it reveals a muddled understanding of African political and economic dynamics. A new unit called “Task Force Cina”(Task Force China) has been set up in the Ministry of Economic Development, which is under Mr. Di Maio’s control: Its goal is to increase economic exchanges with China and stop migration to Italy by helping China invest in Africa. The Italian government calls France’s involvement in Africa exploitative but seems to think that China’s is no problem.

This French-bashing is a new twist in an old story of resentment and rivalry — a medley of unprocessed feelings that can be triggered just as easily by talk of the Napoleonic invasions or the French soccer player Zinedine Zidane’s famous head-butt against an Italian player in the 2006 World Cup Final. Italy won the championship, but with a whiff of illegitimacy after Zidane was taken out of the game.

For a long time, I think, some Italians have felt that our country’s contribution to French culture has gone unacknowledged. But now, in the hands of Mr. Salvini and Mr. Di Maio, this sentiment is reaching new heights, in terms of both political expedience and pettiness.

The Louvre museum in Paris, where the Mona Lisa is exhibited, has been preparing to commemorate later this year the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. The painting became the property of Francis I, a king of France and Leonardo’s patron, after Leonardo’s death in France in the early 16th century — a time when the concept of Italy as a nation was shaky at best. Last year, Italy promised to contribute to the special exhibit by lending the Louvre major, sumptuous pieces, but the new government is mulling how to renege on that pledge.

A popular myth has resurfaced on Twitter in these fractious days about how both haute cuisine and humble utensils were introduced to the French court by Catherine de Medici, after she was sent from Florence to Paris to marry Henry II in 1533. Search Twitter for “mangiavate ancora con le mani” (“You’d still be eating with your hands”) and see. Catherine made a rookie’s mistake: She fell in love with her husband even though he was besotted with another woman (Diane de Poitiers). When I was in high school (in Florence), my history teacher consistently referred to her as “la poverina” — the poor thing — for having been twice cheated by the French, out of her love and her culinary expertise.

Food historians may have serious grounds to debate the exact parentage of béchamel and the fork, but many assumptions driving the current government’s revisionism are unquestionably wrong. Whatever Mr. Di Battista thinks of French monetary policies in Africa, for example, the highest number of African migrants to Italy come from Nigeria, a former British colony, and not from French-speaking countries.

But a populist, right-wing government such as Italy’s today needs an enemy to rally its electorate, in particular at a time of deep economic difficulties. Better to redirect attention on immigration and the French than face up to high unemployment and overall stagnation: Italy formally entered a recession this quarter.

Of course, Mr. Macron hasn’t helped matters by hardly behaving diplomatically himself. When Mr. Salvini, also Italy’s interior minister, announced that migrant boats would no longer be allowed to dock in Italian ports, the French president called the move “cynical and irresponsible.” This, even though France’s border with Italy has been closed to migrants and French authorities have been pushing them back into Italy. It is also undeniable that Europe’s southernmost countries like Italy bear a heavier share of the immigration crisis than other European states, partly because of the Dublin Regulation, a much-criticized European law that requires the countries where asylum seekers arrive to screen them and take care of them.

And yet, when the European Parliament has discussed reforms aimed at spreading more evenly the burden of immigration among members of the European Union, the League did not participate, and representatives of the Five Star Movement abstained from voting. At a final session last June, the Dublin Regulation wasn’t amended, for lack of votes in favor of reform.

Not all Italians are on board, of course. On Thursday, after France called back its ambassador, Cuneo, a small Italian town near the French border, had something like the “Marseillaise” moment in the movie “Casablanca”: Federico Borgna, the leftist mayor, flew the French flag from a balcony of city hall — an unlikely symbol of dissent in an even more unlikely dispute.

Ilaria Maria Sala is an Italian journalist based in Hong Kong.

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