After what Le Monde has called “Eight months of hostilities” between France and Italy, the Quai d’Orsay recalled its ambassador from Rome. The stated reason was a meeting this week held between Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, and representatives of the gilets jaunes movement, an “unacceptable provocation.” Leaving aside the question of the wisdom of taking such a drastic diplomatic measure over a meeting between officials of a European neighbor and a domestic opposition movement (Marine Le Pen’s meetings with Matteo Salvini have provoked no such response), this appears to be a significant strategic error for Macron. Macron’s legitimacy rides on his ability to present himself as a champion of European unity against the nationalist far right, in power in countries like Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Poland. Only many of these far-right movements have realized that the Euroskepticism that was once common sense for them is no longer a viable political strategy (think of Le Pen’s retreat from her anti-Euro platform in 2017), if nothing else observing what’s going on in post-Brexit UK politics. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has repeatedly attempted to recast his brand of xenophobic nationalism not as an anti-European project, but as an alternative European project: a “European Spring” blossoming in Budapest and Rome.
Macron’s disproportionate retaliation against a core European country appears to undermine his own credibility as a continental leader—if there was much left to begin with—and as a result validates the core premise of the new far-right message: that the nationalist axis is the future of European cooperation. And its message for the gilets jaunes and “populist” movements across the continent is that, as with the Five Star Movement, their real friends are people like Salvini.
Photo Credit: Presidenza della Repubblica, Di Maio Toninelli Grillo, via Wikimedia Commons.