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Why France and Italy can’t help clashing

Posted by hkarner - 12. August 2017

Date: 10-08-2017
Source: The Economist: Charlemagne

From Asterix and Caesar to Macron and Gentiloni, the two nations needle each other

CAST your mind back to July 9th, 2006. Italy had just won the World Cup. Charlemagne was in Rome and joined the rumbustious football fans marching through the centre. A great victory, he said to the young woman next to him. “Yes,” she shot back. “And all the better for having been won against the French.”

France and Italy are no exception to the rule that a country’s relations are often trickiest with its immediate neighbour. The final had seen an Italian flattened in a style that would have made Asterix and Obelix proud. In extra time, with the French unable to penetrate Italy’s tight defence, their star player, Zinedine Zidane, turned on the man marking him, Marco Materazzi, and head-butted him. Mr Zidane had been provoked: Mr Materazzi later admitted that he “spoke about his [opponent’s] sister”. But it was still a brutal piece of retaliation, and Mr Zidane was sent off.Italians–or at least Italy’s chattering classes—feel as if they are getting similar treatment from France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron. At a meeting with Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, on July 12th, he refused to help his neighbour cope with the growing problem of up to 200,000 migrants blocked in Italy by the effects of EU policy, and by the French decision in late 2015 to close its border to migrants from the south. Then, apparently without consulting Rome, Mr Macron arranged a meeting on July 25th between the two main rivals for power in Libya, the country from which most of the migrants depart, and one that Rome has always seen as crucial to its interests. Two days later the new man in the Élysée blocked an Italian shipbuilding firm, Fincantieri, from taking control of a French shipyard at Saint Nazaire, citing dubious national-security concerns.

To see why such injuries hurt, remember that all Italy’s relations with other big, continental states are coloured by history. Fractured into mini-states except in the south, the territory of present-day Italy was once easy prey for the centralised powers, including France, which began to flex their muscles in the late 15th century. It was a French invasion that began the so-called Italian Wars in which the peninsula was mortifyingly reduced to a battlefield on which Europe’s rival powers slugged it out.

Another French invasion, in 1796, put Italy at the mercy of Napoleon Bonaparte and gave rise to the practice, which has since become widespread, of well-organised looting by victors of the cultural treasures of the vanquished. The first military unit tasked with seizing and exporting works of art was set up during Napoleon’s Italian campaign. Venice, Parma, Mantua, Modena and Milan were all looted by the French.

The treaty in which the Papal State sued for peace stipulated that it was to hand over “A hundred pictures, busts, vases, or statues to be selected by [French experts]…also, five hundred manuscripts”. Though most of what was stolen was later repatriated, the biggest work in the Louvre, Veronese’s “The Wedding at Cana”, is the fruit of Napoleon’s depredation.

But the interaction between France and Italy has not always been hostile. Napoleon III was the main external sponsor of Italy’s unification. Its leading internal protagonist was a kingdom that had straddled the Alps for centuries, taking in Savoy to the west and Piedmont to the east. The Italians had to pay a price to France for its intervention; that’s why Nizza is today the French city of Nice, and Savoy is split between two French departments.

But if Italy leaks into France, the reverse is also true. More than three-quarters of people in an autonomous pocket of Italy called Valle d’Aosta speak either French or a Franco-Provençal patois.

What unites the two countries often seems far more substantial than what divides them—an innate sense of elegance, a passion for gastronomy and proud histories of artistic and intellectual attainment. But all that, says Franco Venturini, is precisely what bedevils their relations. France and Italy both consider themselves the cultural superpower of Europe and the result is reciprocal jealousy. For Mr Venturini, who is a columnist on an Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, but French-educated and an officer of the Légion d’Honneur, the links between the two countries are “very close, yet not characterised by any great love. We’re like two cousins, each of whom thinks she is the prettier.”

A superpower standoff

The breadth and multi-faceted nature of the latest rift has taken people in both countries by surprise. In all three of the areas in which Mr Macron has clashed with Italy, the common factor has appeared to be a France-first approach and an apparent disdain for the communautaire values that he espoused so fervently, and successfully, as a candidate. That has left Dominique Moïsi of the Institut Montaigne, a liberal think-tank, dismayed and bewildered. “Have we been collectively deceived?” he asks.

Perhaps not. Mr Macron is haunted by the threat that political extremism poses to Europe; if he let thousands of migrants across the frontier, his nationalist rival, Marine Le Pen, would have a field day. As for the French president’s blocking of the shipyard takeover, that could be seen as a canny exercise in domestic politics. It has won Mr Macron much-needed popularity at home, including among trade unionists whose support he will require for labour reforms that he plans. His failure to co-ordinate his Libyan initiative with Rome might be justified by the need to exploit a momentary window of opportunity. And even in Italy it is acknowledged that, if the deal the president brokered helps stabilise Libya, he will have done his EU partners a big favour.

Nevertheless, the dangers of Mr Macron’s apparent fondness for go-it-alone diplomacy are considerable. Many in continental Europe consoled themselves over the Brexit vote with the hope that it might now be easier to pursue a common security policy. But if France intervenes unilaterally and without consultation in areas as sensitive and vital to the EU’s interests as Libya, well, so much for a pan-European diplomatic front.

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