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Franco-Italian honeymoon hits troubled waters as Macron loses No. 1 ally in Rome

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PARIS — As he says goodbye to his top ally in Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron is bracing for the worst.

Macron and his closest confidante in the European sphere, Italian PM Mario Draghi, were once the steady duo that coalesced across EU policy areas as they saw eye to eye on a range of issues — from fiscal policy to the critical issue of European defense.

Under Draghi, Rome and Paris became closer than ever as the two leaders signed a bilateral treaty last year in a lavish hall of the Quirinale palace. After years of Franco-Italian diplomatic tensions, here was a partnership — perhaps when Europe needed it most — that fought common battles on the international stage, from tackling rules on capping the price of gas to building consensus on assisting war-torn Ukraine. 

But the honeymoon might be over. 

In a stunning ouster, precipitated by the anti-establishment 5Star movement, and brought to its spectacular finale by the Italian right, Mario Draghi resigned on July 21, throwing the country into turmoil. Italy is heading to the ballot box in September and a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni is leading the polls. 

“I am totally depressed,” a French minister told POLITICO last week, commenting on the overthrow of Draghi and the rise of Meloni. “I am a big fan of Draghi,” the minister said.

What’s on the horizon is stirring deep fears in the French establishment as the downfall of the Italian premier comes at a perilous moment for Europe — whose unity on everything from Ukraine to climate change could be tested by the rise of populists.

ITALY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Over the past five years in opposition, Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, relentlessly attacked the French government and Macron on issues ranging from industrial tie-ups and migrant flows to sovereignty over the summit of Mont Blanc, which straddles the transalpine border. Having Meloni as his new Italian counterpart would be a sea change for Macron, who is having to suddenly confront a PM pushing anti-French sentiment where there was once a France-friendly ally.

The concern is widely shared within Macron’s governing majority and among many French observers.

“If the right-wing coalition wins, it is certain that Franco-Italian tensions will start again,” warned Marc Lazar, a specialist on relations between the two countries and professor at Sciences Po Paris, “There are big concerns in Paris and in the government for what happens in Italy,” he added, noting that Paris would be Meloni’s main “target.”

The right-wing leader has systematically attacked France for taking control of Italian industrial jewels and accused Italy’s center-left Democratic Party of being Paris’ accomplice. Meloni also slammed France’s intervention in Libya as “neocolonialism,” and fuelled territorial disputes, accusing former Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni of giving up to France part of its fishy territorial waters and attacking France for allegedly moving the Franco-Italian border on the Mont Blanc.  

“Mrs. Meloni is a strong personality who clearly belongs to an extreme right-wing family derived from fascism,” argued Jean-Louis Bourlanges, the president of France’s National Assembly foreign affairs committee, adding that “Draghi’s departure is very bad news” for France as there was a “deep convergence” with Macron. 

France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi sign the Franco-Italian Quirinal Treaty in Rome | Pool photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

While Meloni kept criticizing France from the opposition benches, Draghi deepened his friendship with Macron. The Franco-Italian axis “got even stronger as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is more than discrete” compared to his predecessor Angela Merkel, said Lazar, noting that Macron and Draghi have “an excellent personal relationship.” When Draghi resigned, Macron praised him in a long communiqué calling him his “friend” and “a friend of France.” 

The transalpine friendship reached its acme last November, when the two countries sealed the so-called Quirinale Treaty in Rome, a bilateral pact modeled on the Franco-German Elysée Treaty. For Meloni, it is an “absurd treaty” which “opens the door wide to the unwieldy neighbor who would like to reduce Italy to a branch of Paris.”

France’s National Assembly this week unanimously voted to ratify the Franco-Italian pact, but in Italy things didn’t go so smoothly. The deal won a green light from the Italian parliament, but faced opposition from Meloni’s lawmakers.

Eléonore Caroit, the MP from Macron’s party responsible for the file, welcomed the fact that French lawmakers ratified the treaty before the Italian elections. 

“This is a treaty with a stronger contractor, France, who will interpret it as it pleases, for its own interest,” said Andrea Delmastro Delle Vedove, one of the MPs from Meloni’s party who voted against the deal and accused France of “predatory acquisitions” of Italian companies. 

According to the Brothers of Italy, the treaty would help Paris take control of Italian industrial assets, as has happened in recent years. Meloni slammed the Franco-Italian merger between carmakers Fiat-Chrysler and PSA (an “outsale” to the French, as she put it). When Paris and Rome abandoned plans for Italy’s Fincantieri to take over France’s Chantiers de l’Atlantique, the Brothers of Italy saw it as further evidence that the Franco-Italian relationship was unbalanced and that Italy was “a colony” of France. 

If she wins the election, Meloni will tell the French that industrial cooperation must go in both directions, Delmastro Delle Vedove, Meloni’s MP, said. 

Meloni’s direct attacks on Macron and France have become less frequent in the past months, as she aims to build credibility on the international stage and appear less divisive ahead of the September election. Meloni has repeatedly rejected links between her party and fascism.  

Should Italy’s right-wing win, the French will realize that dealing with Rome will get “a lot more complex, maybe nearly impossible” and Macron will refocus on his long-time ally (Germany), predicts Lazar.

“No doubt there will be an even stronger rapprochement of the relationship between Paris and Berlin.” 

The fate of the Franco-Italian love affair now squarely rests on the outcome of the Italian election and whether Macron can still count on an ally in Rome.

Meloni’s main contender, the center-left Democratic Party led by Enrico Letta, is very close to France and Macron. 

During six sabbatical years away from the chaos of Italian politics, Letta moved to Paris, where he became an academic, chaired a think tank, and became closer to Macron’s government.

Letta’s proximity to France and Macron has raised criticisms from Meloni’s party, who repeatedly accused the Democratic Party of representing French interests, something the Democrats reject. 

“To defend Italy’s strategic interests in Europe we need France because we have a series of completely aligned priorities,” said MP Lia Quartapelle, the foreign affairs point person for the center-left Democratic Party. 

“Going against the French is the national sport of the nationalist right-wing.”

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