France condemns Italy's meeting with gilets jaunes leader

Paris says deputy PM Luigi Di Maio’s actions are an unacceptable provocation

France’s foreign ministry has accused the Italian deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, of undermining relations between the two countries after he met with leaders of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement.

Di Maio, who also leads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), and Alessandro Di Battista, a prominent M5S member, met Christophe Chalençon, as well as candidates the protest movement has put forward for the European elections in May, on the outskirts of Paris on Tuesday.

Di Maio described the meeting as “beautiful” in a Facebook post. “The wind of change has crossed the Alps,” he wrote. “I repeat. The wind of change has crossed the Alps.”

In response, a French foreign ministry spokesman said in a daily online briefing: “This new provocation is not acceptable between neighbouring countries and partners in the European Union. Mr Di Maio, who holds government responsibilities, must take care not to undermine, through his repeated interferences, our bilateral relations, in the interest of both France and Italy.”

Di Maio had previously expressed his admiration for the gilets jaunes, who have been holding at times violent anti-government protests each week across France for the past few months. He urged the movement not to “give up” and said the demonstrations reminded him of the spirit that gave birth to the M5S in 2009.

On Tuesday he said the two groups shared “many common positions and values that focus on the battles for citizens, social rights, direct democracy and the environment”.

Chalençon said while both sides “practically agree on everything”, there was no talk yet about whether they would form an alliance for the elections to the European parliament. Italian media reported that Ingrid Levavasseur, who heads the gilets jaunes’ list of 10 candidates for the elections, would meet M5S officials again in Rome next week.

The meeting follows a series of verbal attacks from Di Maio and his co-deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, on the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in recent weeks and is also seen as an additional tactic by M5S to regain some of the popularity lost to Salvini’s far-right League since the coalition government came to power last June.

“M5S is weak right now,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a politics professor at Luiss University in Rome. “They are losing traction in their traditionally antagonistic contingencies and they need to find every antagonistic issue to demonstrate that they are strong. Macron is also the perfect target for populist movements.”

Panarari said the meeting with the gilets jaunes was also a way to tell Italian voters that M5S still had its “anti-establishment soul”, as well as to attract similar groups with whom they might be able to build a coalition after the EU elections.

M5S launched its European election campaign in January, with Di Maio and Di Battista travelling to the European parliament in Strasbourg and denouncing the institution as a “waste of money”. At the time, Di Maio said he was preparing an election manifesto with other European populist groups.

Opinion polls in France have suggested that the main impact of one or more gilets jaunes parties running in the European elections would be to reduce support for the far-right party of Marine Le Pen and the far left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

A survey last month by Elabé showed 13% of voters could vote for a gilets jaunes party, knocking three points off the score of Le Pen’s National Rally and 1.5 off that of Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, and extending the lead of Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM).

“A gilets jaunes party would likely mobilise people who do not usually vote, but also take votes from the National Rally and France Unbowed,” Emmanuel Rivière of he pollsters Kantar Public France told Le Monde. “Paradoxically, the principal beneficiary would be the party of the president.”

An Ifop opinion poll published on Wednesday showed Macron’s approval rating surging from 23% in December to 34% in February.


Angela Giuffrida and Jon Henley

The GuardianTramp

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