France recalls Italy envoy as relations plumb new depths

France recalled its ambassador to Rome after a series of personal criticisms of President Emmanuel Macron by Italy’s two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini. (AFP)
Updated 07 February 2019
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France recalls Italy envoy as relations plumb new depths

  • Di Maio and Salvini, who formed a populist coalition government last year, have repeatedly criticized Macron, who has in turn targeted their euroskeptic movements
  • The latest spat erupted Tuesday after Di Maio, who heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said he met French yellow vest anti-government protesters

PARIS: France took the exceptional step of recalling its envoy to Rome on Thursday to protest a series of attacks from the Italian government which it described as “unprecedented” since World War II.
France’s foreign ministry recalled its ambassador to Rome for consultations after a series of increasingly personal criticisms of President Emmanuel Macron by Italy’s two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini.
“For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims,” a ministry statement said. “This is unprecedented since the end of the war.”
In 1940, Italy under leader Benito Mussolini invaded France, occupying part of the southeast, but they have been allies since and are founding members of the European Union.
It is the first time since the war that France has recalled its ambassador.
Di Maio and Salvini, who formed a populist coalition government last year, have repeatedly criticized Macron, who has in turn targeted their euroskeptic movements ahead of high-stake European Parliament elections in May.
The latest spat erupted Tuesday after Di Maio, who heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said he met French “yellow vest” anti-government protesters outside Paris.
Di Maio said the aim of the meeting was to prepare a common front for the European Parliament elections, boasting on Twitter that “the wind of change has crossed the Alps.”
But Paris denounced the matter as “an additional and unacceptable provocation.”
Speaking to AFP, a French official described the recall as a diplomatic message warning Italy to “stop playing with Franco-Italian friendship.”
“The measure is exceptional, but it’s not designed to worsen or escalate” the situation.
The escalating war of words began when the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s far-right League parties won the elections last summer and formed a coalition government.
When the populist government then began preventing rescue boats with migrants on board from docking at Italian ports, Macron blasted its “cynicism and irresponsibility,” comparing the rise of far-right nationalism to leprosy.
It has since spiralled into a string of tit-for-tat exchanges, leading to this week’s latest spat.
“We don’t want to row with anyone,” Salvini said on Thursday, calling for solutions to problematic issues such as French border controls on the Italian frontier and Rome’s demands for the extradition of far-left Italian activists living in France.
Both Salvini and Di Maio also issued statements saying they were available to talk to Macron and the French government.
Last month, Paris summoned Italy’s ambassador to protest Di Maio’s accusation that France was encouraging immigration to Europe “because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonizing dozens of African countries.”
And Di Maio also denounced the French government for protecting the elite and the privileged, saying “a new Europe is being born of the ‘yellow vests’, of movements, of direct democracy.”
Salvini also poured fuel on the fire last month with a Facebook video in which he said: “I hope the French will be able to free themselves of a terrible president.”
“The opportunity will come on May 26 when finally the French people will be able to take back control of their future, destiny, (and) pride, which are poorly represented by a character like Macron,” he said, referring to the date of the European Parliament elections.
Sebastien Maillard, who heads the Jacques Delors thinktank in Paris, suggested there was little reason for the Italians to call off the fight.
“I don’t quite see what di Maio and Salvini could gain by calling off the battle which serves their domestic political goals,” he said.


Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

An ambulance is pictured surrounded by thousands of protesters dressed in black during a new rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 59 min 33 sec ago
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Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

  • Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police and protesters faced off Monday as authorities began trying to clear the streets of a few hundred who remained near the city government headquarters after massive demonstrations that stretched deep into the night before.
The police asked for cooperation in clearing the road. Protesters, many in masks and other gear to guard against possible use of tear gas, responded with chants, some kneeling in front of the officers. The move came after activists rejected an apology from the city’s top leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.
Hundreds of protesters sat on and along a main road through downtown, but they were scattered over a relatively wide area.
Activists called on Hong Kong residents to boycott classes and work, though it was unclear how many might heed that call.
Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers. Police said 338,000 were counted on the designated protest route in the “peak period” of the march. A week earlier as many as 1 million people demonstrated to voice their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China in one of the toughest tests of the territory’s special status since Beijing took control in a 1997 handover.
After daybreak Monday, police announced that they want to clear the streets. Soon after, police lined up several officers deep and faced off against several hundred demonstrators on a street in central Hong Kong.
The night before, as protesters reached the march’s end thousands gathered outside the city government headquarters and the office of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who on Saturday suspended her effort to force passage of the bill.
Hong Kong residents worry that allowing some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China would be another of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy. One concern is that the law might be used to send criminal suspects to China to potentially face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.
The protesters are demanding that Lam scrap the proposal for good and that she step down.
Protesters are also angered over the forceful tactics by police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful measures as demonstrators broke through barricades outside the city government’s headquarters to quell unrest during demonstrations on Wednesday, and over Lam’s decision to call the clashes a riot. That worsens the potential legal consequences for those involved.
In a statement issued late Sunday, Lam noted the demonstrations and said the government “understands that these views have been made out of love and care for Hong Kong.”
“The chief executive apologizes to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledges to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” it said.
Not enough, said the pro-democracy activists.
“This is a total insult to and fooling the people who took to the street!” the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement.
Protesters have mainly focused their anger on Lam, who had little choice but to carry through dictates issued by Beijing, where President Xi Jinping has enforced increasingly authoritarian rule. But some were skeptical that having Lam step down would help.
“It doesn’t really matter because the next one would be just as evil,” said Kayley Fung, 27.
Many here believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honoring its promise, dubbed “one country, two systems,” that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after the handover in 1997.
After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence and allow additional debate, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.
She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week’s clashes with demonstrators.
Lam insists the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong is to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of 7 million.