11, February 2019
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio has defended his controversial meeting with Yellow Vests protesters, which prompted Paris to recall the French ambassador from Rome and sparked a crisis in bilateral ties.
Di Maio, of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said Sunday it was “legitimate” for him to meet a group of French protesters who were about to stand in May’s European Parliament elections.
Speaking to reporters in Milan, he mocked French President Emmanuel Macron for treating the meeting as a crime of offending the royalty, and said, “I’m sorry that Macron lived this as a bit lese-majeste.”
Relations between France and Italy sank to a new low last week when Paris recalled its ambassador, citing meddling in domestic affairs after Di Maio met with senior figures of the Yellow Vests movement in France.
The French Foreign Ministry on Thursday asked the envoy to return for consultations, and called the meeting a “provocation.” It said the meeting had come after “repeated accusations, unfounded attacks, and outlandish claims” by Rome.
The remarks, which it called “unprecedented” since the end of World War II, featured De Maio’s fellow deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, calling Macron a “terrible president” in a Facebook video last month, and likewise publicly supporting the protesters.
“The opportunity will come on May 26 (the election day) 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,” Salvini said in the video.
Di Maio even said his meeting with the activists was aimed at preparing a common front for elections in May, while boasting on Twitter that “the wind of change has crossed the Alps.”
The Yellow Vests demonstrations, which have daunted Paris with their size, have been denouncing high living costs and alleged lack of government care for rural areas.
The protesters on Saturday marched through the streets of Paris and other cities on the 13th consecutive weekend of rallies against political elite and the economic policies of Macron.
Despite the French government suspending the tax hikes and announcing increases to the minimum wage, protests have continued.