CESARE BATTISTI (pictured, centre), a former left-wing terrorist arrested in Bolivia after 38 years on the run, was returned to his native Italy on January 14th. Waiting at the airport was Matteo Salvini, interior minister and leader of the hard right Northern League. Mr Battisti’s deportation, he said, was not an end but a beginning: he hoped other convicted terrorists from the 1970s would soon be coming back to jail.
Since many are in France, renewed pressure for their extradition threatens to create yet another source of friction between two countries whose relations are already at a low ebb.
French involvement in Libya has long prompted resentment among Italian politicians and officials who suspect that France’s involvement in a traditionally Italian sphere of influence is motivated by a desire to promote the interests of its big oil firm, Total. But it was after the arrival in June of a populist government in Rome that sparks really began to fly. Soon after the swearing-in of a coalition between the League and the maverick Five Star Movement (M5S), President Emmanuel Macron warned of outbreaks of political “leprosy” in neighbouring countries. Mr Salvini and the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio, were already seething over the French president’s description of Italy’s refusal to accept a ship carrying rescued migrants as “sickening”. Mr Maio said France, which had sealed its own borders to migrants entering from Italy, could scarcely reproach them. The issue resurfaced in October when French police were caught returning to Italian territory two migrants who had crossed the frontier in the Alps. Mr Salvini called France an “international disgrace”.
Another recurrent issue has been the proposed takeover by Italy’s state-controlled shipbuilder Fincantieri of the French firm Chantiers de l’Atlantique, formerly STX. Mr Macron initially scotched the deal with a supposedly temporary nationalisation. Then, on January 8th, the European Commission announced it had agreed to a request by France (and Germany) to look into whether the deal would inhibit competition.
Part of the problem is that France’s president is the adversary of choice of Europe’s new populists, and not just those governing Italy. With European elections due in May, several anti-establishment figures have sought to depict the vote as a showdown between the paladins of the populist and the ex-banker in the Elysée. Mr Di Maio this month offered his movement’s support to the gilets jaunes, prompting an indignant response from Paris
At least the two countries’ shared cultural heritage should help, especially since this is the quincentenary of the death in France of the great Italian polymath, Leonardo da Vinci. Think again. The Italian government has stymied the loan from the Uffizi of three of his works for an exhibition at the Louvre in the autumn.