ROME (Reuters) – Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani canceled a trip to Paris on Thursday, saying the French interior minister had insulted Italy with comments highly critical of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
French Minister Gerald Darmanin had earlier told RMC radio that Meloni was “incapable of solving the immigration problems on which she was elected” and accused her of “lying” to voters about the possibility of ending a crisis caused by the growing numbers of boat migrants.
News of his comments came as Tajani was preparing to fly to Paris to see his French counterpart — a trip that was intended, in part, to improve relations between the two EU countries that had become increasingly fragile.
France quickly issued a statement seeking to reassure Rome of its willingness to work closely with Italy, but it was not enough to persuade Tajani to board his plane.
“Minister @GDarmanin’s insults to the government and Italy are unacceptable. This is not the spirit in which common European challenges should be dealt with,” Tajani wrote on Twitter.
It was the latest in a series of clashes between Paris and Rome since Meloni took power last October at the head of a conservative nationalist government that has a worldview very different from that of French President Emmanuel Macron.
Darmanin is very close to Macron and lashed out in Rome last November, accusing Meloni’s government of being “selfish” for refusing to allow a charity rescue ship to dock in France, forcing it instead to head for France.
Italy has seen an increase in immigrant arrivals since Meloni won power last year. More than 42,400 people have arrived in Italy so far in 2023, compared to about 11,220 people in the same period last year.
Meloni’s Brotherhood of Italy party and its coalition partner, the League, vowed to crack down on the entry of illegal immigrants on the campaign trail last year, and parliament on Thursday approved a law toughening prison sentences for people smugglers and limiting asylum rights for new arrivals.
Darmanin compared Meloni to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a political opponent of Macron. “The far right has a vice. It lies to the population,” he said.
In a later statement, the French government said relations between the two countries were “based on mutual respect”.
“Also in a spirit of solidarity, the French government wishes to work with Italy to address the common challenge of rapidly increasing migratory flows, especially from the central Mediterranean,” she added.
Additional reporting by Angelo Amante and Crispian Palmer in Rome and John Irish and Tassilo Hamel in Paris; Editing by Mark Heinrich
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