, FILE - In this Nov.9, 2018 file photo, Italian deputy Premier and Labor Minister Luigi Di Maio talks to reporters during a press conference at the Foreign Press Association headquarters, in Rome. France is recalling its ambassador to Italy amid mounting tensions, after Di Maio met with French yellow vest protesters and offered to support their anti-government movement. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)
08 of February 2019 10:54:16
PARIS (AP) — France kept up pressure Friday on Italy amid their biggest diplomatic spat since World War II, as French and Italian business leaders appealed to their countries' leaders to restore calm.
France's government spokesman said the recall of its ambassador to Italy is temporary, but sends an important signal toward its historical ally not to meddle in internal French affairs.
France and Italy are founding members of the European Union, born from the ashes of WWII, and their unusual dispute is rippling around the continent at a time of growing tensions between nationalist and pro-EU forces.
French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said Friday on Europe-1 radio that the ambassador's recall was prompted by months of "unfounded attacks" from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, who have criticized President Emmanuel Macron's economic and migration policies.
But the main trigger for the crisis appeared to be Di Maio's meeting in France this week with members of the yellow vest movement seeking seats in the European Parliament.
Griveaux said that the visit violated "the most elementary diplomacy" because it was unannounced. Referring to Italy's populist leaders, he criticized a "nationalist leprosy" eating away at Europe's unity and said European Union members should "behave better toward partners."
Italy's foreign minister struck a conciliatory tone after the ambassador recall Thursday — but Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said his country's populist 5-Star movement could offer the yellow vest movement technical support going forward.
During a visit to Genoa, Toninelli mentioned free use of the 5-Star's online portal, which allows registered party members to vote on policy decisions and candidates.
"If useful we can offer them a hand and do political activities in service of the French people," Toninelli said, according to the ANSA news agency.
The standoff was clearly sending jitters through the business world, given the two countries are top trading partners and powerhouses of the European Union economy.
The Italian business lobby Cofindustria and the French counterpart Medef wrote to their respective presidents calling for "constructive dialogue" to resolve the dispute, which they warned was no longer a mere bilateral issue within Europe but could threaten Europe's standing in the rest of the world.
"It's necessary that the two historic protagonists of the process of integration don't split, but reconfirm their elements of unity," the presidents of the two groups wrote Premier Giuseppe Conte and President Emmanuel Macron. "Europe is an economic giant and we have to work to make it become a political giant as well."
The two leaders — Vincenzo Boccia of Confindustria and Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux of Medef — confirmed plans for a joint meeting later this month in Paris.
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told The Associated Press that the ambassador recall "is an unprecedented gesture toward a European state that is aimed at making clear that there are things that are not done between neighboring countries, friends and partners within the European Union."
Winfield reported from Rome.