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French envoy returns to Italy as friendship rekindles

France’s ambassador to Italy returned to Rome on Friday, eight days after his recall by President Emmanuel Macron, as the European neighbours defused their worst diplomatic crisis since World War Two.

A senior French diplomat described the recall as “electro-shock therapy” necessary to end to “repeated, baseless” attacks by Italian political leaders against France.

Some commentators saw the recall as over-reaction, but French officials said it had persuaded Italian politicians to reaffirm publicly their friendship with Paris and halt their verbal onslaught – at least for now.

“We blew the whistle loud enough to make everybody stop,” the diplomat said.

The ambassador was received on his return by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, said a source at Macron’s office. He also delivered a letter from Macron inviting Mattarella to France for a state visit in the coming months.

Ties between the traditionally close allies have grown increasingly tense since mid-2018, with Italy’s Deputy Prime Ministers Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini firing verbal pot-shots at Macron and his government, mostly over migration.

The recall came after di Maio met members of France’s “yellow vest” movement, which has mounted sometimes violent protests against Macron’s liberal economic reform programme.

Salvini initially wanted to meet Macron directly but later wrote what French diplomats described as a “polite” letter to his counterpart, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, inviting him to Italy, French officials said.

Italy’s president also spoke with Macron by telephone “and they expressed the extent to which (their) … friendship … was important and how the two countries needed one another,” French European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau told private radio station RTL.

But French diplomats do not rule out tensions resurfacing ahead of European elections in May, with Macron and Salvini framing the campaign as a clash between pro-European “progressives” and Eurosceptic nationalists.

Migration policy and French initiatives to bring peace to Libya, a former Italian colony, without consulting Rome have both been sources of tension in recent months.

A split in the Italian coalition government over the fate of an under-construction Alpine rail tunnel linking France and Italy, could also test relations going forward.

There was no immediate comment on the French ambassador’s return from the Italian government.

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