France's reception of the 'Ocean Viking' migrant ship generates the first clash between Macron and Meloni | International

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Sparks fly between Paris and Rome just 20 days after the right-wing Giorgia Meloni came to power and for a reason that surprises no one: immigration. The same as in 2018 and 2019 — during the previous national-populist experiment in Italy — contributed to bringing bilateral relations to their highest tension in decades. France announced this Thursday that it would accept, “on an exceptional basis”, the disembarkation in a French port of a boat with migrants rejected by the Italian authorities. But she did so with reproaches to the Meloni government, to which she attributed a lack of "solidarity" with European partners and "humanity" with migrants. The entire relationship is affected, according to Paris.

The ocean viking -ship of the NGO SOS Meditérranée with 234 migrants, including 57 children, rescued in the Mediterranean- must disembark this Friday morning in the military port of Toulon, in southern France. Italy had refused to welcome him, despite the fact that, according to Paris, it was up to him to respond to calls for help as the ship was closer to the Italian coast than to another country.

"We regret that Italy has not lived up to the duty of humanity," French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said at a press conference after the Council of Ministers. "Italy's behavior," he added, "is contrary to international law, solidarity and the commitments that the Italian government made a few weeks ago, before the arrival of the new Italian authorities."

Darmanin announced retaliation. The first is the suspension of the reception plan for 3,500 refugees who, after landing in Italy in previous months, were in this country and had to go to France before next summer, according to the European solidarity mechanism. The minister called on Germany and other European countries that participated in this solidarity agreement to adopt the same measure, and that they also had to take in refugees who now live in Italy.

The second retaliation is the strengthening of controls on the land border with Italy. And third: "France", said Darmanin, "will draw all the consequences of the Italian attitude in the other aspects of its bilateral relationship".

For Emmanuel Macron, it is about avoiding the image of a victory for Meloni in this fight and showing him that his position will have a cost, against France and the European Union. The new Italian prime minister can celebrate that she has twisted the French president's arm by preventing the ocean viking disembark in an Italian port and redirect it to a French one. The Italian argument is that Italy does not have to take on all the migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean and that the other partners must also contribute.

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A migrant in need of urgent medical attention is hoisted by a French army helicopter from the 'Ocean Viking' rescue ship, this Thursday, November 10, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Italy and the island of Corsica.VINCENZO CIRCOSTA (AFP)

For France, it is not just a bilateral issue with Italy, nor just a European one. In the middle of the debate on the future immigration law and with the extreme right on the rise, it is about domestic politics. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Regroupment (RN) party, reacted on the social network Twitter: “By accepting for the first time that a ship disembarks in a French port, Emmanuel Macron launches a dramatic sign of laxity. With this decision, he cannot make anyone believe that he wishes to put an end to massive and anarchic immigration”.

The ocean viking gave rise, last week, to a parliamentary brawl in the National Assembly. During the intervention of a left-wing deputy of African origin, Carlos Martens Bilongo, the parliamentarian Grégoire de Fournas, from the RN, interrupted him by shouting a phrase that could not be heard precisely. He said “turn to Africa” (referring to Martens Bilongo) or “turn to Africa” (referring to the Ocean Viking migrants). De Fournas was sanctioned with a two-week expulsion and a halving of his salary for two months.

The crisis between France and Italy has a precedent in the summer of 2018, when Italy and Malta rejected the ship Aquarius, which ended up landing in Valencia by decision of the Spanish Government. Macron refused to take him in.

Tensions marked relations between France and Italy during that time, in which a national-populist alliance ruled in Rome with Matteo Salvini, now Vice President of the Government, as a strong man. Macron greeted Meloni's victory in the September elections cautiously but without drama. He was the first foreign head of state to meet her.

In the Elysée Palace they were convinced that Meloni's support for the EU and NATO, as well as a more institutional spirit than Salvini's, would facilitate understanding. At the same time, the French government was clear that, if any issue could bring tensions to the fore again, it was immigration. The crisis has broken out earlier than expected.

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