France has recalled its ambassador to Italy saying relations with Rome were at their lowest point "since the end of the Second World War” after Italy's deputy prime minister met with "yellow vest" protesters.
"For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims," the foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that its ambassador had returned home for “consultations”.
This was by far the most caustic flare-up between Paris and Rome since Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right League party came to power in a coalition government in June.
The Italian coalition partners had been baiting the Macron administration for months following his blunt call to fight populist movements among EU members, which he likened to “leprosy”.
At first, France kept a certain hauteur, dismissing the sniping as domestic politicking and saying it would not lower itself to fight in a “stupidity contest”.
But the Gallic gloves finally came off after Italy's deputy prime minister and Five Star chief Luigi Di Maio met with "yellow vest" anti-government protesters outside Paris on Tuesday.
France has been in the throes of a "gilet jaune" revolt since mid-November. What started out as a grassroots movement against fuel tax hikes in provincial France snowballed into a wider backlash against the perceived injustice of Mr Macron's policies and persona and the top-down presidential system he represents.
Announcing his intention to join forces in European Parliament elections in May with the “gilets jaunes”, many of whom loathe Mr Macron, Mr Di Maio boasted on Twitter that "The wind of change has crossed the Alps."
Hours later, the French recalled their top diplomat from Rome, saying: ”The most recent interferences constitute an additional and unacceptable provocation. They violate the respect that is owed to democratic choices made by a nation which is a friend and an ally.
"To disagree is one thing, to exploit a relationship for electoral aims is another.”
Mr Di Maio had already lauded the yellow vests as the birth of a “new Europe” of “direct democracy” against its cosseted elites. Launching an even more blunt attack against Mr Macron last month, Mr Di Maio’s fellow deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, said: "I hope the French will be able to free themselves of a terrible president.”
"The opportunity will come on May 26 (the European elections) when finally the French people will be able to take back control of their future, destiny, (and) pride, which are poorly represented by a character like Macron", he said on Facebook.
A row had been brewing for months between the two countries.
The coalition in Rome has repeatedly accused Mr Macron of failing to shoulder responsibility for the migrant crisis and ordering asylum seekers to be rounded up in France and pushed back to Italy.
Last month, France summoned Italy’s ambassador to Paris after Mr di Maio accused the French of “impoverishing” West Africa by keeping it in a colonialist embrace. Hours later, Mr Salvini added fuel to the fire by claiming France had deliberately let the security crisis fester in Libya for national gain.
Also last month, Mr Salvini accused France of sheltering 14 “terrorists” wanted by Italy, after a fugitive ex-militant was extradited from Bolivia. France has also expressed impatience with Italy over the building of a Lyon to Turin high-speed rail link which the Italian coalition partners disagree on.
Following the latest escalation, Mr Di Maio and Mr Salvini insisted they did not want to fall out with France, adding they would be happy to meet Mr Macron on condition he addressed three "fundamental" issues.
They said the French police had to stop pushing migrants back into Italy and stop carrying out lengthy border checks that was blocking traffic at the frontier. Paris must also hand over Italian leftist militants who have taken refuge in France in recent decades
Mr Di Maio on Thursday insisted his meeting with the "yellow vest" activists was legitimate. "To me that meeting was not a provocation against the current French government, but instead an important meeting with a political force with whom we share quite a lot," Mr Di Maio wrote on Facebook.
He added that Italy was a friend and ally of the French people and he was willing to meet the Paris government to resolve differences.
The latest Italian “provocation” did not just rile the French presidency; it also caused major ructions with the yellow vests themselves. The Italian deputy premier said he had met the movement’s “leader”, which he said was Christophe Chalençon, a controversial yellow vest who has espoused far-Right, anti-Muslim views on social media.
But shortly afterwards, Ingrid Levavasseur, the official leader of the yellow vests’ RIC (Rally for Citizen’s Initiative) European election list, said she had been kept in the dark about the meeting. “This is horrible, it’s total usurpation,” she told Le Monde.
“I knew there were contacts but I had said there no question of meeting them right now in these conditions and in the presence of people not on the list. I told them: we will build our list first on our side,” she said.
Insisting he was RIC spokesman, Mr Chalençon said: “There are lots of points in common between our approach and MS5, which was born from the same demands from the people.”