Argument

Italy’s Populists Have Lost Their Luster. They’re Looking to France to Win It Back.

Five Star used to be a protest movement; now it’s the establishment. By bashing Emmanuel Macron and embracing the yellow vest uprising, it’s hoping to restore its radical credentials.

A man waves a French flag next to an Italian flag, as other protesters wearing a yellow vest demonstrate on December 22, 2018, in Ventimiglia near the French-Italian border.
A man waves a French flag next to an Italian flag, as other protesters wearing a yellow vest demonstrate on December 22, 2018, in Ventimiglia near the French-Italian border. (VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s deputy prime minister and the leader of the Five Star Movement, wrote a post on his party’s official blog. It wasn’t about the policies of his government, where Di Maio also serves as labor minister, but rather about a protest movement in France: “Yellow vests, don’t give up!” he wrote, praising the controversial anti-government movement that has been shaking up France since last November and that is widely seen as an uprising against President Emmanuel Macron.

In the same post, Di Maio vowed that his party would provide the yellow vest movement with “all the support that is needed” and offered them a free version of “Rousseau”—Five Star’s online platform for direct democracy, through which party members can propose and vote for policies and vote in party primary elections.

Then, on Feb. 6, Di Maio traveled to France to meet with one of the yellow vests’ leaders, Christophe Chalencon, a representative of Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC), the yellow vest faction that will run in the upcoming European Parliament elections. He brought Alessandro Di Battista, a former Five Star member of parliament who holds no official position but is one of the party’s de facto leaders. On that occasion, Di Maio once again praised the yellow vests, this time on his Facebook page: “The wind of change has crossed the Alps,” he wrote.

For Macron, it was the last straw.

For the past few months, the Five Star Movement, which is the majority partner in Italy’s governing coalition, has frequently attacked his presidency. Speaking on a popular TV show, Di Battista accused France of causing the inflow of African migrants to Italy (because, so went his reasoning, the French are still economically exploiting their former colonies).

Macron reacted to the meeting by recalling the French ambassador in Rome—a step that hasn’t been taken since the end of World War II. The French Foreign Ministry accused the Italian government of launching “baseless attacks and outrageous statements” against France and of “manipulating the [Italian-French] relationship for electoral aims.”

The Five Star Movement is minimizing the tensions. “I think Macron saw a provocation where there wasn’t one,” Filippo Scerra, a Five Star official serving in the parliamentary committee for EU relations, told Foreign Policy in an email. He insisted that his party has “great respect for the French people and the institutions representing them” and that it’s normal for a governing party to meet with representatives of political movements abroad.

But Macron has a point when he says that Five Star is courting the yellow vests for political gain. After governing for eight months in a coalition with the League’s charismatic leader, Matteo Salvini, the Five Star Movement is in free fall. Salvini has managed to impose his agenda on government policies from immigration to tax reform and labor policies while dominating the media cycle. Now, as Salvini’s support grows exponentially in the polls, Five Star is lagging 10 points behind him.

Five Star’s leaders desperately need to revitalize their image as a protest movement ahead of the European Parliament elections in May. And endorsing a radical movement abroad could prove an easy and effective strategy to accomplish that goal.

In its early days, Five Star was essentially a protest movement; in fact, it was founded 10 years ago from the ashes of Vaffa Day (literally “fuck you” day)—a series of protests in 2007 against professional politicians and the media. Throughout its brief history, Five Star owed much of its success to its image as an anti-establishment, supposedly pure, uncompromising force opposing the status quo and representing ordinary people against corrupt elites.

But the transition from the sidelines to the center of the establishment wasn’t easy after the 2018 elections, when Five Star became Italy’s largest party and, after months of stalemate, formed a coalition with the League as its junior partner. One of the main problems, said Roberto Biorcio, a political scientist at the University of Milano-Bicocca who co-wrote a book about the movement, is that the League and Five Star “have opposing programs” and thus the latter had to “give up on some things,” undermining its own uncompromising image.

What Five Star needs to do now is convince voters that it’s still the same party opposing the status quo and the elite and that it hasn’t let power soften its stance. Therefore, Biorcio argued, “associating themselves with a movement that wants to subvert politics, such as the yellow vests, could help boost their image.”

In a letter to the French newspaper Le Monde, Di Maio claimed that his government in Italy is already addressing the same problems that the yellow vests are protesting against in France, such as income inequality. In theory, there are indeed some similarities between Five Star and the yellow vests: Both movements describe themselves as “neither left nor right,” both claim to represent the interests of common people against the elites, and both Five Star and the yellow vests are staunch opponents of the liberalization of the labor market.

But in practice the Five Star-led government in Italy hasn’t done much to address these issues, the only exception being a mild reform of the short-term job market. Even its much trumpeted introduction of a “basic income” turned out just to be a reform of unemployment benefits; it was supposed to benefit more than 15 percent of Italy’s 60 million people, but in truth it will affect only about 3 percent.

Although improving the party’s image seems to be the primary goal, Five Star also has other reasons to court the yellow vests. The movement is looking for potential allies in the next European Parliament. National parties of EU member states traditionally organize themselves in political groups across ideological lines at the European level. But Five Star has long struggled to find allies to form a group because the movement refuses to categorize itself as either left or right. Currently, it is in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group—together with the Euroskeptic and Islamophobic right-wing UK Independence Party—but previously it unsuccessfully tried to join the left-leaning Greens group and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a centrist pro-market, pro-EU group that includes Spain’s Ciudadanos, Germany’s Free Democratic Party, and Britain’s Liberal Democrats.

“The Five Stars have a long tradition of failures when it comes to European alliances,” said Francesco Maselli, a Radio24 journalist specializing in Italian-French relations. Since the yellow vests are likely to get good results in the upcoming elections, Five Star is “essentially saying to them, ‘Hey, let’s form a group together.’”

For the time being, the yellow vest movement seems divided over Five Star. Chalencon initially refused its offer, saying he felt uncomfortable with the idea of entering into an alliance with a party that is a coalition partner of the League, which, in turn, is an ally of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party (until recently, the National Front). But he also said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Quotidiano Nazionale that the two movements “have a lot in common.”

The very fact that Chalencon agreed to the meeting spurred a rebuke from at least two senior yellow vest leaders: Jacline Mouraud, the musician and hypnotherapist who founded the movement, and Ingrid Levavasseur, the nurse heading the RIC list. Both distanced themselves from Five Star, the latter accusing Chalencon of overstepping his authority and acting without the knowledge of other party members.

Eventually Chalencon, a 52-year-old blacksmith who unsuccessfully ran in the 2017 elections with the center-right party Génération Citoyens and who has raised eyebrows for writing Islamophobic posts on Facebook and for calling for a military government, accepted Di Maio’s offer. But he had to leave the RIC list and announced he would fund a new electoral list to run in the EU elections as an ally of Five Star.

Di Maio likes to claim that there are many similarities between the Five Star Movement and the yellow vests. But the recent development highlights that there is at least one crucial difference. When Five Star decided to form a government with the League in 2018, there were no notable defections inside the party; for all of the key leaders, allying with the far-right wasn’t a big deal.

By contrast, key yellow vest leaders took issue with the very idea of potentially aligning themselves with a party that is an ally to the far-right. Unlike their admirers Di Maio and Di Battista, the founders of the yellow vest movement, it seems, still have a moral compass.

Giorgio Ghiglione is a freelance writer in Milan. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Internazionale.

  @giorgioghiglion

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