A Sea-Watch ship approaches a dinghy to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Image Credit: AP

  • Paris summons Italian envoy over 'hostile' refugee remarks
  • Italian Deputy PM blames crisis on french 'colonisation' of Africa
  • French efforts in Libya aimed at stabilising the country, France clarifies

Rome: Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, continuing a war of words between Rome and Paris, said on Tuesday that France was not looking to bring calm to violence-ravaged Libya because its energy interests there rivalled those of Italy.

Relations between Italy and France, traditionally close allies, have grown frosty since the far-right League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement formed a coalition last year and took aim at pro-EU French President Emmanuel Macron.

France’s Foreign Ministry and the French president’s office declined to respond immediately.

Earlier, France’s foreign ministry summoned the Italian ambassador after Italy’s other deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, blamed refugee arrivals on France’s “colonisation” of Africa.

If people are leaving Africa, is it because some European countries, with France taking the lead, have never stopped colonising African states.

- Luigi Di Maio, Deputy Prime Minister, Italy

Teresa Castaldo was summoned on Monday by Nathalie Loiseau, the cabinet chief of French European affairs, over the “hostile” remarks, Italian news agency Ansa reported. Di Maio, who leads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), launched his attack against France during a rally in the central Abruzzo region on Sunday. “If today people are leaving Africa is it because some European countries, with France taking the lead, have never stopped colonising tens of African states.”

He called on the EU to sanction France for “impoverishing Africa” and for migrants to be taken to the southern French port of Marseille, instead of Italy. Sources told Ansa the remarks were “hostile and without cause given the partnership between France and Italy in the European Union”.

Salvini backed up Di Maio, saying France was looking to extract wealth from Africa rather than helping countries develop their own economies, and pointed particularly to Libya, which has been in turmoil since a Nato-backed uprising in 2011 that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.

“In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy,” Salvini told Canale 5 TV station.

A French diplomatic source said it was not the first time that Salvini had made such comments and that it was probably because he felt he had been upstaged by Di Maio. The source added that the accusation was baseless and reiterated that French efforts in Libya were aimed at stabilising the country, preventing the spread of terrorism and curbing the migration flows.

This is the latest fight Italy has picked against France since M5S came to power in coalition with the far-right League last June.

Di Maio has never quite forgiven Macron for speaking about “populist leprosy” in a reported criticism of the Italian government shortly after it was formed. Earlier this month, he urged France’s gilets jaunes, who have held several violent anti-government protests since early December, to “not give up”.

You can see populists rise a bit like a leprosy all across Europe, in countries where we thought that would be impossible to see them again.

- Emmanuel Macron, French President

Asked about the latest diplomatic spat with Paris, Salvini said on Tuesday: “France has no reason to get upset because it pushed away tens of thousands of migrants [at the French border], abandoning them there as though they were beasts. We won’t take any lessons on humanity from Macron.”

In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.

- Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister

Italy also summoned the French ambassador after Macron criticised Italy for “cynicism and irresponsibility” when the country’s leaders turned away a refugee rescue ship with more than 600 people onboard weeks after coming to power.

Di Maio refused to back down on hearing that Castaldo had been summoned. “I don’t think this is a diplomatic incident, I think it is all true,” he said. “France is one of those countries that by printing money for 14 states prevents development and contributes to the departure of refugees.”

Gulf News Explains

France’s long and troubled history in Africa

By Mick O’Reilly, Foreign Correspondent

Madrid

How big was France’s colonial empire?

While France has had colonies in North America and Africa since the mid-16th Century, it reached its peak in the period between 1919 and 1939. Then, it covered some 8.6 per cent of the world’s surface area.

Which places in Africa were colonised by France?

In 1830 during the reign of Napoleon III, France seized Algeria. Current African nations then colonised by France include Gambia, Chad, Mali, Togo, Sudan, Gabon, Tunisia, Niger, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon. It also held mandates for both Lebanon and Syria, and held Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Where else did France have colonies apart from Africa?

The second French colonial empire includes remnant possessions now in the North Atlantic, The Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, the south pacific, the North Pacific and the Antarctic Ocean, as well as one mainland possession in South America — French Guiana. It covers some 2.8 million people now.

So, what exactly happened with them?

The Second World War, for starters. Many of its possessions in North Africa were seized by foreign combatants including Germany, Italy, Britain and the US, depending on the forces fighting and the sway of territory covered in various campaigns across North Africa, in particular. French capitulation to Germany and the complications of the Vichy regime resulted in the beginning of the end of its influence.

What about the Algerian war?

The war of independence in Algeria was a long and hard-fought campaign between 1954 and 1962. Algerian historians say at least 1.5 million people died, while the French say it was more like 400,000. Either way, that, along with military defeats in Vietnam and the realisation that colonial possessions could not be held by military force alone, nor against the ideology of democratic values or Communism, led to a string of secessions of nations around the world — very similar to what happened to the former colonies of the British, Belgian and Portuguese empires in the post-Second World War period.

So does France still hold sway?

Certainly, when it comes to language, the Francophile remains a unifying influence, just as Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations remains a source of common identity. The government in Paris too has paid reparations for wrongs committed during its colonial past, and it remains a guiding political, cultural and ethnocentric influence on its former colonies.

What role does the French Union play?

France changed its constitution in 1958 to allow for many French possessions around the world to become part of France proper. Just off the coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland, two islands remain part of France, and like many others, send deputies to the National Assembly in Paris. The same is true of Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, or other territories across the Pacific.

Do Francophone nations find it useful?

Well, if you’re a refugee in Mali or Chad, or elsewhere across sub-Saharan Africa for example and speak French, that’s a skill that will stand you in good stead should you make it to Europe or France itself. And generations of refugees and economic migrants have headed to France for a better future. It’s one of the reasons why immigration and refugees are a touchstone now for parties on the right such as the National Front in France.

What about the common currency?

It’s not just French culture or language that ties people in West Africa together, it’s also their common currency. The West African franc is a common currency used by eight former French and now independent states — Benin, Burkina Faso Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. It’s commonly referred to as the CFA — French for the Financial Community of Africa.

Is it fair to say France is exploiting refugees?

That’s a claim made by the Italian government and has led to the current dispute. Certainly, France is more open to accepting refugees from North Africa, as is Spain. The right-wing government in Italy has taken a much tougher line, shutting its ports to ships carrying refugees rescued from the Mediterranean. French President Emmanuel Macron has been more open, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to say that France is exploiting refugees. Given opposition to his policies and the support for the anti-refugee National Front, that’s not the case.

What does the EU say?

Since the summer of 2015, the European Union has struggled with how to form a common front on the issues of refugees. It has reached a deal with Turkey to pay to keep refugees there, and has set quotas for national governments to accept refugees. That policy is being disputed in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, in particular, and the leadership of the EU27 remains divided on how to advance resettlement.

THE NUMBERS

12,347,000 sq km

Is the size of French-ruled territory at the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

110 million

People lived in French-controlled colonies in North and West Africa up to September 1939.

1 CFA

is worth approximately Dh0.006 according to current exchange rates

4,216

Refugees have crossed to Europe by sea in the first 16 days of 2019, more than double the number arriving in the same period last year.