Franco-Italian Infatuation or Recolonisation Strategy? What Future for African Migrants in Europe

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Macron and Di Maio

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The current global World Order, put in place by the Western World, is gradually giving way to a new one that is yet to be clearly delineated in terms of principles and rules. The leading superpower status of the United States, for instance, is particularly now under threat to the extent that President Donald Trump now has to ensure ‘America First’ through a manu militari foreign policy. As Donald Trump has brought private business mentality to public diplomacy in such a way that he is always bastardising the principle of sanctity of agreements, and thus strengthening opposition to whatever the United States represents in international relations, other countries are also emphasising their own order of precedence: Russia first, China first, France first, etc.

The main challengers of the United States for the leadership of the world are currently China and Russia. While Russia is frontally challenging US foreign policies in the conflict zones in the Middle East and in its immediate neighbourhood, the Chinese are simply moving out of their country to other countries, particularly to Africa, and have been impacting positively in their host countries. China is promoting win-win cooperation for peaceful development on the basis of mutual understanding and shared gains. By so doing, China is necessarily the new superpower in the making.

The European Union has also presented itself as another centre of global power. But in the whole exercise, immigration has remained one of the most critical questions to which no good answer has been provided. In an attempt to possibly provide an enduring solution to illegal migration from Mexico, Donald Trump wants to build a wall for which he is yet to get funding from the Congress. How to cope with illegal migration from North Africa is also a dividing issue among the Member States of the European Union.

At the African level, no country is aspiring to contest for global leadership beyond its immediate regional context for obvious reason: the continent is ridden with poverty and bad governance. Consequently, Africans are only seeking to migrate to European countries on daily basis. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the quest to migrate elsewhere for greener pasture or seeking to escape persecution if the mode of migration is not illegal.

As such, African migration abroad has not only become a rejection of bad or poor governance at home, but also a matter of quest for an el dorado on the basis of a do-or-die for many of the migrants. This is how the situational reality of survival in Africa, which has become very inclement, now serves as a push catalyst in the quest for migration. And without any jot of doubt, as the environmental conditionings of political governance are also becoming dictatorial, to the extent that the quest for migration is no more the business of the illegal migrants, but also for the legal, well-trained professionals, seasoned public officials, for everyone to migrate can be understandable.

On the side of the receiving countries, many of them claim to love and heartily welcome migrants to Europe. Mainly in this category are Italy, France and Spain. But, who truly can be said to be a lover of the African migrants in light of the current Franco-Italian feud on the matter? France has always claimed a pro-Francophone African foreign policy. In fact, in spite of the official demise of the French Community established in 1958, and by extension, the closure of the French Ministry of Cooperation in Paris, French ties with Francophone Africa have always remained special and strong, but generally seen to be detrimental to EU’s collective interests. It is on this basis that Italy recently levied accusations of unending colonisation of Africa against France.

True, African migration is at the root of and main rationale for the Italian allegations against France. It has become a threat to the maintenance of peace and security in EU countries. The deteriorating ties between France and Italy are not only a pointer, but also raise the extent of the cohesiveness of and implications for European integration from which the people of Africa must quickly learn. The feud between France and Italy on the issue of admittance of illegal migrants from Africa has also raised the issue of unending French colonialism in Africa and the limitations of regional integration. Since the entire making of the ECOWAS has largely borrowed from the models of the EEC, EC and the EU, African leaders may not therefore close their eyes to happenings in EU countries.

Background to the Immigration Saga

Going down the memory lane, bilateral relations between France and Italy have always been characterised by crisis and conflict of interest, on the one hand and cooperation and mutual understanding, on the other. The past Italian wars, it should be recalled, were a resultant of French invasion. Italy was made the battlefield of power rivalry in Europe. It should also be remembered that, in 1796, the French again invaded Italy and subjected Italians to the whims and caprices of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French looted Italian cultural treasures in Milan, Parma, Venice, Mantua, and Modena. These invasions and looting fall under the domain of crises and conflicts. It is also on record that France took active part in the reunification of Italy, meaning that the aspect of cooperation and mutual understanding cannot be set aside. France’s rapports with Italy therefore have both negative and positive dimensions.

In contemporary times, the relationship has followed the same pattern, even outside of the frameworks of their own making. For instance, in 2006, on July 9th in Rome, both countries clashed during the World Cup Final. As reported in The Economist, ‘in extra time, with the French unable to penetrate Italy’s tight defence, their star player, Zinedine Zidane, turned on the man marking him, Marco Materazzi, and head-butted him.’

Without doubt, The Economist said ‘Mr. Zidane had been provoked. Mr. Matezazzi later admitted that he “spoke about his opponent’s sister.” But it was still a brutal piece of retaliation and Mr. Zidane was sent off.’ This incident created discontent, more so that Italy emerged the winner of the games.

In the eyes of one Italian writer, Robert Saviano, ‘France is the most hated country in Italy.’ Saviano has accused Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, a coalition partner and head of the far-right lega, of leading a hate movement against French President, Emmanuel Macron. In the same vein, Franco Vetririni, a columnist with Corrière Della Sera, a Spanish daily, and also a French-trained and recipient of the Légion d’Honneur, has it that the links between France and Italy ‘are very close, yet not characterised by any great love. We’re like two cousins, each of whom thinks she is prettier.’

Franco Vetririni cannot be more correct because both countries claim to be the cultural superpower of Europe. The resultant effect of this is reciprocal jealousy. With the recent Franco-Italian imbroglio on African migration to Europe, has the jealousy not been carried too far? Can it really be argued that jealousy is basically responsible for the deterioration in the relationship? How do we explain the bilateral misunderstanding within the framework of European Union integration efforts, and particularly, in the context of how best to reconcile the division of Member States of the European Union over international illegal migration? And most importantly, what prompted the current hullaballoo between the two neighbouring countries?

Manifestations of the Saga

The manifestations of the migration saga between France and Italy have to be placed within the context of the division among the EU Member States over the matter. Italy belongs to the group that has not been very favourable to African migration, while France is preaching the sermon of empathy. In both cases, there is an inherent politics that does not allow observers to understand the extent to which both countries are sincere about their position.

One factor relevant to the understanding of the feud is the European Union policy on the matter. First, the policy is that refugees are to be shared among Member States. The basis of sharing is another subject of dispute. Hosting of refugees is to be for eight years, rather than the ten years suggested by Berlin authorities. However, some countries refuse to accommodate refugees. This situation prompted France and Germany to propose that EU governments that refuse to accept refugees should be required to pay some money and, therefore, be exempted from the EU bloc system of sharing out the migrants.

This suggestion was made because of the unsuccessful efforts to have a reformed EU asylum rules. In other words, the Franco-German suggestion was made as a possible compromise pending a final resolution of the dispute, especially in light of the forthcoming EU parliamentary elections, expected to hold in May 2019. In this regard, inflows of refugees of whatever kind is discouraged in order to remove the fears of those who are strongly opposed to migration.

Without doubt, Germany accommodated the bulk of migrants that first arrived in Europe: in Greece and Italy. Germany therefore belongs to the group of countries having a better understanding of African migration. France is in this group as it plays host to the biggest Spanish immigrant community outside of Spain, with 183,277 Spaniards as at 2010.

Again, at the level of African migrants, France gave active support to Spain’s idea of a joint sponsorship of an African Conference on Immigration that took place at an EU summit held on October 27 and 28, 2005 in Britain. By that time, French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin made it clear that ‘all our countries are confronted today with this question of immigration. We should treat it with courage, daring and imagination.’

In this regard, Dominique de Villepin offered a two-pronged strategy: improvement of border region controls and development and training programmes, on the one hand, and the need to give support to transit countries in the protection of their borders under a new, road European immigration policy, on the other. But how does Italy see all these French efforts and policy attitude today? To what extent do the efforts lend credence to the allegations of Italy against France which are, indeed, very heavy?

Italy has accused France of leading a colonial-style of policies in Africa, as well as also impoverishing Africans to the shores of Europe. Mr. Luigi di Maio, leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), said on January 20, 2019 that ‘if today people are leaving, it’s because certain European countries, chief among them, France, never stopped colonising dozens of African countries.’ He therefore called on the European Union for sanctionary measures against France.

Additionally, Luigi di Maio has it that ‘France prints the currency, the colonial franc, in dozens of African countries, and with this currency, they finance the French debt… If France didn’t have the African colonies, she would be the world’s 15th economic power, but she is among the first, because of what she is doing in Africa.’

The criticism of Mr. Matteo Salvini is equally disturbing. He has not only suggested that the French people should seek ‘to liberate themselves from a very bad president in the next European elections,’ but has also noted that President Emmanuel Macron of France ‘preaches about solidarity but turns back thousands of migrants.’ Who really loves African migrants more or whose colonialism is better? Is it the limited and controversial Italian colonisation of Libya and the failed colonisation of Ethiopia or the more expansive and successful French policy of assimilation and colonialism? Whichever one is the case, the issue is likely to generate more controversies than its current Franco-Italian diplomatic row. France has summoned the Italian ambassador in Paris to explain the intention and meaning of the allegations. Italy has similarly summoned the French ambassador, and, at least, on the basis of the rule of reciprocity.

The manifestations of the immigration feud clearly show that membership of a union does not mean total cohesiveness at all levels of policy making. The manifestations are very abusive and degrading on both sides but the various issues raised in them should be the main concerns to be addressed by the former colonised people.
For instance, during summer of 2018, President Macron referred to the M5S-Lega Coalition as ‘leprosy.’ The Coalition leaders waited until January 7, 2019 to publicly react. Prime Minister di Maio encouraged the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests or Yellow Jackets movement) in France to continue to ‘hang in there,’ that is, to sustain their protests against the French president. The Yellow Jackets movement is a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice, established by force majeure in 2018.

In May 2018, a posted online petition attracted about one million signatures. On this basis, demonstrations against Emmanuel Macron began on November 17, 2018 in an unprecedented manner. The reasons for the protests, which were initially taken lightly, include unhappiness with high costs of living, increasing cost of fuel, government’s taxes which are considered to be very disproportionate to the advantages given to the business community. In fact, the Yellow Jackets Movement not only demanded a cut in fuel price, but also wanted the immediate implementation of the Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC: Citizen’s Referendum Initiative). The RIC is the proposal on constitutional amendment meant to permit consultation of the citizenry, when there is the need in the areas of abrogation of laws, revocation of politicians’ mandate, and constitutional amendment. In this regard, a citizen is allowed to petition for a referendum without having to wait for the approval of the president or the National Assembly.

The Gilet Jaunes also demanded the re-introduction of the Solidarity Tax on Wealth, increase in the minimum wage, as well as the resignation of the French President. Prime Minister Di Maio of Italy offered them logistical support to create a website, in the manner of the Rousseau platform used by the M5S to come to power in Italy. The relevant question to ask is what the purpose of Italy’s allegations is all about. The first hypothetical answer here is that Italy, under di Maio, wants to unseat Emmanuel Macron and probably also assist his deputy, Salvini, to win EU parliamentary leadership of the far right group, the nationalists. Already, Salvini has reached an understanding with the Far Right leader in France, Marine Le Pen.

As Ms Maurel has it, Salvini wants to lead the nationalists in Europe, but he and Macron are sworn enemies. More important, she says ‘Di Maio is losing ground to Salvini and he has understood that being anti-French pays politically, so he is using outrageous statements as a publicity stunt. Confrontation is … their strategy for the European election campaign.’

A second answer is that the strategy for the forthcoming EU parliamentary election, which visibly is to run down and undermine France, is not simply counter-productive but has sent very clear messages to the colonised people about the duplicity of character of the entire membership of the EU, especially in terms of dishonesty of purpose. There is duplicity at the level of government and there is also duplicity at the level of the State.

At the level of the State, the relationship is not affected by the excesses of the Heads of Government, that is, of Macron and Di Maio. For instance, Franco-Italian trade is valued at more than ϵ200 million daily, and the quarrels of their leaders have not prevented the necessity of trade. The structure of ties between the two countries has not been altered. Both countries will still be required to relate within the framework of the European Union. The Italians residing in France and the French people living in Italy will not change residence as a result of the dispute between the two leaders.

However, the story is quite different at the level of government-to-government. Governments have a transient character while the State continues to exist. What is done or said today has implications for the State and subsequent governments to learn from.

Angered by the attitudinal disposition of France towards the sinking of many vessels carrying migrants in the Mediterranean, and leading to the death of more than 170 people, Di Maio talked about what he called French ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘crocodile tears.’ He held France solely responsible for the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. But another truth is that there had been strains in the relationship before the advent of the maritime incidents, and even. before the coming to power of the two leaders.

For instance, Italy showed unhappiness about the French team of many African players at the World Cup Final in Moscow. Mr. Salvini said the French team had so many Africans that it wasn’t really French. He said he also ‘heard the same thing from ordinary Italians.’ As noted by Ms. Maurel, ‘Salvini and Di Maio have touched a chord. One senses love, fascination, rivalry and perhaps some jealousy on the part of Italian people.’ If this observation is true, then the future of Franco-Italian relations cannot be bright for many reasons.

First, the implications of the many threats to the relations have the potential to also undermine Italy’s relations with Africa, especially that France has stronger ties with Africa than Italy. The Treaty of Quirinale, envisioned by President Macron and the previous Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, has been put on hold, simply because the Franco-Italian summit could not hold last year. Additionally, Italy did not cooperate with France on the Louvre Paintings of da Vinci, required for an exhibition marking 500th anniversary of the death of Da Vinci, an Italian who lived the last four years of his life in France under the protection of King François 1.

The attitude of Emmanuel Macron towards Italy cannot be said to be friendly too. In 2015, France shut its borders to migrants in the South. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni refused on July 12, 2017 to help in resolving the problem of about 200,000 migrants blocked in Italy as a result of EU policy and the French closure of its own borders. And true again, France held a meeting on July 25, 2017 with the two main rivals for power in Libya, but without prior consultation with Libya. Italy is much rankled by this. Nothing can be more annoying to Italy than France’s decision two days later, on July 27, to block an Italian shipbuilding firm, Fincantieri, from taking effective control of a French shipyard at Saint Nazaire. France gave security reasons for its action.

With the foregoing, how is Africa affected? Italy raised the issue of sustained colonisation, referring to the continued printing of the CFA franc to sustain French debts. In which way has this prevented the making of the ECOWAS Ecu? How is EU-African monetary relations also affected? In the eyes of African leaders, especially the Francophones, is France still colonising? To what extent is Italy defending the interests of Africa, and particularly the African migrants? Africa must be more careful with e-recolonisation and the political chicanery with which Franco-Italian relations are now being characterised under Macron and Di Maio. This is because neither France nor Italy has love for Africa. What is being witnessed is infatuation and the situation is not different at the entire level of the EU because of the rule of ‘self-preservation first’ in international relations.

Consequently, Italy and France may not be blamed. If there is anyone to blame, African leaders who appreciate a dependentist political lifestyle more than a self-reliant philosophy for African development should be blamed. African migrants must therefore begin to look inward as their future cannot be well protected abroad. They should fight dictatorship, bad governance, and corruption at home and save themselves of unnecessary migration hazards.