September 7, 2019 / 10:06 AM / 16 days ago

French minister hopes for closer ties with new Italy government

CERNOBBIO, Italy (Reuters) - With the arrival of a new government in Rome, France and Italy have a unique chance to strengthen their ties through joint projects and closer cooperation on European matters, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Saturday.

FILE PHOTO: French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire meets with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (not pictured) at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, August 9, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo

Relations between Italy and France soured under Italy’s previous government, whose migration policy Paris has often criticised, drawing angry rebuffs from Interior Minister and right-wing leader Matteo Salvini.

Tensions hit a high in February when France recalled its ambassador to Italy for the first time since World War Two, blaming a string of insults from Italian politicians, capped by then Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio’s decision to meet members of France’s “yellow vest” protest movement.

The coalition comprising Salvini’s League party and Di Maio’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement collapsed last month after 14 fraught months, paving the way for the 5-Star to form a new majority with the pro-European Democratic Party (PD).

Speaking at a media briefing on the margins of the annual Ambrosetti business forum, Le Maire said he hoped his first meeting next week with his Italian counterpart, former PD parliamentarian Roberto Gualtieri, would lay the foundation for joint initiatives.

“There are many projects on the table and I think we can give fresh impetus... to both industrial and financial projects between France and Italy,” he said.

Asked whether Di Maio’s role as foreign minister in the new government could be a hurdle, Le Maire said any finger-pointing was out of place.

“Let’s not personalise matters or judge the actions of this or that minister,” he said.

France and Italy have traditionally had close corporate ties, further boosted in recent years by cross-border deals such as the merger to create eyewear giant EssilorLuxottica (ESLX.PA) or shipbuilder Fincantieri’s (FCT.MI) purchase of rival Chantiers de l’Atlantique.

Further transactions are seen as possible as the two governments grow closer, though Paris has been blamed for scuppering a proposed tie-up this year between Fiat Chrysler (FCHA.MI) and Renault (RENA.PA), in which Paris holds a 15% stake.

Le Maire on Saturday poured cold water on the possibility that merger talks could restart soon, saying Renault had to focus on strengthening its alliance with Nissan (7201.T).

“We need Renault and Nissan to propose a clear strategic view of their future and I think it’s always better not to do two things at the same time.”

Le Maire said he hoped Italy would back a recent Franco-German proposal to reform EU competition policy to ease big mergers in the Continent, as well as France’s push for an international digital tax on tech giants.

He declined to say whether Rome should be allowed some fiscal leniency on its 2020 budget in return for structural reforms.

“Let’s wait for the decision of the new government. We are 19 countries... under the same rules... (but) we have always supported euro zone countries that show a willingness to improve economic competitiveness and productivity.”

Reporting by Giancarlo Navach and Valentina Za; editing by Clare Fallon

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