By John Irish and Crispian Balmer
PARIS/ROME (Reuters) - France recalled its ambassador to Italy on Thursday, a remarkable diplomatic split between neighbours and European Union allies, after what it described as "repeated, baseless" attacks by Italian political leaders against France.
The rupture, the first withdrawal of a French envoy to Rome since World War Two, was announced by the foreign ministry.
Diplomats said Paris acted after a series of insults from Italy, capped by Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio's decision this week to meet with members of France's "yellow vest" movement, which has mounted a months-long and sometimes violent campaign against Macron.
"France has been, for several months, the target of repeated, baseless attacks and outrageous statements," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "Having disagreements is one thing, but manipulating the relationship for electoral aims is another."
Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment 5-Star movement, which is in a governing coalition with the far-right League, defended his meeting with the "yellow vests", and drew a distinction between Macron and the French people.
"The French people are our friends and our ally," he said. "President Macron has repeatedly lashed out against the Italian government for political reasons in view of the European elections," he said, referring to a European Parliament vote in May that is expected to see a surge among populist parties.
"My meeting as the political leader of the 5-Star movement with members of the 'yellow vests'... was fully legitimate. I claim the right to talk with other political forces that represent the French people."
The 32-year-old Di Maio appears keen to cast himself as a youthful rival to Macron, 41, even as his approval rating falls at home.
Macron offered no immediate response to Di Maio.
He has spent much of the past month touring France in a "great debate" with citizens to try to lift his own approval ratings and regain the initiative in the face of the protests. While Thursday's diplomatic action was going on, he was attending one such townhall meeting in the small eastern town of Etang-sur-Arroux.
France's Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said the decision to recall the ambassador was rare but necessary.
"There was behaviour by a member of the Italian government that we consider unusual, unfriendly and that follows a number of official Italian statements that we find hard to understand in terms of how they help Franco-Italian relations," she told France Info.
Ties between the two traditionally close allies have grown increasingly tense since mid-2018, with Di Maio and his fellow deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini of the League party, firing pot-shots at Macron and France, mostly over migration policy.
Macron has at times responded, criticising Italy last June for its refusal to accept a boatload of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, and taking aim at Rome's public finances.
But in recent weeks the exchanges have grown sharper and more personal. Di Maio accused France last month of fuelling poverty in Africa, suggesting it was a neo-colonial power.
Salvini accused France of exploiting the unrest in Libya to benefit oil company Total, which competes with Italy's ENI in the development of regional energy assets. He also said he hoped Macron's party would lose in May's European elections.
During a visit to Egypt last month, Macron sought to shrug off the sparring, calling Salvini and Di Maio's comments "insignificant" and adding that he dealt only with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Conte, a political unknown who became prime minister last year as a compromise between Salvini and Di Maio, was caught on video at last month's World Economic Forum in Davos discussing the dispute with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italian TV channel La 7 broadcast footage a week ago showing the two leaders talking at a bar, with Conte telling Merkel that Di Maio was attacking France because he was down in the polls ahead of the European elections and needed an enemy.
"So they say what are the issues that can help us during the campaign... In the political campaign our friend is Germany and so we had to do the campaign against France," he said, prompting laughter from Merkel.
TIME TO 'TURN THE PAGE'?
Salvini sought to calm the tone on Thursday, saying he did not want to argue with France and was happy to meet Macron. As president, Macron would normally meet with other heads of state or government, not deputies.
"We are ready and willing, with a constructive spirit, to turn the page for the good of our people," Salvini said.
But he added that France should address three issues: its policy of returning migrants to Italy, occasional border checks at the frontier, and the case of some 15 Italian leftists who have had refuge in France for decades.
While rare, the French action was not unprecedented among EU members. In 2016, Greece recalled its ambassador to Austria, and in 2017 Hungary withdrew its envoy to the Netherlands.
(Reporting by John Irish and Michel Rose in Paris and Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Frances Kerry)