ROME: Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, stoking a war of words between Rome and Paris, said on Tuesday that France did not want to bring calm to Libya because its energy interests there clashed with those of Italy.
Relations between Italy and France, traditionally close allies, have grown frosty since the far-right League and anti-establishment 5-Star Movement formed a coalition last year and took aim at pro-EU French President Emmanuel Macron.
A source in Macron's office dismissed the latest attack as "ludicrous", while Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sought to ease the escalating tensions, saying relations between the two countries remained strong despite a string of recent rows.
On Monday France summoned Italy's ambassador after Salvini's fellow deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, accused Paris of creating poverty in Africa and generating mass migration to Europe.
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 strongman 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.
Italy's Eni and France's Total have separate joint ventures in Libya, but Eni's CEO Claudio Descalzi denied in a newspaper interview last year that there was any conflict between the two firms in the north African state.
Salvini is head of the League, while Di Maio leads 5-Star. Both are campaigning hard for European parliamentary elections in May and are eager to show they have broken with the consensual politics of centre-left and centre-right parties.
The two men have repeatedly targeted neighbouring France and accused Macron of doing nothing to help handle the hundreds of thousands of mainly African migrants who have reached Italy from Libya in recent years.
Asked about the latest diplomatic spat, 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."
A French presidential source said populist forces in Italy and elsewhere were looking to undermine countries like France and Germany which wanted to strengthen the European Union.
"The European elections will be the place where we confront those - as you can see again today with the ludicrous comments from the Italian government - who seek to destroy the European project and the Franco-German partnership," the source said.
Looking to prevent a diplomatic rupture, the Italian prime minister issued a statement praising relations with Paris, saying that Rome merely wanted a debate within Europe on difficult issues such as immigration.
"This (row) does not call into question our historic friendship with France, nor with the French people. This relationship remains strong and steady in spite of any political disputes," Conte said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte in Rome, John Irish in Paris and Jean-Baptiste Vey in Aachen, Germany; Editing by Jon Boyle and Gavin Jones)