ROME, Apr 24 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome on Tuesday amid a festering row over immigration after Italy accepted thousands of Tunisians fleeing their country.
Paris has accused Rome of abusing the Schengen pact by issuing temporary residence permits and travel documents to migrants fleeing North Africa in the knowledge that many among the French-speaking Tunisians want to go to France.
France has close ties to former colony Tunisia, and many would-be migrants among the more than 20,000 Tunisians given papers by Italy have friends and relatives in French cities.
On April 18 France stopped trains from Italy carrying immigrants and their supporters, citing risks to public order, and Sarkozy\’s office on Friday called for changes to the Schengen accord to allow it to suspend visa-free travel more easily.
Both Berlusconi and Sarkozy — who faces elections in a year\’s time — are under right-wing pressure on immigration from coalition partner the Northern League and from opponents the National Front, respectively.
"They will doubtless try to calm this issue down," said Jean-Pierre Darnis, an analyst with the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.
He said Rome and Paris differed in their interpretations of Schengen but the influx of Tunisians had slowed following an April 5 accord for Italy to assist Tunisia in stemming the tide.
The summit follows an April 8 meeting in Milan by the two neighbours\’ interior ministers which was supposed to have resolved the issue but now appears to have been window-dressing.
"Dialogue must therefore be re-established at the highest level so the crisis is not prolonged," Darnis said.
The two leaders are also expected to discuss policy on Libya, and the recent inroads by French companies into the Italian economy with a string of takeover moves.
France and Britain led the charge in support of rebels fighting Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, while Italy, which has strong economic interests in its former colony, particularly on the oil front, lagged behind.
Now, however, Rome has followed Paris in recognising Libya\’s rebel Transitional National Council and agreeing to dispatch military advisers to help the undisciplined fighters.
On the economic front Italy has taken a number of steps aimed at curbing French economic incursions, particularly following the announcement in March that France\’s Lactalis had a 29 percent stake in food group Parmalat.
The following day Berlusconi\’s government gave Parmalat the green light to postpone its next shareholders\’ meeting to give it time to stave off the Lactalis offensive.
Rome then announced the creation of a special investment fund which would allow the state to take shares in strategic companies.
Lactalis already owns Italian firm Galbani, while French luxury group LVMH bought posh jeweller Bulgari in March and energy giant EDF is threatening to take control of Italy\’s Edison.
The moves have worried both the political and business world in Italy, where French companies already have substantial stakes in luxury goods, banking and insurance, retail distribution and transport industries.