Will Meloni and Le Pen Be Right-Wing Besties? It’s Complicated

(Bloomberg) -- Few people outside France are paying closer attention to its election than Italian premier Giorgia Meloni — and anyone assuming she and the National Rally leader Marine Le Pen would find common ground as right-wing populists would be wrong.

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In fact, people familiar with Meloni’s thinking say she is acutely conscious that, should Le Pen’s party prevail on July 7 — even shy of an absolute majority in parliament — they would be uneasy allies at best. The Frenchwoman poses a challenge to the Italian’s current status as the standard-bearer and darling of a new brand of conservatism trying to impose itself across the European Union.

Both women share the trait of wanting to rid themselves of far-right baggage, while holding opposing views on Russia and specific social issues like abortion — positions that aren’t that easy to reconcile. Meloni has also tacked toward the center just as Europe has tilted rightward. She and French President Emmanuel Macron had found a way until recently to tolerate — or even grudgingly respect — each other.

Meloni congratulated Le Pen on winning the first round of the election last Sunday. But in private she is apprehensive, according to people speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions on the matter are private.

She is Italy’s first female prime minister and managed to outflank a series of male rivals — among them Matteo Salvini who was and remains close to Le Pen. Meloni is anxious that the League leader, a junior partner in her government who had made a play at her job, could exploit that connection to further his own ambition. He and Le Pen share a controversial history of railing against migrants.

Meloni is also critical of the National Rally chief’s warmth toward Russia — another common cause with Salvini — which gives her even less of an incentive to ally with them while trying to position her party more toward Europe’s mainstream.

The French backdrop is an unwelcome distraction, the people said, observing that Meloni’s priority for now is to clinch a senior European Commission seat — probably for her ally Raffaele Fitto, according to most officials — while containing Brussels demands to restrain Italy’s public finances. Despite her victory in June’s EU elections, the premier has been shut out of talks to appoint the bloc’s top jobs.

Meloni’s focus on France points to how events there are proving critical to Europe’s political landscape. Aside from the market scrutiny provoked by the prospect of upheaval, the sense that tectonic plates may be starting to shift is being felt in capitals from Rome to Brussels.

“A Le Pen victory could be a problem for Meloni but also an opportunity — moving the European political axis further rightward, making Meloni even more of a pivot between moderates and populists,”said Giovanni Orsina, head of the politics department at LUISS university in Rome. “Meloni is, like anybody else, in this vortex. Great changes are possible, and great rewards — but risks are looming too.”

The National Assembly election on Sunday may only see Le Pen approach power rather than actually clinch it. Her party is set to fall well short of an absolute majority, according to projections from polling company Elabe for BFM TV and La Tribune Dimanche. That could pave the way for Macron to forge a minority government with parties closer to his in the political spectrum.

Even so, Meloni — whose natural instincts are to trust nobody — has told confidantes that she is concerned about Le Pen’s potential victory, according to one person with knowledge of the interactions. One long-time ally cautioned that the Frenchwoman would still be at least an election away from taking power as president, matching the Italian’s governmental status, in an election set to take place in 2027.

Domestically, Meloni’s most pressing concern is the prospect that Le Pen’s enhanced profile could spur Salvini to be more assertive, even though last month’s European vote didn’t improve his share of support compared with Italy’s 2022 national election, the people said.

Salvini was once seen as the rising star in Italy’s right, but has largely been eclipsed by Meloni for now. He has tried to change that by championing himself as an interlocutor to presidential contender Donald Trump, even announcing plans to visit the US before the election in November.

That’s a weak point for Meloni, who — despite supporting Trump herself in the past — has espoused orthodoxy in foreign policy and ingratiated herself with western leaders including his rival for office, Joe Biden. A Trump victory in November also looks set to cause even further ructions — and further embolden Le Pen ally Salvini if he is successful in wooing the US candidate.

On the European scene meanwhile, the prospect of a Le Pen victory is likely to augur mixed prospects for Meloni. One advantage is that it would weaken Macron, whom she has accused of manipulating the selection process for Europe’s top jobs in Brussels.

Even so, Meloni also finds herself more isolated than before. She has just lost a long-time ally, former UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose views on immigration she espoused, and is a bystander to a major rearrangement of alliances in the European Parliament with the ECR group, currently the third-largest, possibly supplanted by Viktor Orban’s Patriots, joined on Friday by Spain’s Vox.

The European dimension is further complicated by Italy’s mammoth debt. The country is now subject to a a so-called infringement procedure that began last month because its budget deficit exceeds the EU’s limit of 3%.

Italy and France share common ground there in navigating such procedures, with Rome officials traditionally calibrating the shortfall slightly below that of France’s to avoid being singled out, the people said.

No matter what common ground they might share, Le Pen’s ascendancy does remain a longstanding threat to Meloni’s standing as one of the bloc’s most dynamic politicians, the people noted.

Le Pen’s electoral success “would also open up a contest for the position of the leader of the European right, where Meloni has so far been first among equals,” Orsina of LUISS university noted. “There are a lot of similarities between the two leaders. But when there is a lot of similarity, there is also competition.”

--With assistance from Andrea Palasciano.

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