The visit of the Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S) to France last week was anything but usual. The Italian politician did not meet with his French counterpart. Instead, he met with the leaders of France’s anti-government Yellow Vests movement that has  brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets over the past three month.

The visit came after Luigi Di Maio expressed his support for the movement and his wishes for success against French President Emmanuel Macron.

However, the leader of the populist M5S is not the only official in Italy who has attacked Macron. The leader of the far-right League and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has openly called Macron a “terrible President”. He also called for the “liberation of the French people”.

But the two cases are not similar. Salvini’s attack is part of a well-structured rhetoric that underlines his stature of a European leader. A gloomy one, a leader of the far-right, which includes more and more racist terms in speech, but a European leader.

On the other hand, Di Maio cannot hide his concern for the future of his movement in both domestic and European politics.

Before accusing him of impudence, it is necessary to understand why he is doing what he does. It’s necessary to understand why he feels he needs to stress his presence alongside Salvini.

Unpleasant defence

The M5S celebrated successful results in the March 2018 elections, winning 32.68% of the vote, securing 227 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 112 Senators. Salvini’s League secured only 17.35% (125 deputies and 58 Senators)

Following a long period of negotiations, the two parties formed a coalition government. Di Maio as the majority partner and Salvini as the minority.

Right from the start, however, the coalition faced many problems and tension mounted between the two partners. The tough and inhuman way Salvini wants to respond to the immigration problem among other topics found many opponents inside the leadership of the M5S.

Specifically, the parties disagree over whether to proceed with a $10bn high-speed rail project, backed by Salvini’s pro-business, League , and whether the Rome Senate should allow an investigation into his refusal to let the Diciotti migrant ship dock at an Italian port last summer.

Right from the start, however, the coalition faced many problems and tension mounted between the two partners. The tough and inhuman way Salvini wants to respond to the immigration problem among other topics found many opponents inside the leadership of the M5S

The movement is deeply divided while League seems compact. Inside the M5S, there are three tendencies. There is Roberto Fico, who leads the left tendency and serves as president of the Chamber of Deputies. He is also in a direct clash with Salvini’s proposals.

For instance, Fico is in favour of adoption rights for same-sex couples and jus soli, the right to grant citizenship at birth. Fico also visited the refugees of Diciotti and condemned the racist decision in Lodi against migrant pupils. In addition, several senators and deputies of the M5S have started to react to their leadership choice.

Meanwhile, the right wing tendency around Alessandro Battista favours the coalition with the League.

As for the centrist one (which still has the majority), it centres around Luigi Di Maio. However, it is not clear that is still happy with his partner in the government.

Salvini’s political weight overturned the balance inside the coalition. His exuberant presence and his bully-style found more ground in Italy. Now, according to the polls, Salvini’s League is close to 34% while Di Maio’s dropped to less than 27%.

The clash between the two is no longer a secret.

Salvini who feels stronger than Di Maio, wants more space inside the government. As such, he is pushing either for snap elections or for a government reshuffle.

Di Maio does not have the experience that Salvini has. Also, he appears to suffocate under Salvini’s political appearance. This is why he needs to show to followers that his is also present in the ‘anti-establishment’ fight. The support offered to the Yellow Vests in France was an expression of his will – to mark his political presence in the stormy waters of the Italian politics.

In search of European allies

But there’s another reason for his support of the Yellow Vests.

Di Maio met with Yellow Vest protesters Christophe Chalençon and Ingrid Levavasseur, who are heading a Yellow Vest ticket for European Parliament elections in May.

The movement risks to remain without allies in the next European Parliament.

The M5S is one of the two pillars of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD) at the European Parliament. Of the EFDD’s 43 MEPs, 18 belong to the Eurosceptic UKIP and 17 to the Italian party.

It is obvious that after the withdrawal of UK from the EU the Group is destined to meet its end.

The movement risks to remain without allies in the next European Parliament

After all, the EFDD was a rather strange political group. It’s an alliance between dissimilar political forces that included the far-right and xenophobic German AfD and the Sweden Democrats (before they moved to the ECR Group), the Patriots of Florian Philippot (the former Vice President of Le Pen’s National Front), among others.

The deadlock was foreseen by many politicians of the M5S and at the start of 2017, the leadership of the movement tried to leave EFDD and to join ALDE. This move was blocked by a M5S Congress.

Now, Di Maio realises that it will be difficult to find refuge in a European political family other than that of the far right. A predicament that he would like to avoid.

Who could be the potential partners for an attempt to form his own political Group inside the European Parliament?

As was reported by media in early January, Di Maio held a meeting in Brussels with other like-minded populist parties in order to review the real political affinity and possibility prepare a European Manifesto.

Poland’s Paweł Kukiz, a former rock star who heads up Kukiz’15, Ivan Sincic of Croatia’s Living Wall, and Finland’s Karolina Kähönen, the co-founder of Liike Nyt (which describes itself as a liberal political movement) were all present at the meeting.

The Yellow Vests could be an excellent option as well.

It is necessary, of course, to see whether they will succeed in electing MEPs and if they will accept an alliance with M5S.