By Michel Rose and Gavin Jones
PARIS/ROME (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday populism was spreading across Europe like a disease that Europeans should fight more vigorously instead of criticising the actions of pro-European governments like his.
Italy's anti-establishment leaders, clearly assuming Macron was referring to them, hit back by dismissing the 40-year-old French president as a "chatterbox" and accusing him of hypocrisy in his stance over immigration.
Macron has come under pressure at home for not accepting the Aquarius migrant ship that far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini turned away from Italian ports, prompting a war of words between Paris and Rome.
On a visit to Brittany, a particularly pro-Europe region, Macron urged commentators to fight those who "hate Europe" rather than attacking him.
"You can see them rise a bit like a leprosy all across Europe, in countries where we thought that would be impossible to see them again, in neighbouring countries," Macron said.
"They're saying the worst things, and we're getting used to it. They're making provocations, and nobody is horrified by that," he added, without mentioning Italy or anybody else.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, head of the 5-Star Movement which governs with Salvini's League party, called Macron's words "offensive and out of place".
"The real leprosy is the hypocrisy of someone who pushes back immigrants at (Italian-French border town) Ventimiglia and then wants to preach to us about our sacrosanct right to ask for an equal distribution of migrants," Di Maio tweeted.
Salvini also took to Twitter to dismiss Macron as a "chatterbox," saying that while the French president talked, he was "working to block the trafficking of illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean."
"There are those who talk and those who act," Salvini said.
The row between Paris and Rome over the fate of the Aquarius, a ship with more than 600 migrants aboard, including women and children, drew in Pope Francis and sewed division across Europe, straining German Chancellor Angela Merkel's fragile coalition.
Italy's EU Affairs Minister Paolo Savona chimed in with Di Maio and Salvini, saying those who "arrogantly and contemptuously" brand the League and 5-Star as populist fail to understand what is happening in Italian and European politics.
Savona, an 81-year-old unaffiliated economist, was originally the coalition's pick for economy minister, but was vetoed for the job by the head of state because of critical views he had previously expressed about the euro.
In an interview with an online news website, Savona said the two parties had ensured that a popular revolt had been expressed in a democratic way and it was regrettable if "certain global elites intend to react to this with denigration ..."
"We are here to promote reasonable changes in Italy and, hopefully, in the EU," Savona said.
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by John Irish and Andrew Heavens)
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Updated Date: Jun 22, 2018 00:07 AM