January 11, 2018 / 6:02 PM / a year ago

Macron sings praises of Italian prime minister ahead of election

ROME (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron heaped praise on Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in Rome on Thursday, less than two months before national elections in Italy that opinion polls say the ruling center-left government will lose.

Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni embraces French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of a news conference at Chigi palace in Rome, Italy, January 11, 2018, REUTERS/Max Rossi

Macron told reporters at the end of a two-day visit to Rome that he had no intention of interfering in the Italian ballot, which is set for March 4. But his comments left little doubt over where his sympathies lay.

“It is up to Italians to decide how to vote, but let me say that Europe has been very lucky to have Gentiloni and I hope we can continue the work that we have started,” he told a news conference, standing alongside the Italian leader.

Gentiloni’s Democratic Party (PD) is trailing in the opinion polls to both the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and a center-right bloc that includes the far-right Northern League party and the nationalist Brothers of Italy.

All the main opposition parties are seen as hostile to Brussels to various degrees and all are seeking significant changes to EU budget rules. The League is also pushing for Italy to quit the euro currency, although its partners reject this.

Macron took power in France in May promoting a fiercely pro-EU agenda. On Thursday he again stressed the importance of a united and purposeful Europe.

“Can I say that the European Union is positive for Italy, and can I also say that an Italy which believes in Europe is positive for Europe,” Macron said.

The ruling PD, which is led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, has often clashed with Brussels over budget rigors, but at the same time, it has championed ever-closer integration.

Looking to strengthen Franco-Italian ties, Macron and Gentiloni unveiled a new treaty on Thursday which they said would provide a strong framework for relations between the second- and third-largest economies in the euro zone.

“We have always worked together in an extraordinary way, but we are convinced that this will make our relations even stronger and more systematic,” Gentiloni said.

Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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