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France-Italy Tensions Mount at Paris Book Salon - 2002-03-23

France's prestigious annual book salon in Paris was thrown into disarray Friday when the country it was featuring - Italy - officially walked out.

The tale behind Italy's walkout may be almost as dramatic as some of the books featured in this year's Paris show. The 22nd annual book salon celebrates Italian literature and includes talks by noted Italian writers like Umberto Eco.

But the show's inauguration by French and Italian culture ministers Thursday night was marred by several dozen demonstrators protesting against globalization - and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The protesters are only part of the story. Tensions between Paris and Rome have been simmering since French Culture Minister Catherine Tasca announced in January she would refuse to inaugurate the book show in the presence of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Mrs. Tasca did not explain her reasons. She simply said she knew Mr. Berlusconi's positions on matters like cultural diversity before he was elected prime minister.

So on Friday, the day after the show's opening, Italian officials announced the government was officially retiring from the book show. At a fiery news conference in Paris, Italian Cultural Undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi accused Mrs. Tasca of mixing politics with culture.

Mr. Sgarbi said Mr. Berlusconi was no fascist - apparently in reference to Mrs. Tasca's January remarks, and still a sensitive issue in Italy more than 50 years after World War II. Rather, he accused Mrs. Tasca's father of being a friend of fascists.

In a statement Friday, Mrs. Tasca appeared to try to soothe Italian sensibilities. She criticized the demonstrations of Thursday night. She said the show - which features 60 Italian writers as well as writers from other parts of the world - should be a place for reflection and cultural debate. Mrs. Tasca also said she hoped the Paris salon, which ends March 27, would help strengthen cultural ties between France and Italy. After the rocky start Thursday, those ties can only get stronger.