Italy and France spar over abortion at G7 summit

By Crispian Balmer and John Irish

BARI, Italy (Reuters) -Italy has demanded the removal of a reference to "safe and legal abortion" from the final statement of this week's Group of Seven summit, diplomats said on Thursday, drawing a rebuke from French President Emmanuel Macron.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni swiftly shot back, accusing Macron of looking to score political points ahead of national elections in France later this month.

The dispute between the two European leaders, who have very different political visions, undermined efforts to show Western unity at the annual G7 gathering, which is being held this year in southern Italy.

The 2023 G7 communique released after the leaders' summit in Hiroshima, Japan, which hosted the event last year, called for "access to safe and legal abortion and post-abortion care".

Similar or slightly tougher language was proposed by French and Canadian diplomats during the habitual negotiations that took place ahead of the 2024 meeting, which is being hosted by Italy's conservative prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.

"All the other countries backed them, but it was a red line for Meloni so it is absent from the final text," one diplomat told Reuters.

Macron later told reporters he regretted the decision.

"You don't have same sensibilities in your country," Macron told an Italian reporter. "France has a vision of equality between women and men, but it’s not a vision shared by all the political spectrum."

Macron stunned his nation on Sunday by dissolving parliament and ordering snap elections after his party was routed by the far-right in a European Union ballot.

"PROFOUNDLY WRONG"

Meloni heads a national conservative party that traces its roots back to a neo-fascist group, and she has clashed with Macron in the past, notably over her hard line on immigration.

On Thursday she said there was no reason to generate a controversy over the issue.

"I think it is profoundly wrong, in difficult times like these, to campaign (for an election) using a precious forum like the G7," Meloni told reporters.

A senior Italian diplomat confirmed that the word "abortion" would not appear in the final communique, but said this was only because the statement made clear the G7 continued to support the aims of the Hiroshima declaration.

"This story has been whipped up and has no substance to it," said the diplomat.

However, signalling that there had been broader discomfort over Italy's position, a senior U.S. official told reporters that President Joe Biden had also not wanted the reference to abortion to disappear from the text.

"The president felt very strongly that we needed to have at the very least the language that references what we did in Hiroshima on women's health and reproductive rights," the official said.

He confirmed that if the word "abortion" did not appear, then the 2024 communique would indeed reiterate the commitment made a year ago in Japan.

Abortion is a hugely sensitive issue in the United States, with Biden promising to create a right to abortion if he wins re-election in November, warning that his Republican opponent Donald Trump could sign a national ban on the practice.

Meloni is staunchly anti-abortion, revealing in a recent autobiography that her mother had come close to aborting her before deciding to keep her child.

Italy's ruling coalition sparked outrage in some quarters in April after it passed legislation allowing groups who "support motherhood" into abortion advice clinics to try to deter women from terminating pregnancies.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Andrew Gray, Angelo Amante and Thomas Escrit; Editing by Alex Richardson and Angus MacSwan)