More than 20,000 Tunisian immigrants have arrived in Italy since the January revolution in their country. Rome granted them residence permits of six months so they can join "friends and family" in France and elsewhere in Europe -- a move that has infuriated France.
On Sunday, about 350 mostly Italian activists supporting the Tunisian immigrants, and chanting anti-France slogans, massed at the Ventimiglia, Italy, train station, and French riot police stopped trains from crossing into Menton. Stunned tourists found themselves stranded in the middle of the increasingly bizarre conflict.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini issued a statement late Sunday instructing Italy's ambassador to Paris to express "the firm protest of the Italian government," calling France's actions illegal based on the European Union's policy of open borders.
But sources told Agence France-Presse today that the European Commission believes France has complied with Schengen rules.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant, in turn, today seemed to soft-pedal France's decision to bar the trains on Sunday, calling it a "one-time" measure because of concern over the protests and rally at the Ventimiglia train station.
French police, in full riot gear, ensured that the trains, one of which was optimistically dubbed the "Train of Dignity" by supporters of the Africans, did not cross the border Sunday into the seaside resort of Menton and on to Marseilles, another two hours by train to the east.
"Our orders are to cancel all services from Italy," said a spokesman for French national train operator SNCF, although trains had resumed service this morning.
French authorities also attempted to block ancient footpaths linking the two countries.
"I, for one, am relieved," a part-time resident of Menton, the first stop for trains crossing the border from Italy into France, told AOL News today.
The British woman, who did not want her name used, said that Tunisian immigrants were "all over" the picturesque town adjacent to the principality of Monaco, which is home to mainly wealthy, retired French and expatriates. "I don't feel safe here anymore."
Frattini's move to try to censure France came after Italy enraged the French last week by giving out temporary residence visas, allowing the immigrants to travel in the European Union. Germany and a few other countries in the 27-nation EU are also concerned that giving shelter to migrants will encourage more to move illegally into Europe.
Italy has said it feels deserted by the rest of Europe. Ventimiglia's mayor, Gaetano Scullino, told the Italian news agency AGI that "Italy should not be left on its own. We are Europe's border."
Scullino also said he stood with the pro-immigrant demonstrators.
"It seems like a peaceful protest to me," he said. "I think the free movement of refugees is a European rule, and I hope that all European countries do their part to face this current emergency."
The president of the Cote d'Azur Humanitarian Association for Tunisians was in Ventimiglia Sunday, hoping to accompany, with members of his group, some 60 to 70 Tunisian immigrants on the train from Italy to Marseilles. But the trains were stopped before the French border.
"We are here because these people deserve generosity and openness from us," Mejdi Chamakhi told today's Nice-Matin, a French newspaper. "We're not here to be political. These are normal young people who are ambitious and just want a better future for themselves."
"France wanted to show its muscles by blocking its borders," a spokesman for the pro-African group Welcome bellowed over speakers at the Ventimiglia train station. "As a result, we have a Europe that transformed Italy into a massive cave crammed with people. The authorities have chosen to erect a wall between our two countries. We need to drop it!"
Several EU countries have asked the European Commission to condemn Italy's decision to issue visas to Tunisian immigrants. But Italy's Frattini has said that "Europe is going nowhere if we erect walls" between countries.