France summoned Italy’s ambassador after the Italian deputy prime minister accused Paris of exploiting its former African colonies and fuelling dangerous migration across the Mediterranean.
French sources speaking to Italy's ANSA news agency, described Luigi Di Maio's remarks as “hostile and without cause”. AFP reported a source in France’s Europe ministry calling his comments “unacceptable and groundless”.
Mr Di Maio, leader of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said: "If people are leaving today it's because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries."
“The EU should sanction France and all countries like France that impoverish Africa and make these people leave, because Africans should be in Africa, not at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”
Mr Di Maio refused to back down on Monday, saying the CFA Franc, a colonial-era currency used by 14 African countries and guaranteed by the French Treasury, was an exploitative tool.
"France is one of those countries that, by printing money for 14 African states, prevents their economic development and contributes to the fact that the refugees leave and then die in the sea or arrive on our coasts," he told an Italian radio station.
"If Europe wants to be brave, it must have the courage to confront the issue of decolonisation in Africa."
Relations between Italy's coalition government, which includes right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and France, have been strained over clashes about migration and Europe.
Both sides accused the other of failing to take their fair share of people rescued from the Mediterranean Sea ever since Italy's anti-migration government came into power last June.
The two Italian leaders have also shown support for the French Yellow Vest movement, which has held months of protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s government.
Italy has closed its ports to rescue boats carrying migrants. About 170 migrants are still missing after two shipwrecks at the weekend.