ROME (Reuters) - Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement told French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday that it does not represent a threat to the European Union, and sought to shrug off the label "populist".
Leader Luigi Di Maio, whose party tops polls ahead of a national election due early next year, wrote an open letter to Macron after the French leader reportedly expressed concern about anti-system forces in Italy.
"I am sure that when we get to know each other better, you will realize that our movement is not only not a threat, but is cultivating the best solutions for many of Europe's problems," Di Maio said in the letter published on the 5-Star movement's blog.
Italian media reported this week that Macron had told former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi he was worried about the rise of 5-Star and the Northern League, which is close to France's National Front.
Allied to Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party in the European Parliament, 5-Star is trying to distance itself from anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic parties in the rest of the bloc.
Di Maio, a sober 31 year-old who has taken over leadership of the movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, said 5-Star shared with Macron the desire to "rebuild" Europe.
"They lazily call us populist without knowing what this means, when in reality we are ... close to the people, who want pay-back and a role in changing our country," he said.
Di Maio made no mention of a referendum on Italy's use of the euro which 5-Star originally pledged when it burst onto the political scene in 2013, but has since backed away from.
Regarding EU budget rules, Di Maio said that 5-Star's point of view was "very close" to that of France, which he said had let its budget deficit rise to accommodate spending on welfare and other investments.
In January, 5-Star's European parliamentarians tried and failed to split from UKIP, which successfully campaigned for Britain to leave the EU. 5-Star eventually gave up a leading role in the group.
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Catherine Evans)