Future of Western Democracy Being Played Out in Brazil

Stripped to its essence, the Brazilian presidential elections represent a direct clash between democracy and an early 21st Century neofascism, indeed between civilization and barbarism, writes Pepe Escobar.

By Pepe Escobar
in Paris
Special to Consortium News

Nothing less than the future of politics across the West – and across the Global South – is being played out in Brazil.

Stripped to its essence, the Brazilian presidential elections represent a direct clash between democracy and an early 21st Century, neofascism, indeed between civilization and barbarism.

Geopolitical and global economic reverberations will be immense. The Brazilian dilemma illuminates all the contradictions surrounding the Right populist offensive across the West, juxtaposed to the inexorable collapse of the Left. The stakes could not be higher.

Jair Bolsonaro, an outright supporter of Brazilian military dictatorships of last century, who has been normalized as the “extreme-right candidate,” won the first round of the presidential elections on Sunday with more than 49 million votes. That was 46 percent of the total, just shy of a majority needed for an outright win. This in itself is a jaw-dropping development.

His opponent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), got only 31 million votes, or 29 percent of the total. He will now face Bolsonaro in a runoff on October 28. A Sisyphean task awaits Haddad: just to reach parity with Bolsonaro, he needs every single vote from those who supported the third and fourth-placed candidates, plus a substantial share of the almost 20 percent of votes considered null and void.

Meanwhile, no less than 69 percent of Brazilians, according to the latest polls, profess their support for democracy. That means 31 percent do not.

No Tropical Trump

Dystopia Central does not even begin to qualify it. Progressive Brazilians are terrified of facing a mutant “Brazil” (the movie) cum Mad Max wasteland ravaged by evangelical fanatics, rapacious neoliberal casino capitalists and a rabid military bent on recreating a Dictatorship 2.0.

Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper, is being depicted by Western mainstream media essentially as the Tropical Trump. The facts are way more complex.

Bolsonaro, a mediocre member of Congress for 27 years with no highlights on his C.V., indiscriminately demonizes blacks, the LGBT community, the Left as a whole, the environment “scam” and most of all, the poor. He’s avowedly pro-torture. He markets himself as a Messiah – a fatalistic avatar coming to “save” Brazil from all those “sins” above.

The Goddess of the Market, predictably, embraces him. “Investors” – those semi-divine entities – deem him good for “the market”, with his last-minute offensive in the polls mirroring a rally in the Brazilian real and the Sao Paulo stock exchange.

Bolsonaro may be your classic extreme-right “savior” in the Nazi mould. He may embody Right populism to the core. But he’s definitely not a “sovereignist” – the motto of choice in political debate across the West. His “sovereign” Brazil would be run more like a retro-military dictatorship totally subordinated to Washington’s whims.

Bolsonaro’s ticket is compounded by a barely literate, retired general as his running mate, a man who is ashamed of his mixed race background and is frankly pro-eugenics. General Antonio Hamilton Mourão has even revived the idea of a military coup.

Manipulating the ticket, we find massive economic interests, tied to mineral wealth, agro-business and most of all the Brazilian Bible Belt. It is complete with death squads against Native Brazilians, landless peasants and African-American communities. It is a haven for the weapons industry. Call it the apotheosis of tropical neo-pentecostal, Christian-Zionism.

Praise the Lord

Brazil has 42 million evangelicals – and over 200 representatives in both branches of Parliament. Don’t mess with their jihad. They know how to exercise massive appeal among the beggars at the neoliberal banquet. The Lula Left simply didn’t know how to seduce them.

So even with echoes of Mike Pence, Bolsonaro is the Brazilian Trump only to a certain extent: his communication skills – talking tough, simplistically, is language understandable to a seven-year old. Educated Italians compare him to Matteo Salvini, the Lega leader, now Minister of Interior. But that’s also not exactly the case.

Bolsonaro is a symptom of a much larger disease. He has only reached this level, a head-to-head in the second round against Lula’s candidate Haddad, because of a sophisticated, rolling, multi-stage, judicial/congressional/business/media Hybrid War unleashed on Brazil.

Way more complex than any color revolution, Hybrid War in Brazil featured a law-fare coup under cover of the Car Wash anti-corruption investigation. That led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and Lula being thrown in jail on corruption charges with no hard evidence or smoking gun.

In every poll Lula would win these elections hand down. The coup plotters managed to imprison him and prevent him from running. Lula’s right to run was highlighted by everyone from Pope Francis to the UN’s Human Rights Council, as well as Noam Chomsky. Yet in a delightful historical twist, the coup plotters’ scenario blew up in their faces as the front-runner to lead the country is not one of them, but a neofascist.

One of them” would ideally be a faceless bureaucrat affiliated with the former social democrats, the PSDB, turned hardcore neoliberals addicted to posing as Center Left when they are the “acceptable” face of the neoliberal Right. Call them Brazilian Tony Blairs. Specific Brazilian contradictions, plus the advance of Right populism across the West, led to their downfall.

Even Wall Street and the City of London (which endorsed Hybrid War on Brazil after it was unleashed by NSA spying of oil giant Petrobras) have started entertaining second thoughts on supporting Bolsonaro for president of a BRICS nation, which is a leader of the Global South, and until a few years ago, was on its way to becoming the fifth largest economy in the world.

It all hangs on the “vote transfer” mechanism from Lula to Haddad and the creation of a serious, multi-party Progressive Democratic Front on the second round to defeat the rising neofascism. They have less than three weeks to pull it off.

The Bannon Effect

It’s no secret that Steve Bannon is advising the Bolsonaro campaign in Brazil. One of Bolsonaro’s sons, Eduardo, met with Bannon in New York two months ago after which the Bolsonaro camp decided to profit from Bannon’s supposed “peerless” social engineering insights.

Bolsonaro’s son tweeted at the time, “We’re certainly in touch to join forces, especially against Cultural Marxism.” That was followed by an army of bots disgorging an avalanche of fake news up to Election Day.

A specter haunts Europe. Its name is Steve Bannon. The specter has moved on to the tropics.

In Europe, Bannon is now poised to intervene like an angel of doom in a Tintoretto painting heralding the creation of a EU-wide Right Populist coalition.

Bannon is notoriously praised to high heavens by Italian Interior Minister Salvini; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban; Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders; and scourge of the Paris establishment, Marine Le Pen.

Last month, Bannon set up The Movement; at first sight just a political start-up in Brussels with a very small staff. But talk about Boundless Ambition: their aim is no less than turning the European parliamentary elections in May 2019 upside down.

The European parliament in Strasbourg – a bastion of bureaucratic inefficiency – is not exactly a household name across the EU. The parliament is barred from proposing legislation. Laws and budgets can only be blocked via a majority vote.

Bannon aims at capturing at least one-third of the seats in Strasbourg. He’s bound to apply tested American-style methods such as intensive polling, data analysis, and intensive social media campaigns – much the same as in Bolsonaro’s case. But there’s no guarantee it will work, of course.

The foundation stone of The Movement was arguably laid in two key meetings in early September set up by Bannon and his right-hand man, Mischael Modrikamen, chairman of the quite small Belgian Parti Populaire (PP). The first meeting was in Rome with Salvini and the second in Belgrade with Orban.

Modrikamen defines the concept as a “club” which will “collect funds from donors, in America and Europe, to make sure ‘populist’ ideas can be heard by the citizens of Europe who perceive more and more that Europe is not a democracy anymore.”

Modrikamen insists, “We are all sovereignists.” The Movement will hammer four themes that seem to form a consensus among disparate, EU-wide political parties: against “uncontrolled immigration”; against “Islamism”; favoring “security” across the EU; and supporting “a Europe of sovereign nations, proud of their identity.”

The Movement should really pick up speed after next month’s midterms in the U.S. In theory, it could congregate different parties from the same nation under its umbrella. That could be a very tall order, even taller than the fact key political actors already have divergent agendas.

Wilders wants to blow up the EU. Salvini and Orban want a weak EU but they don’t want to get rid of its institutions. Le Pen wants a EU reform followed by a “Frexit” referendum.

The only themes that unite this mixed Right Populism bag are nationalism, a fuzzy anti-establishment drive and a – quite popular – disgust with the EU’s overwhelming bureaucratic machine.

Here we find some common ground with Bolsonaro, who poses as a nationalist and as against the Brazilian political system – even though he’s been in Parliament for ages.

There’s no rational explanation for Bolsonaro’s last-minute surge among two sections of the Brazilian electorate that deeply despise him: women and the Northeast region, which has always been discriminated against by the wealthier South and Southeast.

Much like Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 U.S. election, Bolsonaro’s campaign targeted undecided voters in Northeastern states, as well as women voters, with a barrage of fake news demonizing Haddad and the Workers’ Party. It worked like a charm.

The Italian Job

I’ve just been to northern Italy checking out how popular Salvini really is. Salvini defines the May 2019 European Parliament elections as “the last chance for Europe.” Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero sees them as the first “real election for the future of Europe.” Bannon also sees the future of Europe being played in Italy.

It’s quite something to seize the conflicting energy in the air in Milan, where Salvini’s Lega is quite popular while at the same time Milan is a globalized city crammed with ultra-progressive pockets.

At a political debate about a book published by the Bruno Leoni Institute regarding exiting the euro, Roberto Maroni, a former governor of the powerful Lombardia region, remarked: “Italexit is outside of the formal agenda of the government, of the Lega and of the center-right.” Maroni should know, after all he was one of the Lega’s founders.

He hinted however that major changes are on the horizon. “To form a group in the European parliament, the numbers are important. This is the moment to show up with a unique symbol among parties of many nations.”

It’s not only Bannon and The Movement’s Modrikamen. Salvini, Le Pen and Orban are convinced they can win the 2019 elections – with the EU transformed into a “Union of European Nations.” This would include not just a couple of big cities where all the action is, with the rest reduced to fly over status. Right Populism argues that France, Italy, Spain, and Greece are no longer nations – only mere provinces.

Right Populism derives immense satisfaction that its main enemy is the self-described “Jupiter” Macron – mocked across France by some as the “Little Sun King.” President Emmanuel Macron must be terrified that Salvini is emerging as the “leading light” of European nationalists.

This is what Europe seems to be coming to: a trashy, Salvini vs. Macron cage match.

Arguably the Salvini vs. Macron fight in Europe might be replicated as Bolsonaro vs. Haddad in Brazil. Some sharp Brazilian minds are convinced Haddad is the Brazilian Macron.

In my view he is not. His has a background in philosophy and he’s a former, competent mayor of Sao Paulo, one of the most complex megalopolises on the planet. Macron is a Rothschild mergers and acquisitions banker. Unlike Macron, who was engineered by the French establishment as the perfect “progressive” wolf to be released among the sheep, Haddad embodies what’s left of really progressive Left.

On top of that – unlike virtually the whole Brazilian political spectrum – Haddad is not corrupt. He’d have to offer the requisite pound of flesh to the usual suspects if he wins of course. But he’s not out to be their puppet.

Compare Bolsonaro’s Trumpism, apparent in his last-minute message before Election Day: “Make Brazil Great Again,” with Trump’s Trumpism.

Bolsonaro’s tools are unmitigated praise of the Motherland; the Armed Forces; and the flag.

But Bolsonaro is not interested in defending Brazilian industry, jobs and culture. On the contrary. A graphic example is what happened in a Brazilian restaurant in Deerfield Beach, Florida, a year ago: Bolsonaro saluted the American flag and chanted “USA! USA!”

That’s undiluted MAGA – without a “B”.

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Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale and author of How Fascism Works, takes us further. Stanley stresses how “the idea in fascism is to destroy economic politics… The corporatists side with politicians who use fascist tactics because they are trying to divert people’s attention from the real forces that cause the genuine anxiety they feel.”

Bolsonaro has mastered these diversionist tactics. And he excels in demonizing so-called Cultural Marxism. Bolsonaro fits Stanley’s description as applied to the U.S.:

Liberalism and Cultural Marxism destroyed our supremacy and destroyed this wonderful past where we ruled and our cultural traditions were the ones that dominated. And then it militarizes the feeling of nostalgia. All the anxiety and loss that people feel in their lives, say from the loss of their healthcare, the loss of their pensions, the loss of their stability, then gets rerouted into a sense that the real enemy is liberalism, which led to the loss of this mythic past.”

In the Brazilian case, the enemy is not liberalism but the Workers’ Party, derided by Bolsonaro as “a bunch of communists.” Celebrating his astonishing first round victory, he said Brazil was on the edge of a corrupt, communist “abyss” and could either choose a path of “prosperity, freedom, family” or “the path of Venezuela”.

The Car Wash investigation enshrined the myth that the Workers’ Party and the whole Left is corrupt (but not the Right). Bolsonaro overextended the myth:  every minority and social class is a target – in his mind they are “communists” and “terrorists.”

Goebbels comes to mind – via his crucial text The Radicalization of Socialism, where he emphasized the necessity of portraying the center-left as Marxists and socialists because, as Stanley notes, the middle class sees in Marxism not so much the subverter of national will, but mainly the thief of its property.”

That’s at the center of Bolsonaro’s strategy of demonizing the Workers Party – and the Left in general. The strategy of course is drenched in fake news – once again mirroring what Stanley writes about U.S. history: “The whole concept of empire is based on fake news. All of colonization is based on fake news.”

Right Against Left Populism?

As I wrote in a previous column, the Left in the West is like a deer caught in the headlights when it comes to fighting Right populism.

Sharp minds from Slavoj Zizek to Chantal Mouffe are trying to conceptualize an alternative – without being able to coin the definitive neologism. Left populism? Popularism? Ideally, that should be “democratic socialism” – but no one, in a post-ideology, post-truth environment, would dare utter the dreaded word.

The ascent of Right populism is a direct consequence of the emergence of a profound crisis of political representation all over the West; the politics of identity erected as a new mantra; and the overwhelming power of social media, which allows – in Umberto Eco’s peerless definition – the ascent of “the idiot of the village to the condition of Oracle.”

As we saw earlier, the central motto of Right populism in Europe is anti-immigration – a barely disguised variation of hate towards The Other. In Brazil the main theme, emphasized by Bolsonaro, is urban insecurity. He could be the Brazilian Rodrigo Duterte – or Duterte Harry: “Make my day, punk.”

He portrays himself as the Righteous Defender against a corrupt elite (even though he’s part of the elite); and his hatred of all things politically correct, feminism, homosexuality, multiculturalism – are all unpardonable offenses to his “family values.”

A Brazilian historian says the only way to oppose him is to “translate” to each sector of Brazilian society how Bolsonaro’s positions affect them: on “widespread weaponizing, discrimination, jobs, (and) taxes.” And it has to be done in less than three weeks.

Arguably the best book explaining the failure of the Left everywhere to deal with this toxic situation is Jean-Claude Michea’s Le Loup dans la Bergerie – The Wolf Among the Sheep – published in France a few days ago.

Michea shows concisely how the deep contradictions of liberalism since the 18th century – political, economic and cultural – led it to TURN AGAINST ITSELF and be cut off from the initial spirit of tolerance (Adam Smith, David Hume, Montesquieu). That’s why we are deep inside post-democratic capitalism.

Euphemistically called “the international community” by Western mainstream media, the elites, who have been confronted since 2008 with “the growing difficulties faced by the process of globalized accumulation of capital,” now seem ready to do anything to keep its privileges.

Michea is right that the most dangerous enemy of civilization – and even Life on Earth – is the blind dynamics of endless accumulation of capital. We know where this neoliberal Brave New World is taking us.

The only counterpunch is an autonomous, popular movement “that would not be submitted to the ideological and cultural hegemony of ‘progressive’ movements that for over three decades defend only the cultural interests of the new middle classes around the world,” Michae says.

For now, such a movement rests in the realm of Utopia. What’s left is to try to remedy a coming dystopia – such as backing a real Progressive Democratic Front to block a Bolsonaro Brazil.

One of the highlights of my Italian sojourn was a meeting with Rolf Petri, Professor of Contemporary History at the Ca Foscari University in Venice, and author of the absolutely essential A Short History of Western Ideology: A Critical Account.

Ranging from religion, race and colonialism, to the Enlightenment project of “civilization”, Petri weaves a devastating tapestry of how “the imagined geography of a ‘continent’ that was not even a continent offered a platform for the affirmation of European superiority and the civilizing mission of Europe.”

During a long dinner in a small Venetian trattoria away from the galloping selfie hordes, Petri observed how Salvini – a middle-class small entrepreneur – craftily found out how to channel a deep unconscious longing for a mythical harmonious Europe that won’t be coming back, much as petty bourgeois Bolsonaro evokes a mythical return to the “Brazilian miracle” during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Every sentient being knows that the U.S. has been plunged into extreme inequality “supervised” by a ruthless plutocracy. U.S. workers will continue to be royally screwed as are French workers under “liberal” Macron. So would Brazilian workers under Bolsonaro. To borrow then from Yeats, what rough beast, in this darkest hour, slouches towards freedom to be born?

Pepe Escobar, a veteran Brazilian journalist, is the correspondent-at-large for Hong Kong-based Asia Times. His latest book is 2030. Follow him on Facebook.

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European Union’s Democracy Dilemma

Exclusive: The European elites want the European Union as a means for controlling the Continent’s economies, but that often requires overriding the popular will of nation states, a dilemma for “democracy,” explains Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus

A sigh of relief was heard across Europe on Sunday night, as far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was beaten soundly in the French presidential runoff election, losing to centrist Emmanuel Macron 66 percent to 34 percent.

Le Pen had come in a close second to Macron in the first round of voting two weeks earlier, less than three points back (24 percent to 21.3 percent) in a crowded field that also included conservative Francois Fillon (20 percent) and leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.6 percent) among the top vote-getters.

Le Pen capitalized on the anti-establishment fervor sweeping the Western world to challenge for the top spot with a strong critique of financial globalization and the European Union (E.U.), mixed in with her party’s historical message of nationalism with racist overtones. Together with Mélenchon, the first round saw over 40 percent of the votes go to these “extreme” candidates, indicating the presence of widespread dissatisfaction with the political élites and their current economic and social policies.

The fear among European political institutions was that Le Pen’s anti-E.U. message would either carry her to the presidency or at least call into question France’s adherence to the institutions that have transferred large chunks of sovereignty from the single nations of Europe to a supranational bureaucracy.

Macron, on the other hand, defended the E.U. despite recognizing widespread disaffection regarding European institutions. He stressed the need to restore confidence in the Union, while adopting a peculiar argument about how Europe is actually the best instrument to defend the sovereignty of its member states.

His decisive victory in the runoff election, although somewhat tainted by record levels of abstention and blank or spoiled ballots, is causing optimism among pro-E.U. politicians, who are now able to counter the populist narrative with the democratic election of a pro-European president of France.

This argument merits considerable skepticism, as the assumption of majority support for the supranational E.U. institutions based on the election of a national leader is quite a leap. Indeed the issue of the democratic legitimacy of the E.U. itself is a thorny one, due to electoral failures and questionable tactics used to ensure the construction of unpopular international bodies that impose profound changes in economic and social policies among the Union’s member states.

Why the E.U.

The origins of the E.U. go back to the 1950s. First there was the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, an agreement for regulation of industrial production among six countries: France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Then came the Rome Treaties of 1957, which gave birth to the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

The stated goal, encouraged by the United States in the context of the Cold War, was to “lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,” principally through economic cooperation based on the European “common market.” Over the subsequent decades the communities expanded to include 12 countries, an alliance of independent nation-states seeking increasing cooperation at the European level.

A phase shift began in the 1990s. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 transformed the communities into the European Union, and defined a path that would lead to the single currency, the Euro. Other countries were also invited to join, gradually bringing the total up to 28 Member States by 2013, although only 19 of them would participate in the monetary union. The new model of cooperation was that defined in 1992, with the goal of moving towards a single super-state based not only on economic union, but political union as well.

This goal immediately ran into a major obstacle: the popular will. Only three countries held referendums on the Maastricht Treaty: Ireland, France and Denmark. The first two were successful, but the population of Denmark voted against it. This would have been the death knell for the Treaty, so a decision was made to hold a second referendum, in which Maastricht was subsequently approved. The other participating countries merely had their Parliaments vote up the Treaty, so as to avoid the risk of a popular rejection.

The next big step in economic policy was called the Stability and Growth Pact, implementing stricter budget rules based on specific deficit/GDP and debt/GDP parameters. For years the Pact was the key instrument for imposing continuous austerity on the Member States. Here there was no attempt at obtaining approval even of the Parliaments, as the Stability and Growth Pact was enacted simply as an E.U. Regulation in 1997.

Risking Legitimacy

As economic and monetary policy became increasingly centralized and rigid, the risk of a lack of political legitimacy was evident. The response was to attempt the construction of a strong European government, by drawing up an E.U. Constitution.

Given the direct effect on sovereignty, some countries held referenda on the text, starting with France and the Netherlands. In 2005, the French rejected the proposed constitution 55 percent to 45 percent, just a few days before the Dutch did the same, with an even higher margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

The idea of creating a “United States of Europe” had been stopped in its tracks, rejected by the democratic vote of two important Member States. A normal response would have been to recognize that the peoples of Europe weren’t ready for full integration, but the institutions decided to go in a different direction.

Since a Constitution wouldn’t pass, they began drawing up a new treaty with essentially the same goal; the advantage was that a treaty could simply be passed by the Parliaments, avoiding putting it before the voters.

The result was the Lisbon Treaty, another step forward in consolidating the supranational power of the structures of the European Union. The path to ratification met only one serious obstacle, the requirement established by the Irish Supreme Court of holding a referendum on any treaties that go beyond the “essential scope or objectives” of existing E.U. documents. In 2008 the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty, throwing a wrench into this plan as well. Never fear, the Irish government called a second referendum a year later, and through a number of carrots and sticks the population was induced to pass it the second time.

The Lisbon Treaty entered in force in 2009, and remains the framework for the new form of the European Union, strengthening institutions, which from the 1990s on have been able to dictate economic policy to the member governments, thus keeping everyone in line with the policy orientation of the transatlantic élites.

Finding a Way

The case of Ireland shows the preferred method of European institutions for consolidating E.U. authority. First a goal is set, and then the method is chosen to meet it. If the most influential European politicians agree, the consent of the governed becomes merely an annoying detail to get around however possible.

In subsequent years additional treaties were passed with practically no public debate at all. One of the most important is the European Fiscal Compact (2012), an even stricter version of the Stability and Growth Pact, which obliges Member States to balance their budgets and reduce their debt.

To get a flavor for the ideology, consider the provision of the “debt brake”: any country that fails to reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio to below 60 percent is required to cut the debt by 5 percent each year for 20 straight years; a level of austerity that in some countries would require massive cuts in essential services.

The preferred method for moving forward with European integration raises serious questions. If the only way to create a United States of Europe is to avoid consulting the people, why should the goal even be pursued? The response often heard is based on circular reasoning: Europe needs to be built in order to meet the needs of the people, then the people will understand why it’s so important.

In the elections held so far this year in European countries, the anti-E.U. candidates have increased their votes considerably, but have not made it into the halls of power. For most of the European political class this is a relief, as they feared an imitation effect after the anti-establishment Brexit vote in June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. last November.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider the rejection of far-right candidates an endorsement of greater integration of European nations through supranational institutions, that to date have proved not only unable to deal with the economic effects of globalization, but also impervious to the democratic opinions of European citizens.

Andrew Spannaus is a freelance journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of Transatlantico.info, that provides news, analysis and consulting to Italian institutions and businesses. His book on the U.S. elections Perchè vince Trump (Why Trump is Winning) was published in June 2016.




France Circles Back to Status Quo

Though the names are different, the French election is playing out much like the last one when a candidate who might have brought change was brought down by scandal, opening the way for the same-ol’ policies, writes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

The vast majority of commentary in U.S. and West European media about the first round of voting in the French presidential election on April 23 concurred that the vote represented an unprecedented repudiation of the political establishment. After all, neither of the two top vote-getters, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, belonged to the major center-right or center-left parties, the Republicans and the Socialists respectively. The ugly character assassination pervading the campaign was also noted.

And yet, in many ways, the French first-round outcome was precisely “precedented” within French experience if we look back just five years to the election that brought Francois Hollande to power and, still more, within the U.S. experience if we look back over the several “bait and switch” presidential elections of the past quarter century.

In 2012, the French presidential candidate best prepared by experience and knowledge to lead France out of its economic and social woes was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at the time Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. He was widely expected to receive the nomination of the Socialist Party, but was brought down by a sex scandal that many believed at the time was an entrapment arranged by his enemies, including those in the United States where Strauss-Kahn’s sexual profligacy led to his indictment for sexual assault although the charges were later dropped.

Because of Strauss-Kahn’s legal troubles, the majority of French who had their fill of President Nicolas Sarkozy were left with the Socialists’ poor second choice, Francois Hollande, who proved over the last five years that he was witless and utterly lacking in substance. During his tenure, France has limped along and played a supporting role to the Continent’s hegemon, Germany.

In 2016, the presidential candidate best prepared by experience and knowledge to lead France was Francois Fillon. He offered both domestic and foreign policies that would mark a significant departure from the wishy-washy and ineffectual programs of Hollande and of Sarkozy before him. Perhaps most unorthodox of these policies within the Center-Right, from which he came, was his advocacy of good, constructive relations with Russia.

But Fillon was brought down by a concerted campaign of character assassination. Yes, he was likely guilty of abusing the hiring privileges of his office to assign state compensation to his wife and sons. But that has been a very widespread abuse in the French political establishment and represents institutionalized corruption that did not begin with and will not end with Fillon.

Democratic politics is not for Boy Scouts. It has always and will always have rough edges – and candidates will not be perfect men and women. The question, which should count above all others, is whether the candidate has the programs that will change people’s lives for the better and the force of will and political skills to realize them.

The Macron Muddle

Meanwhile, the administrative resources of the French government and the media have been used to promote the candidacy of a total nonentity, Emanuel Macron, whose main virtue is that he is NOT the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, the great nightmare candidate for the French establishment and beyond its borders for the European Union establishment, as well as for supporters of globalism around the world.

Macron’s second featured attribute is his youth. At 39, he will be the Fifth Republic’s youngest ever President. In this sense his candidacy parallels electoral politics in the United States, where being a black or being a woman has been used to draw votes to candidates who otherwise do not stand up to scrutiny.

Macron’s taking the lead position in the first round has been greeted with jubilation by world stock markets. The Nasdaq finally broke through the 6,000 level. European bank shares soared in reaction to the prospect of France being run by a former investment banker.

However, if he wins the second round, Macron will come to office without an organization to govern, with only the slightest chance of achieving a parliamentary majority in the upcoming National Assembly elections in June. He will be obliged to cobble together a ruling coalition, meaning there will be little coherence in his government and its policies. Coalitions are formed to share the spoils of office, not to get things done.

We may expect France to muddle along and to continue to be subservient to Berlin, the capital of European powerhouse Germany, and Brussels, the home of the European Union’s bureaucracy. This will be a setback for those who had hoped France would break the stultifying consensus over austerity, over migrants, over sanctions on Russia – issues that are destroying the European Union from within. But the biggest loser may well be the French nation.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015

 




Populism v. Elites in French Election

Exclusive: Popular resistance to neoliberal economic policies gets its next test in Sunday’s election in France with two populists from the Right and Left challenging two mainstream candidates, explains Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus

French voters will head to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president, in the next test for the electoral revolt that has swept across Europe and the United States over the past year. Marine Le Pen of the Front National, the right-wing nationalist party seeking to exploit the wave of popular protest that has buoyed outsider candidates throughout the West, aims to place first or second in order to participate in a run-off in two weeks to determine the next leader of France.

European political élites are hoping that the populist revolt will fall short, allowing a more moderate candidate such as the centrist Emmanuel Macron to win. This could change the narrative of the anti-establishment sentiment that has raised questions about the very survival of the supranational institutions of the European Union (E.U.), under attack due to economic policies that have led to declining living standards for much of the population.

After the victory of Brexit in June of 2016, and the success of outsider candidates in the U.S. presidential elections, the European political class began 2017 wondering if the wave of discontent would produce upset victories in the elections scheduled in key countries such as the Netherlands, France and Germany, with Italy also preparing to hold a general election by early 2018 at the latest.

In the Netherlands, the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders was thought to have the potential to be the top vote-getter overall, despite the expectation that the other major political forces would then refuse to enter into a coalition with Wilders, preventing him from forming a government. Just as he has for his entire political career, Wilders focused his 2017 campaign on a demagogic call to de-Islamize Holland, claiming it was time to take the country back from both immigrants and the E.U. bureaucracy, presented as a threat to the Dutch national identity.

On economics Wilders made at attempt to intersect the discontent of the middle and working classes, calling for the Netherlands to leave the European Union and promising lower healthcare costs, a lower retirement age, and better social assistance for the elderly. This, despite professing to be a follower of the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher.

In the March 15 election the Freedom Party did poorly, winning only 13 percent of the vote, far behind the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte, that came in first with over 21 percent. Wilders was hurt significantly by Rutte’s ability to exploit a diplomatic row with Turkish President Erdogan to show that he, too, was willing to be tough on Islam, thus stealing the protest candidate’s thunder. Voters appeared to discount his attempt to act as an economic populist, preferring to follow the pleas from the establishment to reject the more extreme candidate and favor stability.

The French Test

Next up is France, this weekend, where Marine Le Pen has attempted to soften the image of the Front National, associated with chauvinist positions since her father Jean-Marie founded the party in 1972. Marine has continued the calls to defend France’s national identity, but has also taken her criticism of the European Union to a higher level, with a detailed critique of the economic globalization policies that have hurt the middle class and created hardship and uncertainty for various segments of the population.

France has a tradition of nationalism and skepticism towards supranational institutions. Indeed when called to vote on a proposed European Constitution in 2005, the French rejected it decisively (as did the Dutch that same year, by an even larger margin). This didn’t stop European élites from moving forward with their plan for integration, but it’s no surprise that the population is quick to criticize E.U. institutions for the negative effects of “deregulated globalization,” as Le Pen calls it.

The Front National claims to be the alternative to the moneyed interests on the Right and the Left that have created a system that has “paralyzed the economy” and caused “mass unemployment”. The F.N. has also been smart enough to present a specific proposal attacking the free-market precepts the E.U. institutions defend. The idea is to leave the Euro, but not to return to a floating exchange rate system with competitive devaluations and speculative attacks on currencies; they propose to go back to a stable exchange-rate regime similar to that of the Bretton Woods system in effect in the decades after World War II.

In Europe this was called the European Monetary System (EMS), with international accounts settled using the European Currency Unit (ECU) starting in 1979. In the late 1990s, the E.U. institutions transformed this into the single currency, which meant turning power over to a single central bank and demanding control over the macroeconomic policy of all of the participating countries.

The F.N. has also called for eliminating the independence of the French Central Bank, returning to national banking, with the goal of guaranteeing investments for the real economy rather than suffering under the policies of austerity. Not surprisingly, many economists claim these measures would never work, as they fear that such a change would open the floodgates to a wholesale revision of the dominant neoliberal policies in effect today.

Le Pen is set to do significantly better than Wilders did in the Netherlands, although her prospects seem to have dimmed a bit in recent weeks. There is no guarantee she will make it to the run-off, and even if she does, most observers are convinced that in that case the French would rally around her opponent to defeat her. Of course, some skepticism regarding such predictions is definitely in order, considering recent precedents. Le Pen has done a better job of tying her message to the economic discontent of the population, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to “normalize” her with the French population.

A Left Alternative

Another option disgruntled French voters are considering is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist who has founded his own party called “Unsubmissive France,” whose appeal has grown rapidly in these elections. Mélenchon’s role is similar to that of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. primaries, as his populist, anti-globalization message is not that far from the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen, but without the xenophobia. Mélenchon is heavily critical of both NATO and the E.U. – although he does not call for leaving the Euro immediately – and he supports a significant expansion of social spending and state intervention in the economy.

Mélenchon isn’t truly an outsider, given that he has been in the French political system for decades, even serving as Education Minister from 2000 to 2002, but the jump in his support reflects the openness to candidates who challenge the system. He has almost doubled his popularity compared to his last run for president in 2012, when he took in 11 percent of the votes. The most recent polls show him at 19 percent, not far from Macron and Le Pen, both at 22-23 percent, and essentially tied with the conservative Francois Fillon.

Thus out of the top four candidates, two are considered extreme, raising the specter of a run-off between anti-establishment figures that would upend the political situation in France, and send shockwaves throughout Europe as a whole. This has led current President Francois Hollande to intervene recently against the risk of populism, blaming the insurgent candidates of promoting “simplifications and falsifications.”

If Le Pen or Mélenchon are in fact eliminated in the first round, or lose in a run-off, the pro-E.U. political class around Europe appears ready to celebrate the defeat of populism and the survival of the plan to move forward with European integration. Notwithstanding the black eye represented by the U.K.’s confirmation of the Brexit, it would appear that the anti-Euro, anti-immigrant attitudes that many feared would dominate this election season, are taking a back seat to more moderate and traditional political views.

Declaring victory over the populists could be a big mistake, however. It’s one thing to rejoice over the failure of anti-foreigner sentiment as a driver of electoral politics; it’s another entirely to believe that just because more extreme political movements are failing in this election season, Europe can also avoid the calls for changes in E.U. economic policy.

An attempt to close ranks, to continue to resist against legitimate popular protests against austerity, declines in living standards and widespread unemployment and job instability, would mean ignoring the deep-seated problems brought to the fore by the revolt of voters across the Western world.

The only way to truly win the battle against undesirable elements of European nationalism and populism, is to address the real issues raised by an economic policy that has weakened the middle class and caused most of the population to lose trust in the political and financial élites. In the absence of an effective response to this problem, the protest is not only certain to return in the future, but may well be stronger and more unpredictable when it does.

Andrew Spannaus is a freelance journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of Transatlantico.info, that provides news, analysis and consulting to Italian institutions and businesses. His book on the U.S. elections Perchè vince Trump (Why Trump is Winning) was published in June 2016.