The origin of the conflict lies in the Brazilian election campaign which took place at the end of 2018. Jair Bolsonaro, an MP from Rio de Janeiro since 1990, was presidential candidate of the splinter party Partido Social Liberal (PSL). Because he is entrepreneur-friendly and defies mainstream sociopolitical views – which he likes to proclaim loudly – Western and especially French mainstream media came to the conclusion that Bolsonaro must at least be right-wing if not Goebbels.
As final proof of the veracity of their categorization, the “quality” media published the biography of the dreaded leader: Bolsonaro left the Brazilian military academy with the rank of lieutenant of artillery, was a paratrooper of the Brazilian army and is still a reserve captain.
After a tough election campaign in Brazil, in which all Western mainstream media outlets and politicians supported the progressive candidate Fernando Haddad as best they could, the Brazilians nonetheless opted against the “good” left, which they had linked to serious corruption and lawlessness.
Instead, they voted for the “evil right-wing extremist” Bolsonaro, who received 55 percent of the votes in the second ballot. French President Macron, who not only believes himself to be on a major mission for sociopolitical progress, but also compares himself immodestly to the Roman deity Jupiter, the highest god, felt called upon to instruct the newly elected Brazilian president in political and ideological morality and to lead him back onto the virtuous path through the power of his moral authority.
Although Macron congratulated Bolsonaro diplomatically on his electoral victory, he reminded him with sage wisdom that “France and Brazil maintain a strategic partnership based on shared values of respect and promotion of democratic principles.[…] Respecting these values, France wishes to continue its cooperation with Brazil to address today’s major challenges for our planet, both in the area of peace and international security and in the context of environmental diplomacy and the obligations of the Paris Agreement”.
In parallel with these more moderated words, the Macron fan base launched an anti-Bolsonaro campaign on Twitter: Philippe Grangeon, Interim Chief of Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) and Macron adviser, wrote: “The right-wing extremists are no longer standing on the threshold of power: they are in power.” And further, Grangeon tweeted: “He likes a military dictatorship, wants to destroy the Amazon, wishes that his son is killed in a car accident in case he is homosexual… and he is president of Brazil today. Great sadness and a setback for all democrats around the world.”
LREM MP Sacha Houlié wrote: “New upswing of the conservatives. New challenges for the progressives they need to face,” while his LREM colleagues Aurore Bergé and Aurélien Taché complained respectively that “no democracy is protected from it,” and “this very bad news is also the result of the failure of a somewhat populist left in Brazil”.
The tone in the bilateral relations was thus created and did not change over the next few months. In December 2018, the christening of the first Scorpène submarine bought by the Brazilian Navy from France took place without an official French representative. The 6th Franco-Brazilian Economic Forum, scheduled for the beginning of 2019, was first canceled, then adjourned to June, again without French Government officials present. In May, on the other hand, Macron received the Brazilian Indian chief Raoni – a radical domestic opponent of Bolsonaro’s – with great pomp.
At the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan in late June, Macron and Bolsonaro met for the first time. It was stressed by the French that the conversation was “very direct” and Macron had insisted that Brazil not leave the Paris Climate Agreement. He had threatened not to sign the Mercosur EU Free Trade Agreement otherwise.
The Brazilian side, on the other hand, began to strike a more conciliatory note: the conversation was informal and friendly. Bolsonaro had insisted on remaining in the climate agreement and even invited Macron to Brazil and the Amazon so that he could get an idea of the measures that had been taken to protect the rainforest.
But when at the end of July the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian came to Brazil on a state visit and also wanted to get together with members of the so-called “civil society”, Bolsonaro cancelled the announced meeting at the last minute to go to the hairdresser.
A caricature of Bolsonaro at the hairdressing salon with the infamous Hitler haircut posted on Twitter ridiculed the French Foreign Minister’s proclivities. One day later, Bolsonaro commented on the incident: “There is an action strategy to be applied to each moment. […] Why does he [Le Drian] come here to discuss with NGOs? As soon as you talk about NGOs, it triggers the alarm of anyone with a minimum of common sense.”
Before the G7 summit in Biarritz, the conflict worsened. Already on the eve of August 23, Macron ham-handedly styled the annual Amazon fires into an “international crisis” via Twitter to prove the drama of the situation by means of an outdated ten-year-old photo. In the official launch communiqué from the summit, Macron personally blamed Bolsonaro for the annual forest fires in the Amazon, stating: “Given Brazil’s behavior in recent weeks, it can only be said that President Bolsonaro lied to me at the Osaka Summit. President Bolsonaro has decided not to meet his climate commitments or biodiversity commitments. Under these conditions France does not agree to the Mercosur Agreement.”
Bolsonaro hit back at Macron, accusing him of instrumentalizing the issue at hand for personal use. Finally, he blasted Macron, who regularly poses as some valiant fighter against colonialism, for having a “colonialist mindset”.
“The Brazilian Government remains open to dialogue, based on objective data and mutual respect. The suggestion of the French President, that Amazonian issues are discussed at the G7 without the participation of the region’s countries, evokes a colonial mentality misplaced in the XXI century,” Bolsonaro said.
On August 25, the conflict reached new levels: Brazilian Education Minister Abraham Weintraub tweeted: “Macron is just an opportunistic moron seeking the support of the French agricultural lobby.” And further: “France is a land of extremes: It has produced people like Descartes or Pasteur, but also the volunteers of the Waffen-SS Charlemagne. […] You have chosen a feeble president. […] You have to attack this idiot Macron.”
On the same day Facebook user Rodrigo Andreaca posted a picture unfavourably comparing Brigitte Macron, 66 to his third wife, 37, and wrote: “Do you understand why Macron is persuing Bolsonaro? I bet Macron is jealous …”
Bolsonaro liked the comment and wrote: “Don’t humiliate the man — LOL.” Macron described Bolsonaro’s comments as “extraordinarily disrespectful”, adding: “I hope that they [Brazilians] will very quickly get a president who is up to the job.”
On August 26, at the G7 summit, under France’s leadership, Bolsonaro was offered $20 million in aid to help fight the forest fires, but he refused to accept the aid and advised Macron to “take care of his home and colonies” instead.
Brazilian cabinet chief Onyx Lorenzoni added: “We thank you, but these funds may be needed more urgently in Europe for reforestation.” Bolsonaro condemned what he described as Macron’s meddling in Brazilian affairs and insisted he would only consider the G7’s Amazon aid package if Macron withdrew his “insults”.
“First he called me a liar and then, according to my information, he declared that our sovereign rule over the Amazon was an open question.” On August 28, Bolsonaro finally revealed his support for the condition that the Brazilian state could decide on the use of the money. “Most importantly, once it arrives in Brazil, these funds will not be used against Brazilian sovereignty and we will coordinate their efforts.”
The Brazilian government’s backing down is likely due to international pressure caused by media propaganda around the forest fires and the impending failure of the Mercosur agreement with the EU.
This once again shows the shift in the balance of power away from the sovereign nation states towards the media, NGOs and multinationals. In Bolsonaro they found an opponent of equal skill, but in the end he, like all conservatives, is powerless against these networks and structures.