Macron will never be Europe’s saviour if he keeps playing to the populists | Opinion

When he came to office, Emmanuel Macron was claimed as the poster child for European political liberalism, saving the day against the forces of extremism and populism. “Europe’s saviour?” was a common headline.

The relief was felt far beyond France. In the world of Trump and Brexit, the 39-year-old’s meteoric rise brought solace to all those worried about the state of representative democracy and the global liberal order. Remember how Barack Obama endorsed Macron’s campaign, saying, “the success of France matters to the entire world”.

Three months on, some of the gloss has come off. Does that mean France’s self-styled “Jupiterian” president is already damaged goods? Hardly. But a difficult road lies ahead. Macron’s approval ratings have plummeted over the summer. They’re now down to 36%, lower than even those of his lacklustre predecessor, François Hollande, at the same stage in his presidential term.

Yes, Macron has made mistakes. Social media are rife with jokes about the €26,000 (£24,000) he has spent on makeup since his election. That may say something about a conspicuously image-obsessed personality, particularly given all the magazine covers devoted to his wife, Brigitte, and the photographs of him in pilot gear or dangling from a helicopter above a submarine, James Bond style. Not to mention the use he makes of Facebook to circumvent the traditional media filter. Still, none of this differentiates him much from other politicians of the younger generation. There were more serious blunders when he needlessly stumbled into a battle of egos with the army’s chief of staff, who later resigned. Yet more trouble came with the inexperience and confusion shown by his party’s freshly elected members in parliament. That may all be part of the learning process, as the price for radical political renewal must surely include trial and error. It’s hard to deny that the French political scene has been thoroughly overhauled by this year’s elections, an accomplishment Macron must be given due credit for.

The real problem lies elsewhere. It’s in the scale of the liberal, market-oriented reforms Macron wants to introduce, in a country that may not so willingly accept them. This effort must involve a lot of convincing if resistance is to be broken down. Macron will be constantly reminded that he gained only 24% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. That, and not the 66% he garnered against Marine Le Pen in the second round, was the true measure of his core constituency.

It is no exaggeration to believe – as is the case in Berlin – that Europe’s future depends on whether Macron can succeed as a transformational president. But how is he going about this task? His activities this past week, as he returned to work after a short vacation in Marseille with Brigitte, were revealing.

France feels like it is living on top of a volcano. One trade union is already preparing a strike and demonstrations for 12 September. The far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose Unbowed France movement gained almost 20% of the vote in May, has called for a “moral insurrection” against reforms he describes as “a social coup d’état”.

But in the midst of all this, Macron headed to eastern Europe. There, he made the case for a tightening of the EU’s “posted workers” directive, which allows companies to send employees to work temporarily in other member states while continuing to pay benefits and taxes in their own country.

This move shouldn’t be read as an attempt to revise freedom of movement: it isn’t. Still, Macron’s team span his tactic as being designed to prevent a Brexit-type reaction in which popular anger grows against foreign workers “allowed in without restrictions”. In fact, the changes he seeks are largely cosmetic. On top of this, support in France for freedom of movement remains high (79% in favour), as it does across the whole of the EU (81%), as the latest Eurobarometer study shows.

Emmanuel Macron gestures during a press conference with Bulgarian prime minister, Bojko Borisov.

Emmanuel Macron gestures during a press conference with Bulgarian prime minister, Bojko Borisov. Photograph: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Macron’s main strategy is to exaggerate a fight he’s putting up at a European level against “social dumping”, to neutralise some of the domestic criticism he has received for wanting to transform France’s rigid labour market. This has now led to a nasty spat with Poland, whose prime minister has accused him of arrogance and inexperience. Macron’s argument that “Europe must protect” social rights is valid, but scapegoating the EU risks landing him in exactly in the same place as the populist politicians he wants to thwart. Back in April, Macron defended the “posted workers” directive, but opposition from both Marine Le Pen and Melenchon led to his U-turn. Indeed, Macron is a latecomer to this issue: the EU commission has been looking at how to reform it since March last year.

The key challenge for Macron is to make sure his reforms aren’t perceived as dismantling the welfare state but as modernising it along the lines of the Scandinavian model. It is often said that austerity breeds populism, but the growth of the far right in France has other explanations. The country hasn’t experienced anything comparable to the cuts Britain underwent during the coalition years – not to mention Thatcherism. Nor was it ever subjected to the kind of treatment Greece received.

In France, income inequality and poverty rates are lower than in Britain and Germany. What the country does suffer from is decades-old mass unemployment – hovering at 10%, and now around 21% among 18- to 24-year-olds. Unlike in Britain, young people in France voted in far larger numbers for the far right than they did for the left or liberal parties. Macron took to battling with eastern Europe to show he’s on the side of French workers, not EU technocrats. But the degree of manipulation wasn’t hard to detect. In a candid moment at a press conference last Wednesday, he almost admitted as much, saying, “France’s problems have nothing to do with posted workers.”

If there are lessons to be drawn from Brexit for France, surely they aren’t about designating eastern European workers as a threat to collective wellbeing. The best antidote to populism isn’t scaremongering, but economic performance and fixing homegrown problems. Macron ought to square that difficulty without throwing more oil on nationalist passions. He is right to recall that the “Polish plumber” syndrome played a part in French voters’ rejection of an EU constitution project in 2005, but rekindling some of that debate now comes with risks. He’s trying to deflect attention from domestic woes by pointing to external dangers, even though posted workers represent only 1% of the EU workforce. It’s not obvious how this tactic will help further his ambition to reboot the European project, alongside Angela Merkel.

Macron is not irreversibly damaged yet. The eurozone economy is doing better these days. Some trade unions do support his reforms. But to successfully lead his nation, Macron will need to deploy more energy on the domestic front rather than seek disputes abroad.

Obama was right: France is a key player in Europe, even more so after Brexit. The state of its democracy matters to the entire world. But the oft made comparisons to Napoleon should concern Macron, not encourage hubris. His battles must first be fought at home, before any attempt to transform the rest of the continent.

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Polish minister accused of hav​ing links with pro-Kremlin far-right groups | World news

A serving Polish deputy defence minister has been accused of having links with pro-Kremlin far-right groups, after a German newspaper reported that he travelled to Moscow with a far-right delegation.

Bartosz Kownacki, a key lieutenant of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, was a member of a group of Polish international observers during Russia’s 2012 election.

He was accompanied by Mateusz Piskorski, the founder of a Polish thinktank, the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA) who is now in detention in Poland, facing charges of spying for Moscow.

According to the Central Russian Election Commission, Kownacki was one of four representatives of “Polish NGOs”, alongside Piskorski and other figures connected to his thinktank.

A leading member of Piskorski’s pro-Russia Zmiana (Change) party confirmed to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that Piskorski had made arrangements “on the Polish side” for Kownacki’s participation as an election observer.

Two years later, Piskorski was a member of a delegation to observe Crimea’s referendum to secede Ukraine – a vote which was described by the OSCE as illegal.

The FAZ report says that Kownacki also was involved alongside Piskorski in the far-right Alliance of European National Movements (AENM), a pan-European political group co-founded by far-right parties including Hungary’s Jobbik party and France’s Front National.

The British National party’s former leader, Nick Griffin, has served as a vice-president of the group, which has been at the centre of concerns that Russia is sponsoring and promoting far-right movements in an attempt to undermine European unity.

Kownacki denies Zmiana’s claim that Piskorski was involved in arranging his participation in the delegation to Moscow in 2012, saying that he travelled at the invitation of the AENM, and has had no contact with Piskorski before or since.

“It is no coincidence that the German press baselessly attacked me at the moment of [Poland] signing a key agreement with the US on the acquisition of a Patriot missile system, which may affect the interests of German defence firms,” he said.

But the Guardian has seen a text message exchange between Griffin and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which Griffin confirmed that the AENM was working with Piskorski at the time of the delegation.

In his statement, Kownacki also says that he went to Moscow as a replacement for a senator from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). However the senator in question departed the senate in 2011, the year before the Russian presidential election.

The revelations have exacerbated concerns that Macierewicz, the defence minister, whose political roots can be traced to the radical nationalist right, is compromising his country’s security by bringing associates with hardline nationalist and pro-Russian views into the heart of Poland’s security establishment.

According to a March report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, rightwing parties in Poland have been targeted by Russian attempts to build relationships with fringe political movements across Europe, and especially in central and eastern Europe.

Documents published by a Ukrainian website revealed extensive contacts between Alyaksandr Usovsky – the coordinator of “a loose network of nationalists, radicals, and neofascists across eastern Europe” – and a number of nationalist Polish parties.

The documents suggest that in addition to maintaining contact with Piskorski, Usovsky transferred €100,000 (£88,615) in 2014 to the far-right Great Poland Camp party (OGP) and other groups in order to promote rallies denouncing the Ukrainian government and defending Russian actions in Ukraine.

Piskorski’s Zmiana party, which describes itself as “the first non-American political party in Poland”, blames Polish politicians for exacerbating the Ukraine crisis and advocates a pro-Russian orientation in foreign policy.

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Britain First supporter calls for Merkel to be shot for refugee policy | World news

A prominent Britain First supporter has advocated gunning down Angela Merkel because of Germany’s policy of allowing Muslim refugees to settle in Europe.

Marian Lukasik, a far-right activist, said the German chancellor should be shot “to pieces” after allowing Syrian and Iraqi people to enter Germany.

Footage of his comments has been uploaded to YouTube as part of an interview which has been viewed thousands of times.

It comes days after a man, reportedly with rightwing views, was charged with planning to assassinate the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and one year on from the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, who was killed by a far-right activist who shouted “Britain First” before shooting and stabbing her.

Lukasik, 61, a Polish national who lives in Enfield, north London, made his comments while attending a Britain First rally in Birmingham last month. He was interviewed for more than 20 minutes by a Polish blogger, Weronika Kania, and asked for his opinion on Merkel’s immigration policy.

Lukasik replied in Polish: “Let comrade Mauser speak” – an apparent reference to a German semi-automatic pistol – before imitating the sound and miming the action of a firing gun for several seconds. He then said: “Shoot her into pieces. This is the only solution. If this whore remains in charge it will just get worse. There will be terrorist attacks and so on.”

According to the Criminal Law Act 1977, a person who makes a threat to kill, intending that others would fear it would be carried out, can face a sentence of up to 10 years.

After being urged to calm down by another man at the rally, Lukasik said: “I will go to prison for what I have said. I will not be the first or the last. If I go to prison for telling the truth, it’s fine by me.”

Lukasik, a former champion wrestler, stood as an independent councillor in Enfield in 2014. During the campaign Lukasik told the Barnet and Whetstone Press that he wanted to help foreigners: “We, foreigners, English people, must find some solution to live together peacefully.”

This benevolent sentiment is absent from Lukasic’s current presence on social media where he has posted slogans warning about the number of Muslims in Europe, and called for trade unions to be banned.

Lukasik’s views on Islam have been uploaded to YouTube by Britain First’s deputy leader, Jayda Fransen, and he has been photographed alongside her on several occasions.

In one piece of footage, he says: “I am here to warn you about Islamisation,” before claiming that Muslim gangs have been involved in the “ritual rape” of young white girls.

Contacted on Wednesday night, Lukasik said he stood by the sentiment of what he said in the footage but would not murder Merkel or anyone else. He said he had lived in Germany and became emotional when asked about Merkel but would not actually shoot her.

“I do not like what she has done because of the many Muslims who have come to Germany and the terrorist attacks in Europe. I would not shoot her or anyone,” he said.

He said he had helped Britain First to recruit supporters among the Polish community and took 40 supporters to recent rallies by the group.

“I worry about the Muslims coming to Europe. We have seen too many deaths from terrorism in Germany, in London, in Manchester,” he said.

Three far-right activists from Poland were recently stopped from attending the Britain First rally in Birmingham after being detained by the UK authorities at airports.

They included Jacek Międlar, 28, an antisemitic priest, and his fellow activist Piotr Rybak, who was indicted for inciting hatred last year after burning an effigy of an orthodox Jew during a protest against Muslim immigration.

Rafał Pankowski from the Never Again Association, which monitors far-right activity in Europe, said Lukasik was “the tip of the iceberg”, because of growing radicalisation in the UK Polish community by far-right groups. “It is time for British authorities and organisations to wake up to this issue,” he said.

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Leading author joins boycott of Swedish book fair due to extremist newspaper’s presence | Books

Kenyan literary icon Ngugi wa Thiong’o, often tipped for the Nobel literature prize, has pulled out of an annual Swedish book fair in protest at the presence of a right-wing extremist newspaper, his publisher said Wednesday.

The 75-year-old author of A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1975), wrote an email to his Swedish publisher Modernista informing them he would cancel his attendance at the Gothenburg Book Fair “in solidarity with the writers withdrawing and of course with the concerns behind their withdrawal,” referring to the newspaper Nya Tider, which will be represented at the fair.

“We can confirm that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has cancelled his attendance at the book fair in Gothenburg in the autumn,” Kristofer Andersson, development director at Modernista, said.

Birgitta Jacobsson Ekblom, head of communications for the fair, added they had received this information and were in contact with Ngugi, a fierce critic of post-colonial Kenyan society.

The event, to be held from 28 September to 1 October, is Scandinavia’s largest book fair and draws around 100,000 visitors each year.

On 21 April, more than 200 Swedish authors signed an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper saying they would boycott the book fair if Nya Tider is represented.

Additionally, 12 European national institutes of culture – from Germany, France, Romania, Spain and Portugal among others – sent an email to organisers on Tuesday expressing their concern about Nya Tider’s attendance and urging it to bar the publication, which has received state press subsidies since 2012.

“The purpose of the email, for me, was to ask where to draw the line between freedom of speech and providing hatred with a free platform,” Laurent Clavel, head of the French Institute in Sweden, told public broadcaster SVT.

Fair organisers have, however, refused to budge on the issue.

“We believe that an open dialogue is the best way to beat forces involving intolerance, racism and xenophobia,” Ekblom said, adding the newspaper had requested to attend the fair.

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Far-right activists detained at UK border before Britain First rally | World news

Prominent far-right activists from Europe who were planning to attend an anti-Muslim rally in Birmingham have been detained at airports hours before they were due to speak.

Jacek Międlar, 28, an antisemitic priest, and his fellow activist Piotr Rybak were among three Polish nationals stopped on Saturday morning, according to Polish media and social media posts. They were due to speak at the rally held by far-right group Britain First.

At around the same time, the Dutch national Edwin Wagensveld, who is the head of his country’s branch of the Islamophobic movement Pegida, was held at Birmingham airport, Britain First said.

The detentions follow three terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Muslims were targeted in Finsbury Park, north London, last week, in an attack during which one man was killed and dozens were injured.

Britain First describes itself as “committed to maintaining and strengthening Christianity as the foundation of our society and culture”, and repeatedly tells its followers about a coming “civil war” with Islam.

Prominent figures in the organisation have claimed that the detentions by border authorities are illegal. The deputy leader of Britain First, Jayda Fransen, told IBTimes UK: “They have not committed any crime, it’s completely ridiculous.”

Anti-racism campaigners said Międlar’s scheduled appearance was further proof of the growing links between British extremists and nationalists abroad.

Described as a “fanatical hate preacher” by campaigners in Poland, he attacks his critics as leftists opposed to Polish patriotism.

Międlar, who is from Wrocław in western Poland, has cultivated a sizeable following in his country. His local Catholic church has suspended him for the content of his nationalist sermons, but he has addressed tens of thousands of people at rightwing rallies.

His speeches target the political left, “Islamic aggression” and immigration. They often invoke the “warriors of great Poland” and are accompanied by chants of “God, honour, fatherland”.

Międlar was accused last year of calling Jews a “cancer” that had “swept Poland” during an address to a rally in Białystok.

Prosecutors later absolved him of alleged hate-speech offences. He was detained earlier this year and returned home after trying to enter the UK for another Britain First rally in Telford.

Rybak was indicted for inciting hatred last year after burning an effigy of an orthodox Jew during a protest against Muslim immigration.

During the event, he was heard saying: “Our duty and the duty of the newly elected government … [is to say] we will not bring a single Muslim into Poland. Poland is for Poles”. He then set fire to the effigy, which featured an EU flag.

Wagensveld was arrested last year for failing to take off a child’s hat shaped like a pig while protesting against immigrant centres that were supposed to house refugees.

Anti-racism campaigners have said Miedlar and his supporters could radicalise some of the 830,000 Poles living in the UK and called on British authorities to intervene before his arrival.

Rafał Pankowski from the Never Again group in Poland said the far right had been trying to mobilise members of the Polish community in the UK against their Muslim neighbours.

“Jacek Miedlar and Piotr Rybak are well-known as extreme hate-mongers. They intended to promote their hateful message to the audiences in the UK. Unfortunately, there is a big surge in far-right nationalist activity among the UK Poles this year,” he said.

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