Steve Bannon in France to try and frame European elections

YAHOO: France’s European election campaign has an unexpected guest: controversial American political strategist Steve Bannon, who is praising far-right leader Marine Le Pen and claiming France is the most important country in this week’s EU-wide poll.

Since Steve Bannon arrived in Paris sometime around the end of last week, he has told newspaper Le Parisien that France’s campaign was “without a doubt” the most important in the EU parliamentary elections.

He then predicted in the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche that “Marine will win in the end” before heaping further praise on the far-right leader on Monday.

“Her resilience, given that she has made a comeback from her failure in 2017, and the way she has given a new identity to the National Front [now named the National Rally], everything she has done in terms of leading her party, I find it quite remarkable,” Bannon said on BFM TV.

Polls suggest Le Pen’s National Rally is neck-and-neck with the centrist Republic on the Move party of President Emmanuel Macron, both of them far outdistancing more traditional centre-left and centre-right groups.

Macron’s camp appears to be taking the presence of the former chair of Breitbart media seriously, in one instance warning the strategist’s presence is proof that Le Pen’s National Rally is a Trojan horse for Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin to destroy the EU.

Macron himself warned in an interview published Tuesday that Europeans “should not be naïve” about the influence of Bannon on the future of the bloc.

France key to Bannon’s vision of Europe

Following the mid-term congressional elections in the United States in November, Bannon said he planned to spend most of his time in Europe, where he has sought to unite the continent’s right-wing populist and conservative nationalist political parties.

His remarks in the media suggests he sees France as a key battleground to those efforts.

“He sees in France a country that is not very satisfied with Macron, the European parliamentary elections have a lot of protest voters, and his ultimate goal is to build a right-wing populist supergroup in the European parliament,” said Dan Smith, doctoral researcher in right-wing populism at Cambridge University.

“I think he sees France as the place with the best opportunity for the far right to do well in these European elections.”

Targeting Macron

Bannon’s singling out of France also seems to have as much to do with opposing the staunch federalist Macron, who has positioned himself as a saviour against the surge of far-right populist nationalism in the EU, as with supporting Le Pen.

In the Le Parisien interview, Bannon spoke of the importance of opposing Macron’s “globalist vision” for ever-deeper integration and federalisation of EU member states and called the election “a referendum on him and his vision for Europe”.

Even Bannon’s choice of destination, the luxury Bristol Paris hotel, sits just over a hundred metres from where Macron holds office in the Elysée palace, France’s presidential residence.

“This has to do with the narrative that has played out for the past few weeks, where these elections have been presented as a referendum on Europe,” said Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris business school and founder of pro-EU group The Good Lobby.

“He [Bannon] played a significant role in building and shaping such a narrative, perhaps a smaller role in supporting this ultra-right, anti-European movement. But he’s certainly taking a lot of credit for what is happening and for this narrative to take off.”

A movement and a monastery

Bannon has been playing up the influence of what he calls a worldwide nationalist movement in his media appearances, drawing links between Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India as well as Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Nigel Farage in the UK.

Two years ago, he launched group called The Movement in efforts to unite Europe’s nationalist conservatives and right-wing populists.

The group has mostly kept a low profile so far, though it did gain one high-profile member last September in Salvini, who signed up far-right party The League to bring the number of partners to four.

Bannon is also supporting the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a conservative Catholic group wishing to turn a remote monastery not far from Rome in Italy into a training centre for activists to build a populist faction inside the Catholic Church.

Anti-EU messaging

It was not particularly clear whether these efforts would or could translate into support for Le Pen, who has denied Bannon has any role in her campaign and claimed only to have learned of his presence in France in the press.

“I’m of the opinion that there are more people who hear his name and are turned off by it than people who would hear his name and think they should vote for the National Rally,” said Dan Smith. “He may end up hurting them more than helping them.”

But Le Pen does not deny having links with Bannon, who spoke at a National Rally event in March of last year, and his influence may have more to do with developing anti-EU messaging they are using to gain influence among their own voters.

“Certainly he has merit in seeing an opportunity in Europe to connect the dots among groups and political parties that were not necessarily aware of the potential to Europeanise their political discourse,” said Alberto Alemanno, who is nonetheless sceptical the different groups can work together.

“I don’t think it is very realistic to imagine all these political forces on the ultra-right to sit together on 27 May, in the aftermath of these elections,” Alemanno said. “Their political priorities are very national and very misaligned.”

But others see a risk of a large part of the European parliament being versed in similar anti-EU messaging, and the elections will be an initial sign of whether they will be able to destabilise the EU from within.

“We are at the summit of what he envisioned two years ago, when he started The Movement,” François Durpaire, specialist in American history at the University of Cergy-Pointoise north of Paris, told RFI.

“His goal is to build a large group that can weigh upon to destroy the European Union,” Durpaire said. “We’ll see how successful he has been on Sunday.”