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The relations between Brazil and France

The relationship between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron has never been worse in the world of international relations.

After Jair Bolsonaro’s election to Brazil’s Presidency, President Macron sent a message of congratulations that seemed a reprimand: “We cooperate with Brazil, while respecting democracy” – a clear, hypothetical hint at the neo-authoritarian “temptations” of the new Brazilian President.

The two leaders could certainly not be more different. However, part of Bolsonaro’s electorate has sympathy precisely for a Macron-style liberalism.

Then there was the issue of the Gilets Jaunes when, in December 2018, the Brazilian President’s diplomatic adviser said that “Macron should reconcile with his people, before criticizing the decisions taken by the Brazilian government”. It was exactly the moment when the Brazilian government walked out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Last July, at the last moment, Bolsonaro cancelled a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Le Drian, who was on an official visit to Brasilia.

It should also be recalled that a few days before the G7 Summit organized in Biarritz, French President Macron defined the Amazon rainforest fires as “an international crisis”. Later France explicitly accused Brazilian President Bolsonaro of lying about the Amazon issue during the G20 Summit in Osaka.

Later, after a meeting that was allegedly very controversial between France and Brazil, President Bolsonaro accepted obtorto collo the Paris Climate Agreement, which was a prerequisite for the trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur, the free trade alliance of which Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela and Uruguay are members.

There was even gossip in the controversy between the two Presidents: in August 2019, a Brazilian magazine compared the photo of Madame Macron with those of Bolsonaro’s wife, putting the following question: “Now do you understand why Macron is persecuting Bolsonaro?”

Apart from the vulgarity of the whole issue, there is the sign of personal and political tension between the two Presidents that cannot certainly be resolved with a handshake.

The Brazilian Education Minister publicly described Macron as “an idiot” and later the Brazilian government refused support to the tune of 20 million euros designed to help the countries hit by the Amazon rainforest fires (hence not only Brazil).

There is also a secret Brazilian report, recently leaked to the media, entitled Defence Scenarios 2040 -drafted with the support of 500 members of the Brazilian military elite, after 11 confidential meetings at the Defence Ministry in Brasilia – in which France is defined as “Brazil’s main enemy”.

The French Embassy to Brazil ironized on the “limitless imagination” of the authors of the report, but the Brazilian text speaks of a possible French request for military intervention, at the UN, in the territories of the Yanomani tribe, on the border with Venezuela, through a large mobilization of French forces in Guiana.

It should be recalled that the border between Amapá and French Guiana is the longest French land border, exactly 730 kilometres.

It is the last part of an “equinoctial France” born at the time of Henry IV.

In December 2018 – just to note how Brazil set great store by the Amazon – the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama refused permission to Total for activities at the mouth of the Amazon River “to defend marine biodiversity”.

Again in late 2018, France sent no remarkable political representatives for the delivery of four Brazilian submarines built in Cherbourg.

Hence we have reached the third French-Brazilian war, after the crisis of 1894-1900 for the delimitation of the border with Guiana. There was also a dispute between the two countries on the Amazon, which was believed to have gold reserves.

Later there was the lobster war in the early 1960s – precisely between 1961 and 1963 – just to delimit the lobster fishing areas.

Warships from both countries were involved before the dispute could be solved diplomatically.

On the one hand, the British and French projects on the mouth of the Amazon River, to make the area become an almost “independent” State, but above all from Brazil, which holds 60% of the entire Amazon. On the other hand, the projects of all Brazilian governments – from the 1940s to date – regardless of their political complexion, to integrate the Amazon region with a strong policy of national identity and, above all, with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway – 4,000 kilometres running through the virgin forest, a Brazilian project launched in 1970.

In the case of France, the opposition of Germany (and Italy) to the stop of the Treaty between the EU and Mercosur must also be taken into account.

However, what is Jair Bolsonaro’s real foreign policy? Certainly his cultural mentor is Olavo De Carvalho, a philosopher linked to Steve Bannon and, paradoxically, to the French Nouvelle Droite, author of a text entitled O imbecil coletivo. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s domestic and foreign policy is anyway aimed at radically reorienting Brazil’s positioning in the world.

The paradigm of this Brazilian repositioning is President Trump’s foreign policy, which is post-globalization following the vetero-nationalism – always a bit anti-American – of all the Latin American political traditions.

According to the team of the current President, the previous Brazilian governments had privileged agreements and relations with other left-wing governments, especially in the Third World, while it would currently be necessary to resume the preferential relations with the First World countries, including the United States.

The dossiers in which Lula’s and Dilma Roussef’s governments got entangled were the relations with areas in which Brazil had no interest nor real power of influence.

Internally – but the issue is also relevant to international policy – Bolsonaro’s line concerns a “minimal” central State project – in the best tradition of the Mont Pelerin Society’s neoliberalism – with the transfer of many central competences to the federal States and municipalities, and a wave of privatizations, in addition to a significant share of deregulation. It also regards the diminished role by Petrobras, axis of the previous left-wing governments, as well as privatization of public banks, and finally the reduction or cancellation of strategic military programs, such as the one concerning the new future nuclear submarine.

In foreign policy, Brazil needs to improve relations with all South American countries, but also to create synergies with all the major global players, such as the United States and the Russian Federation, with a view to reaching the goal of a permanent seat at the UN.

Brazil led by President Bolsonaro wants to put in place a new alliance called Pro Sul, uniting all South American right-wing and liberalist governments, while the current President has anyway reduced investment in the Armed Forces’ flagship programs, i.e. on cybersecurity, nuclear power and space. It also promotes the exploitation of Brazilian uranium by foreign companies, sells EMBRAER to BOEING and participates in the final dismantling of the Centre for Defence Studies of UNASUL, the Union of South American Nations, in Quito.

Also with reference to Mercosur – by now of little relevance – Brazil led by President Bolsonaro is openly rooting for its dismantling, so as to later create a free trade zone and then reach bilateral agreements of the various countries with the United States. Brazil, however, is also scarcely interested in Argentina and now almost explicitly refuses South-South Cooperation with African countries.

President Bolsonaro has also stopped proposing his voting right to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, since the USA is opposed to these extensions of both organisations’ steering committees.

But certainly these two financial institutions are still targeted by Brazil’s current foreign policy.

However, with a view to achieving his foreign policy goals, President Bolsonaro plans to have increasingly closer relations with some countries, such as Germany, India and Japan.

The US primary foreign policy goal, however, is to avoid a country or an alliance of countries undermining both its regional and global hegemony.

Therefore, Brazil led by Bolsonaro is a State that accepts US hegemony in Latin America without problems, but tries to carve out an important role for itself in this new sub-continent set-up.

The naive Europhiles are warned.

However, let us return to the French-Brazilian issue.

There is already a bridge connecting the French and Brazilian banks of the Oyapock River, but the Brazilian population in French Guiana accounts for 10% of the total population.

There is another important historical fact to consider: when the Napoleonic troops of General Junot invaded Portugal, the Court of Lisbon took refuge -thanks to the British help – in the former capital of the Brazilian colony, Rio de Janeiro.

Later Portugal took Guiana back, again helped by a British naval squadron.

Then, again, Guyana returned to France with the Treaty of Paris in 1817, thus defining its new borders on the Oyapock River.

Hence the economic and strategic problem is only one: preferential access from Guiana to the Amazon.

But how long will this breakup between France and Brazil last? Psychologically and personally, between Macron and Bolsonaro, it will last forever.

According to the 2016 data, France ranks only sixth among foreign investors in Brazil.

The only dangerous factor for Bolsonaro is the leading role played by France in the EU.

Europe as a whole is a protagonist of trade with Brazil.

Hence if Macron convinces the other EU Member States not to favour Brazil by signing the EU-Mercosur agreement – considering that Brazil is an important exporter of raw materials to the EU – there will be trouble for Bolsonaro.

Giancarlo Elia Valori