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Poor but Proud

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The next meeting of the European Council, set to take place on June 28, 2018, promises a certain level of intrigue. One reason for this is the expectation that the new Italian government, formed on the basis of the March 4 elections after 80 days of coalition talks and conflict between the president and parliament, will present an ultimatum to Brussels.

The ultimatum is expected to include the following points:

1) The cancellation of Italy’s €250-billion debt to the European Central Bank (ECB);

2) The abolition of the financial and budgetary restrictions established by the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which Italy and several other EU countries have been ignoring for years. These restrictions include setting the maximum allowable budget deficit, national debt, public bond rates, etc. Even France, which today lays claim to being the main driver of European integration, has gone beyond the allowable level of national debt by 60 per cent;

3) A revision of the Dublin Regulation, which obliges first-port-of-call countries to deal with the registration of refugees and the arrangement of the necessary infrastructure for them, which entails significant financial expenditure;

4) The lifting of sanctions against Russia, which have caused serious damage to European export industries.

The new Italian government also does not support the sanctions against Russia. Giuseppe Conte has repeatedly confirmed the desire to take more active steps towards normalizing relations with Moscow. However, Italy did not officially oppose the sanctions imposed against Crimea, which were extended just last week. This gives cause to believe that it will not oppose the rest of the sanctions package and will likely use it as a bargaining chip for other items on its agenda – items that have far greater significance for Italy than increasing trade with Russia.

At the end of the day, work according the “done with Russia” paradigm is reasonably well established and has made it possible to restore half of the trade that was lost following 2013. But the threat of default, and the risk of being left alone to cope with ships coming in from Africa, are very real.

A sovereign yet unemployed and starving Italy is unlikely to think first and foremost about sanctions against Russia.

The next meeting of the European Council, set to take place on June 28, 2018, promises a certain level of intrigue. One reason for this is the expectation that the new Italian government, formed on the basis of the March 4 elections after 80 days of coalition talks and conflict between the president and parliament, will present an ultimatum to Brussels.

The ultimatum is expected to include the following points:

1) The cancellation of Italy’s €250-billion debt to the European Central Bank (ECB);

2) The abolition of the financial and budgetary restrictions established by the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which Italy and several other EU countries have been ignoring for years. These restrictions include setting the maximum allowable budget deficit, national debt, public bond rates, etc. Even France, which today lays claim to being the main driver of European integration, has gone beyond the allowable level of national debt by 60 per cent;

3) A revision of the Dublin Regulation, which obliges first-port-of-call countries to deal with the registration of refugees and the arrangement of the necessary infrastructure for them, which entails significant financial expenditure;

4) The lifting of sanctions against Russia, which have caused serious damage to European export industries.

A Country of “Limited Sovereignty”

It would make no sense for Brussels to ignore this ultimatum or to attempt to isolate the new Italian government as a group of radical populists, politicians who do not want to repay their debts and who are under the thumb of their own voters for the sole purpose of strengthening their positions. Italy is not a new EU member state, one that does not yet quite understand the “rules of civilized conduct” within the European family and can thus act like an impetuous teenager. On the contrary, it is one of the original members of the European Union, having laid the foundations for European integration along with Germany and France. Furthermore, the results of the general election held on March 4 clearly demonstrated the legitimacy of the people who have come to power and the level of public support for the ideas they have offered. This is why there is every reason to discuss the issues that have “accumulated” over time, and a serious discussion is now unavoidable. Essentially, the discussion should revolve around the most deep-seated problem of European integration – namely, the problem of sovereignty – because financial and economic policy, the right to carry out independent foreign economic activity, and border security are issues that directly affect the problem of balancing the national and the supranational.

The revival of national sovereignty, understood as the right of a country to pursue its own national interests, has become the main leitmotif of the Italian populists. The most outspoken critic of the policies that have led to the loss of Italy’s sovereignty has been the Federal Secretary of Lega Nord (the “Northern League”) Matteo Salvini. When the country’s president refused to approve the cabinet proposed by Giuseppe Conte, for example, Salvini commented, “I am convinced that we are not a free country and that we have limited sovereignty… We have a principle, which for us is absolutely key, and that is that Italians should decide their own destiny, not the people of Germany, Portugal or Luxembourg. First and foremost, we are talking about the right of the Italian people to employment, security, and happiness. For several weeks we toiled, day and night, to set up a government that is capable of protecting the interests of the Italian people. But someone (under pressure from someone else, perhaps) is telling us ‘no.’

“We will no longer exist in servitude. Italy is not a colony… You must give us our voice back!”

Italians for an Independent Italy and an Independent World

The ideology of this “revival of sovereignty” is underpinned by a relatively solid set of public fears and expectations – fears and expectations that are reflected in the results of opinion polls and which, if ignored by the authorities, would be tantamount to political suicide. According to research, the share of Italians who see the key national interest as ensuring the security of the country’s borders and establishing control over migrant flows grew from 30 per cent in 2013 to 66 per cent in 2017. The majority of Italians do not approve of the immigration policy pursued by the previous government. They see a direct link between illegal migration and terrorism and demand more decisive action on the part of the authorities to stem the flow of migrants.

There is a lack of understanding in Brussels of the fact that, against the background of Italy’s record national debt and youth unemployment levels that are higher than anywhere else in the European Union, the endless stream of refugees flowing into the country is actually a matter of existential significance.

A meeting of the EU Heads of State was scheduled for June 24 at the European Commission, where the issue of migration will surely be at the top of the agenda. The meeting will be attended by the heads of France and Germany (as the two countries most involved in “putting out the fires” related to European integration), Austria and Bulgaria (the co-Presidents of the European Commission for 2018), the four Mediterranean countries that took the “first blow” of the migrant wave (Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta), and the two most popular “secondary destination” countries (countries where migrants eventually head after arriving in the European Union) – Belgium and the Netherlands. The purpose of the meeting is clearly to snuff out the flame before it turns into a fire in the run-up the summit, which is to be held on June 28–29. This will consist of convincing the Mediterranean states to adopt a new plan to reduce the flow of refugees in return for them dropping the idea of repealing the Dublin Regulation. According to the Italian media, the plan involves stepping up control over the external contour of the European Union and “refining” the procedures for arranging the necessary infrastructure in territories outside the European Union (such as Libya, among other countries). The Italian side will have to guarantee greater control over the movement of refugees outside the country – that is, prevent them from moving into other EU countries. We do not know the details of the plan right now, but we can assume that the Italian side is sceptical of the capacity of the European Union to control the external contour and establish order in Libya. The Prime Minister of Italy is determined to present his own plan in Brussels.

The Italian people feel that decisions are being made for them, without their direct participation. According to polls, 82 per cent of Italians believe that the country has no influence on international relations or European policy. This is despite the fact that in the late 1990s, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gianni De Michelis declared that Italy had to become a “global protagonist” and conduct a more independent foreign policy. The growing partnership of France and Germany is calling for deeper European integration and for countries to welcome refugees (although France is in no hurry to accept the refugees it promised to take from Italy). This, along with growing uncertainty in U.S. foreign policy and Washington’s ostentatious disregard for the views of European states in resolving global problems that have appeared during the Trump administration, pours water on the idea of “limited sovereignty” that is firmly entrenched in the minds of the Italian people.

The number of people who believe that Italy and the European Union member states need to develop more independent foreign and security policies while remaining within NATO has grown from 35 per cent in 2012 to 62 per cent in 2017. Italy is becoming increasingly irked by the desire of the Germany–France partnership to speak on behalf of the entire European Union, whether it be on issues of migration, financial discipline within the association, or U.S.–Russia relations.

The new Italian government also does not support the sanctions against Russia. Giuseppe Conte has repeatedly confirmed the desire to take more active steps towards normalizing relations with Moscow. However, Italy did not officially oppose the sanctions imposed against Crimea, which were extended just last week. This gives cause to believe that it will not oppose the rest of the sanctions package and will likely use it as a bargaining chip for other items on its agenda – items that have far greater significance for Italy than increasing trade with Russia.

At the end of the day, work according the “done with Russia” paradigm is reasonably well established and has made it possible to restore half of the trade that was lost following 2013. But the threat of default, and the risk of being left alone to cope with ships coming in from Africa, are very real.

A sovereign yet unemployed and starving Italy is unlikely to think first and foremost about sanctions against Russia.

What Does This Mean for Russia?

For Russia, this means that there is no need to shout about the conflict that is brewing between Italy and the European Union any louder than the Italians are themselves. The temptation to support a friendly country in its rush to fight for its sovereign national interests is more than understandable, especially if we take into account the role of the concept of sovereignty in Russian political discourse. The desire to tell the whole world that one of the founding members of the European Union is actively promoting the idea of lifting the sanctions against Russia is similarly understandable. However, if Russia’s goal is still to patch up relations with the European Union, particularly with Germany and France, then it is worth taking into account just how important European solidarity is for Paris and Berlin and stop counting on a split forming within the Union. It is worth remembering, too, that Italy has something to offer in return for its vote against the Russian sanctions, while Paris and Berlin, in an effort to save European solidarity, could attempt to make Rome an offer it cannot refuse.

First published in our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager, Research Fellow at Centre for Global Problems Studies, MGIMO-University

Europe

NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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Anti-Macron protests underline classism, as corona protesters and gilets jaune join forces

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photo: Alaattin Doğru - Anadolu Agency

I get it. People in France are fed up with the Covid lockdowns and that’s why they are protesting against the new tightening of the Covid rules. But there is much more to the story.

The new anti-Covid rules by French President Macron came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival where the rich and famous come out to play for 10 days at the French Reviera. I was there, too, in fact when the new set of rules angered so many ordinary French people. But guess what — the rules didn’t apply to us, those gathered for the Cannes red carpets and parties. Celebrities did not have to wear masks on the red carpet. I did not have to put on a mask at the red carpets. I was not checked even once on the mandatory Covid tests which we took every 2 days anyways. No one at the Cannes red carpets, parties or fashion shows was looking at Covid tests at the entrance, and I attended not one or two things. That’s at the time when the rest of France was boiling. Yes, we were treated differently as the Cannes crowd. That was obvious.

Don’t get me wrong — spending tens of thousands of euros to drink champaigne, walk red carpets and hang out with actors, models, designers and influencers is great. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Cannes elite was being held to a very different standard in comparisson to the ordinary French public. Macron exempted the Cannes crowd from the new rules and that smells of classism and elitism. I can see why the gillets gaune, which I wrote about in my book Trump, European security and Turkey (2020), are angry and want to resume their protests which were put an end to with the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, as soon as you move one or two streets away from the craze and snobbery of the Cannes Festival, you see a very different French picture. Actually, the most pleasant conversations I had in Cannes were with the guy that made my pizza at 2am, a couple of gillets jaune on the street, and the taxi driver who lives in Cannes. These were the pleasant, hard-working French people that represent France so much better than the snotty Cannes Film Festival organizers, the French police or the so-overrated snobbery at the Chopard events. 

From the pizza guy in Mozarella Street I learned that he works two jobs and sleeps 3 hours per night. That’s the reality for many normal French people. Yet, he was the nicest and coolest person I met in Cannes. Somehow I wished that he could trade places with some of the rest I met in Cannes who probably don’t deserve to have an easy life and should be taught a lesson. So I get it. I get the struggle of the gillets gaune and all those that are opposed to Macron’s policies. He is increasingly playing with the far right and that might as well mean that he is looking at his sunset. 

I also get the classism that persists in French society — it’s important to be aware of it even if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of glamor, bemefits and good things. All I can tell you is that next time I am in France, I am joining the gillet jaune protests. Now I really get it. 

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