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Backwards Britain: Having Rejected a European Future, We Can Only Hark Back to an Imperial Past

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/04/2022 - 1:00am in

Hardeep Matharu explores how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed the UK's perilous retreat – at a time when collaboration and a new vision of itself is required to navigate the dangerous realities of a changing world

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When Boris Johnson stood up at a conference in Blackpool and told his party why they understood what Ukrainians were going through, the Prime Minister was attempting another of his bridges to nowhere.

After 23 days of Russian bombs raining down on Ukraine, Johnson claimed his Tories knew that Brits had the same “instinct” as the people of Ukraine “to choose freedom every time”. He had a “famous recent example”. 

“When the British people voted for Brexit in such large numbers, I don’t believe that it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners, it’s because they wanted to be free, to do things differently for this country, to be able to run itself,” he declared.

It was another crass Johnson moment. Outrage swirled among politicians and the media; an invite to an EU summit reportedly rescinded. Ukraine’s former President, Petro Poroshenko, recorded himself asking Johnson “how many citizens of the United Kingdom died because of Brexit” and instructed him: “Please no comparison.”

But it was also a revealing moment. One which exposed an impossible problem: at a time when Vladimir Putin is bringing genocide back to Europe, when a collective stand by united Western democracies is required to fight against Russian neocolonial fascism, Johnson’s Brexit Britain is utterly at odds with our shifting world. 

Inward-looking, insecure and with delusions of past grandeur, ‘Global Britain’ in a world of Putin’s aggression, a global crisis in democracy and climate catastrophe cannot reconcile its infantilised state with the demands of reality. 

With no new ideas, and imagination deeply lacking, it finds itself in a pathetic and perilous position – in retreat as an apparent form of advance. The very idea of itself that Ukraine is fighting for – one of a different, brighter future – is the very idea of itself that Britain lacks, choosing instead to rest on its laurels. Johnson’s provocation suggested he too had spotted the problem. 

In an audacious attempt at reconciliation, he laid out a blueprint for one of his fantastical bridges – to nowhere: that Brexit and the resistance of war-torn Ukraine embodied similar values; that the UK leaving the EU meant Brits understood Ukraine’s instincts in fighting to join it.

This is the same Brexit that painted the EU as a form of neocolonial fascism; of which Boris Johnson said “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically”; and Nigel Farage declared “June 23 is going to be Independence Day”. The same EU which Russian propaganda has characterised as a fascistic super-state.

But this is, after all, Backwards Britain.

For Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University – a specialist in the history of central and eastern Europe and the Holocaust – Brexiters were right in one respect, “that Brexit would bring back Empire”. “This time, though, England would be the colonised, not the coloniser.”

By comparing Brexit Britain and besieged Ukraine, Johnson was also distancing his country further from Putin. But parallels remain.

While Vladimir Putin’s quest to create a ‘greater Russia’ has taken a barbaric and murderous form – thankfully such brutality is nowhere in sight here in the UK – Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ is also a dangerous project rooted in an imperial past and future fantasy; of a ‘memory politics’ which obscures and justifies how neither country has a politics that can deliver tangibly for its people.

With no new vision, and colonial nostalgia the one constant, neither Britain nor Russia have reconciled with their pasts. 

As Putin presides over a vastly unequal Russian kleptocracy, dominated by oligarchy and the country’s wealth looted by its leaders; Johnson’s Government is overseeing an increasingly captured state and a governing party dominated by wealth, a spiralling cost of living crisis, worsening inequality and the biggest drop in living standards in generations.

To distract from their economic failures and lack of policy, both men have whipped up divisive ‘culture wars’ – advancing ‘wedge issues’, targeting minorities and cracking down on those they believe question their mythic narratives. Putin’s fury about the West ‘cancelling’ author JK Rowling, because she “fell out of favour with fans of so-called gender freedoms”, came in the same week as Johnson kicked off another Conservative bash by saying “good evening ladies and gentleman. Or, as Keir Starmer would put it, people who are assigned female or male at birth”. 

These manufactured conflicts around ‘wokeness’ – of which the majority of the public in Britain have been shown to know little – are nothing compared to the actual conflicts (living costs, healthcare and crime to name a few) that people must contend with in their daily lives, with little support from politicians such as Boris Johnson.

Meanwhile, Brexit – the ‘anti-establishment’ revolution which made the Prime Minister its iconic leader – has left Britain permanently on the outside looking in; encouraged by the Russian President, who saw the UK’s farewell to the EU as the first step in his “information blitzkrieg” in destabilising the West.

Both Putin and Johnson have backed their countries into a corner. In this era-defining moment, their myths are now on a collision course with the reality they seek desperately to avoid.

Britain’s willingness to deny and distort its history, combined with its exceptionalism – vaccines, refugee schemes and the economy are all on a long list of “world-beating” achievements – has birthed a nation unable to mature or grow into a true sense of itself. The present feels hollow, perhaps best exemplified by the hollow men now at Britannia’s helm.

Myth is the country’s fail-safe, when a vision of itself rooted in reality is necessary.

That Britain has no outward-looking ideas of what is possible is not only true of its current leadership under Johnson, but also of its opposition politics where no defining story of the future is being advanced. In the land ideas vacate, myths take root and concerns of emotion and identity are encouraged to bloom.

Tony Blair recently spoke of “the “two competing ideas” Britain has about itself, and how an “older narrative has reasserted itself” in recent years.

“Britain finds it very difficult to tell a story about itself, because there is a narrative that supposes our best days are behind us, and that’s caught up with what happened in the Second World War: Churchill defeated Nazism, Britain’s finest hour,” he told the New Statesman. “My idea was to take what I think are the enduring best qualities of Britain – open-mindedness, tolerance, innovation – and try to give Britain a different narrative that would allow it to think its best days are ahead of it. I think, for a time, that succeeded… We quite deliberately put Britain forward as a multicultural, tolerant society, looking to the future.”

The London Olympics in 2012 seemed to be the culmination of this confident, forward-looking Britain – with its scientific innovation, diversity, Shakespeare and the NHS all at the forefront in its celebratory opening ceremony. Alongside its ‘Cool Britannia’ ethos, New Labour also positioned Britain as a “bridge” between Europe and America, maintaining strong relationships with both. The limits of this became apparent in Blair’s controversial decision to follow the US into Iraq – a move which has defined, and eclipsed, the achievements of his party’s era in power.

But even this reinvention felt like an attempt to brush the “older narrative” under the carpet. Reforms to the state, including the Union, were partial and measures to tackle issues such as institutional racism incomplete. The desire to hark back to the past and the legacy of Britain’s imperial history were not examined, in and of themselves.

And so the older narrative remained brushed under the carpet, ready for a band of hollow men keen to pull the rug from under us all.

A Britain that is about fairness and equality and has a place in the world, where it’s respected for our soft power and our humanity and for our compassion... I was brought up with those values and values are not myths

Gina Miller

Free from the shackles of the EU, Britain would be free to build partnerships and trade with the rest of the world, the Brexiters told us. It would stand alone and still be a leader on the world stage. 

The promised trade deals have not materialised, war in Ukraine has highlighted the difficulties of Britain’s continued friction with Europe, and the UK’s response to both Afghan and Ukrainian refugees has underlined its closedness. 

But ‘Global Britain standing alone once more’ was always a myth. This country was victorious in two world wars it could not have fought without the help of its soldiers from across the Empire. That their subjugation continued after 1945, and little recognition was made of the colonies’ contribution to the conflicts, led to the drive for independence in Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’ – India – and then elsewhere.

These are inconvenient truths not found in Britain's grand narratives dominated by Blitz spirit, Rule, Britannia! and Churchill.

The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, showed the power of these historical touch-points in his address to the UK Parliament, when he told MPs he was fighting the Russian invasion in “just the same way you once didn’t want to lose your country when the Nazis started to fight your country and you had to fight for Britain”. Borrowing from Britain’s favourite wartime Prime Minister, he added: “We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t feel pride in this history – but this pride alone cannot be the basis for a thriving, modern Britain. To move forward, a more accurate and rounded version of our past must be engaged with, in which unpalatable facts can provide perspective and greater, messy truths. 

In 1946, when he said “we must build a kind of United States of Europe”, Churchill was one of the first to express his commitment to the idea of European integration in this way. But from Boris Johnson’s cosplaying of his hero, the man on the street could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister was a passionate Eurosceptic.

Our British history is a selective history, intolerant of contradictions and complexity. Yet, its problematic nature is not discussed.

For German journalist Annette Dittert, the Russian invasion shows that – despite the praise it has received for its practical support of Ukraine, which has been acknowledged publicly by President Zelensky himself – Britain “cannot afford to see the EU as a failing entity” any longer, and that its inability to engage with its past is part of its present difficulties. 

Speaking on Friday Night With Byline Times, she said this “has a lot to do with Brexit”.

“If you honestly engage with your own history – which Germany had to do because it was horrific – if you do that seriously, I think you do not fall for national myths so easily anymore, and you understand that cooperation is a real good, cooperation with other countries, with other people is the basis of democracy. I think that somehow that escaped some people in this country,” she said. 

“That’s a big danger for a nation, if you don’t look into your past… you fail to understand reality. And the reality is we have to engage with each other. Britain has to start to operate with the EU as a political entity.”

Britain has arguably not experienced any event which has forced such self-reflection – the loss of the Empire wasn’t seen as a revolution or a defeat. Accompanying this complacency are its other trappings.

One look at Prince William and Kate in their ceremonial dress atop a Land Rover surveying troops in Jamaica last month was enough to transport anyone back to the 1950s; into a bygone era of patronising recognition of native subservience and the white man’s burden being discharged in all its finery. If ever there was an image that conveyed Britain’s lack of imagination and lack of ideas, it was this photo of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their recent tour of the Caribbean – a trip beset with controversy over its colonial optics and calls to remove the Queen as head of state by those in Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas. 

Prince William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, at an inaugural Commissioning Parade for service personnel from across the Caribbean in Kingston, Jamaica, on 24 March 2022. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images/Alamy

While Prince William expressed his “profound sorrow” about slavery, he did not follow in the footsteps of Belgium’s King Philippe who in 2020 apologised for his ancestor King Leopold II’s brutal abuse of colonial subjects in the now Democratic Republic of Congo.

This reluctance to hold a mirror up to its past is a position also pursued by Britain’s current Government, which characterises any meaningful attempt to present a fuller account as ‘rewriting history’ and the questioning of complex historical figures ‘cancel culture’.

As Corinne Fowler, the historian hounded for helping the National Trust document which of its properties has links to colonialism, told me: “The near hysterical response on most occasions when researchers have simply tried to provide new information about specific ways in which heritage sites relate to the British Empire is worrying.”

But then “part of the colonial legacy,” she added, “is a resistance to having an honest discussion which is evidence-based about what our collective past looks like.”

Discussing the problem of disinformation, “Russia is a very emotional country”, a former Cabinet minister told me recently. They were speaking about a trip to the country shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when a Russian guide said she “can’t believe” what was being said of Stalin’s atrocities.

Timothy Snyder’s analysis of Russia under Putin is that it is stuck in a ‘politics of eternity’ with the “replacement of history with myth”.

Both Brexit and Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement are examples of this – of a grand narrative placing “one nation at the centre of a cyclical story”. Both advocated a return to a successful past snatched away; offering recognition and meaning but no practical solutions. 

According to Snyder, such projects are also ‘sadopopulist’ – premised on the idea that people are willing to undergo pain in order to feel better about themselves. No matter that Trump and a hard Brexit don’t actually improve their lives, deliverance takes the form of a psychic ‘winning’ through which people feel better off because scapegoated others are to be made worse off.

“Eternity politicians imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realise in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama,” Snyder observes. Russia, with its mystic tales of victimhood and suffering, is a prime example.

Speaking a fews days into the current Russian invasion, Snyder said that “the basic question in the 20th and now 21st Centuries is: what comes after empire?” In Europe, the answer has been a “process of integration with other post-imperial states”, through the EU. For Russia, the answer is “more empire – it’s an imperial war”.

In his seminal book on Ukraine, The Road to Unfreedom, the historian writes that Ukraine is “the axis between the new Europe of integration and the old Europe of empire”. 

“The politics of integration were fundamentally different from the politics of empire,” he says. “Russia was the first European post-imperial power not to see the EU as a safe landing for itself.” Britain is now another.

At the heart of Putin’s 22-year rule has been an increasing reliance on ‘memory politics’. Just days before he sent troops into Ukraine in February, Putin lamented Russia’s loss of the “territory of the former Russian empire”.

His justification for the invasion, to ‘deNazify’ Ukraine, is premised on a baseless distortion of the past – which has also seen Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler in partitioning and invading Poland during the Second World War airbrushed out of official narratives. Ukraine has no significant presence of far-right elements and President Volodymr Zelensky is himself Jewish – his family members having been killed during the Holocaust. 

As far back as 2011, academic Nikolay Koposov observed: “It is difficult to condemn Stalinism and to keep insisting on the Stalinist conception of history at the same time.”

“The new mythology of the war emphasises the unity of the people and the state, not the state’s violence against the people,” he wrote. “It stresses the peaceful character of the Soviet foreign policy and defends the memory of the state against charges such as complicity in initiating the war, the violence carried out by the Red Army, and its seizure of independent states."

The source of Putinism's legitimacy "lay not in future utopias but in past victories,” he added.

The war crimes being carried out by Russian troops to eradicate the Ukrainian people in the name of an (old and new) Eurasian empire, has brought horrors to Europe we all hoped lay long in the past. But the negation of truth always leads to dark consequences. 

Here in Britain, we take our democracy for granted, with its human rights and rule of law within a rules-based international order. But, in our own ways, we negate the truth. This unwillingness to understand ourselves sets us on a dangerous path of a wider denialism of our own. 

If you honestly engage with your own history – which Germany had to do because it was horrific – if you do that seriously, I think you do not fall for national myths so easily... That’s a big danger for a nation, if you don’t look into your past… you fail to understand reality

Annette Dittert

Britain and Russia are not alone in their memory politics. From Erdogan’s Turkey, where citizens acknowledging the Armenian Genocide have been prosecuted; to Narendra Modi’s India, in which the BJP leadership persecutes Muslims to advance its claims of a ‘Hindu civilisational destiny’ of the world’s largest democracy, countries with populist 'strongmen' everywhere are looking to stay wilfully ignorant of their pasts.

Germany, as Annette Dittert pointed out, is a rare exception.

Its decision to increase defence investment in the wake of war in Ukraine represents a paradigm shift for the country, since one of the legacies of confronting its past atrocities was its commitment to not build up military force again. Its departure from this is reflective of its pragmatism – the reality of Vladimir Putin’s murderous intent in the heart of Europe.

“I remember very well sitting in endless school days analysing Hitler’s speeches and having to write essays about why there should never be a war coming from German territory ever again,” Dittert told me on Friday Night With Byline Times.

Like many visiting Berlin, I was struck by the Stolpersteine I encountered under my feet – small plaques (or ‘stumbling stones’) commemorating victims of the Nazis, each starting with “here lived”. More than 75,000 of them are dotted around German towns and cities.

The number of different types of memorials in the capital, and the depth of Berlin’s cultural offerings and museums allowing people to access different elements of the country’s history, I found remarkable. Having touched remnants of the Berlin Wall, I looked into the faces of those killed trying to cross it; before learning about the families torn apart through state-sponsored deception at the original secret police headquarters, now the Stasi Museum. And just a short stroll away from the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate sits the ‘Europa Experience’, billed as a multimedia journey through Europe and the EU.

Germany provides an example of how a country can integrate its history in order to look to the future. 

DeNazification didn’t start immediately after the Second World War, when many who had supported Hitler’s regime were still living in German society. But following the high profile trials of notorious Nazi figures such as Adolf Eichmann, things began to change. 

From the 1960s, a grassroots movement, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung – “working off the past” – started to take shape, to examine and learn to live with Germany’s dark history. The Stolpersteine, for instance, are researched and applied for by local residents. Denying the Holocaust is illegal in Germany, and in many areas – from education to those working in public services – Germans are made to engage with, and learn from, the crimes of the Nazis.

While this hasn’t eradicated all far-right feeling still found in small pockets, ‘working off the past’ is not seen as a one-off exercise, but a process – one which is still ongoing.

The British Empire is still not taught comprehensively in our schools, and even mentioning it continues to be met with awkward silence (as someone who grew up with a father who was born and brought up under the Empire in Kenya and a mother from India, I find these silences bizarre but telling).

From the perplexity at Priti Patel’s hardline approach to immigrants as the granddaughter of refugees, to the former Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner who told me Sir William Macpherson was suffering from “post-colonial guilt” when he conducted his 1999 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, there is a distinct lack of interest in our collective amnesia and its consequences. 

But perhaps a reckoning is approaching. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only woken the West up to the need for unity in the defence of democracy, it has exposed Britain’s default, out-of-touch, ‘small island’ mentality – one that has come to particular prominence in the Brexit years.

Even the Queen, now in the twilight of her reign, can surely only hold the royal Firm together in its current form for so long. A uniquely respected figure – a bridge between Britain’s past and present – will the country feel so fondly towards those who succeed her? Or will it be a chance for that much needed self-reflection and real reinvention? A moment to consider the role of monarchy and the notions of deference and supremacy that Britain still willingly wraps itself in?

As former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall has observed in these pages, “is it not time to set the Royal Family free from their gilded cages and in the process free ourselves from the hierarchical mentality which accompanies royalty?” In a rare recognition, Prince William signalled that times are changing in the Commonwealth in response to his much derided recent royal tour. Maybe events at home will also force the Royal Family’s hand.

But genuine reinvention requires Britain to decide on its values; the lessons from its rounded history it wishes to carry with it, and the future it envisages for the best days still ahead.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in a Land Rover greeting crowds in Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica, on 25 November 1953. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

Forty years ago, a Conservative Prime Minister struggling in the polls found political capital in war. Margaret Thatcher won an overwhelming majority following the Falklands conflict, with a victory parade drawing 300,000 people to the mile-long route through central London – the first time the city had celebrated a military event since 1949. At lunch in the Guildhall afterwards, Thatcher said the British people were “proud of these heroic pages in our island story”.

Years later, she wrote that the legacy of the Falklands was that “Britain’s name meant something more than it had” and that its significance “was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world”.

Though four decades have passed, Thatcher’s imperial spirit is still alive today. Endorsing calls for a Margaret Thatcher Day, Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden recently tweeted that “Margaret Thatcher led the UK to victory in our defence of the Falklands” and “ended our national decline”.

While the Falklands was another harking back, Thatcher did look forward – with her, albeit divisive and at times destructive, vision of a free-market, privatised, ‘Big Bang’ Britain.

Can it now find a way to reconcile the lessons of the past with new ideas for its future; to build a more equitable country, one of genuine equality of opportunity and unafraid of looking ahead?

Speaking after a performance of Bloody Difficult Women, during its recent run at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, businesswoman Gina Miller – on whose story the play is based – told me what prompted her to take the UK Government to court over its plans to trigger Article 50 (and Brexit) without consulting Parliament: she had an idea of what Britain is which she felt was being violated by how the process was playing out.

Born and brought up in Guyana, a former British colony, she said many children of the Commonwealth feel attached to a certain notion of Britain in this way.

“We listened to the BBC World Service every night, the Queen was on the wall, my mother collected blue Wedgwood china – we literally were more British I think than the British... it’s British values that were taught to us growing up; respect and truth and honesty and doing the right thing. All those values are instilled in us and so, to me, it’s what you defend.”

Recalling her appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, she said that the journalist observed off-camera – to her shock – that she and Nigel Farage were actually “really similar”.

“He said ‘you both have a very strong view of Britain – yours is different to his, but you have a very strong view of what you’re fighting for’. And I have a very strong view still of what I’m fighting for… a Britain that is about fairness and equality and has a place in the world, where it’s respected for our soft power and our humanity and for our compassion. 

“I was brought up with those values and values are not myths. But the snake-oil salesmen [did sell] a myth… playing on people’s fear and anger and deep resentment.”

The biggest crisis facing Britain is the crisis of facing itself. Time is of the essence in integrating our past and looking to the future – lest we drift further, beyond a point of no return.

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How the French Far-Right Is Copying the Digital Campaigning Tricks of Brexit

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/04/2022 - 12:17am in

A new report into Eric Zemmour’s social media in the run-up to the French elections shows how Britain's Leave campaigns during the EU referendum created a controversial template

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French far-right Presidential candidate Eric Zemmour’s social media strategy echoed elements of the UK Vote Leave campaign to appeal to new voters, a new report by HOPE not hate has revealed.

The controversial pundit, who has repeated the far-right conspiracy theory the Great Replacement and has faced multiple allegations of hate speech, will compete for the Presidency against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron, among others.

The report reveals how Zemmour has successfully used YouTube and Telegram to rile up a new voting base, with a particular focus on attracting young voters and voters attracted to culture war issues. 

But it also suggests that Zemmour has employed social media techniques familiar to British voters from the Brexit referendum, including setting up websites for specific demographics in support of Zemmour; asking people to sign petitions on non-related issues; and volunteers copying and pasting pro-Zemmour content in a range of non-political Facebook groups. 

Safya Khan-Ruf, researcher at HOPE not hate, said: “Zemmour’s team have worked hard to present him as someone who has organic, grassroots support from French people by focusing their campaign more heavily on social media than his main rivals, having identified it as a way to reach large, younger audiences and bypass the electoral restrictions you would find on TV channels”.

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A New Election Battleground

Social media played a vital role on both sides of the Brexit campaign, with the official Vote Leave campaign spending £2.7 million on Facebook ads alone.

Many of the ads deployed by the Leave campaign – both its official Vote Leave arm and the Farage/Banks vehicle Leave.EU – used a range of tactics now being seen in Zemmour’s own social media strategy. 

These included running Facebook ads that asked users to share their opinion on an issue that may or may not seem obviously related to EU membership – for example asking if the UK needs better flood defences or ads focusing on animal welfare. More ads were explicit that the survey was related to EU membership, by asking users if they believed it was good or bad that countries like Turkey and Albania could one day join the union. 

The ads also presented themselves as petitions – with social media users asked to “click if you agree” to a statement such as “hunting whales must be stopped”. Other petition style ads invited users to “click if you agree” that EU officials are overpaid, or that it was unfair for British taxpayers to help pay Greece’s debts.

Finally, the Brexit campaign set up arms targeting specific categories of voters, such as Be.Leave which focused on a younger demographic.

Similarly, HOPE Not Hate’s report has found that Zemmour set up a website asking his followers to sign a petition on censorship. His campaign created a range of websites focusing on specific groups of voters, including women and members of the Gilets Jaunes movement. The purpose is same as during Brexit: to harvest data and deliver focused campaign messages.

Zemmour's Strategy of Hate

Although Zemmour has fewer Facebook likes than Le Pen and Macron, his party Reconquête has spent more than double the amount on Facebook ads than Rassemblement National. Further, despite his smaller audience, Zemmour is far more active on Facebook than his fellow candidates, and has a higher interaction rate with his followers.

Where things become more interesting on Facebook is the creation of the affiliate groups mentioned above which, as far back as 2020, were advocating for a Zemmour candidacy in this year’s elections. These groups amplified Zemmour’s hateful messages and raised his profile outside of the usual electoral cycle, meaning that when he officially launched his campaign he already had a sizeable and engaged support base. 

Further, HOPE not hate found Zemmour has used Facebook to game France’s electoral rules, which forbids advertisements for political candidates in the six months before an election. Zemmour, however, has got around the code by posting ads on social media that reference the party, not the candidate. Inside the rules, but everyone seeing the Reconquête ads knows that the party equals the man.

Unlike his political rivals, Zemmour has seen most of his social media success on YouTube – unsurprising given the video-sharing platform has become a key channel for far-right content.

His 448,000 subscribers means his YouTube audience is double the size of Macron’s and he has eight times the number of subscribers as Le Pen.

Zemmour pushes his YouTube content on Telegram – a social media platform popular with far-right actors who have been banned from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. His content has been amplified by key figures in the French far-right such as Generation Identity’s Damien Rieu and influencers Baptiste Marchais and Le Raptor.

Through these relationships, Zemmour has been able to reach a more youthful demographic that is closer to the US “alt-right” than the traditional far-right voters of Le Pen who tend to be older, rural, white and male. 

The first round of the election begins on 10 April. It is not expected that Zemmour will progress to the second round, which once again is likely to be a choice between LePen and Macron.

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The Return of the Repressed

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/04/2022 - 10:00pm in

Tags 

fascism, Europe

Source image: Institute of National Remembrance, Poland. / Wikimedia Commons. Was it only my generation—people born shortly after World War...

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‘De-Nazification’ and Putin’s Disinformation War

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/04/2022 - 9:48pm in

Using an example of local vigilante violence in Ukraine and its exploitation by Putin’s propaganda machine, Max Colbert explores Russian disinformation techniques

As Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine rages on, unverified images from the frontlines have become increasingly commonplace, circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram, often promoted by anonymous accounts. These images show real events, but the circumstances behind them are often warped and exaggerated by Putin’s propaganda machine as a pretext for more military aggression.

Some of the most shocking images have shown young women and girls being taped to lamp posts, their faces covered with a ‘brilliant green’ triarylmethane antiseptic dye, Zelyonka, widely used in both Russia and Ukraine as an alternative to iodine. Zelyonka stains the skin and is difficult to remove, and has been used as a form of protest by groups in both counties for years. In Russia, it’s frequently deployed against Kremlin opposition activists by supporters of Putin and by Russian nationalist groups, and in Ukraine against liberal reform campaigners by far-right groups

Harrowing images of these fresh Zelyonka attacks – allegedly by Ukrainians – have been weaponised in an attempt to validate the false Kremlin narrative about ‘de-Nazification’ as a justifiable pretext for invasion.

The Zelyonka images have prompted a series of potential explanations on Twitter, with users attributing the reasons for the punishment variously to ‘Russian speakers’, pickpockets, and Romani people being targeted by far-right vigilante Ukrainian groups. 

The first answer lacks credibility, given the huge proportion of Russian speakers in Ukraine – it being the most common first language in many eastern regions. According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, 29.6% of Ukraine’s population consider Russian their native language, with many more speaking the language, and the country is home to more than 8 million Russians.

More common are the two assertions that the alleged victims are Romani citizens, an assertion used by several pro-Putin accounts as evidence of the unredeemable depth of ‘Nazification’ in Ukraine and, therefore, justification for Russia’s illegal invasion of the country. 

When the Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT picked up on the attacks, it ran with the headline: ‘Roma tied to lamp posts and sprayed with dye in Ukraine’. The article mentions that “according to local media, the victims were punished for trying to steal from passengers on a bus”. It then itself goes on to cite “claims on social media” that “they were only trying to steal food, as they were starving after escaping from Kiev [sic]”.

The images were also shared by the Telegram media account of Vladimir Solovyev, a Putin-affiliated journalist and propagandist.

Images showing vigilante “justice” targeting people accused of looting and shoplifting had been circulated at least a month prior to the Zelyonka attacks. There have been numerous reports of thieves being punished in this way, with locals taking it upon themselves to “make examples” of people. These images have also been exploited by Russia.

The explanation offered by RT is refuted by the Czech outlet Romea, a news organisation sharing stories from the Roma communities across Europe. Romea released an article on 22 March, a day after the images started circulating, explaining that they were “being disseminated through social media along with the untrue claim that the individuals in the photographs are internally displaced people from Kyiv who were unjustifiably attacked by local Ukrainians immediately upon arrival in Lviv”.

Local Roma activist Julian Kondur told Romea that: “The people in the photos have been caught in Kyiv for pickpocketing several times. Their photos have been taken and shared by several groups that publicise such cases. In Lviv there is a group calling themselves ‘The Hunters’, who persecute Romani people involved in pickpocketing in public places”. 

He went on to add that several members of ‘The Hunters’ – who perpetrated the assaults – had already been identified, and confirmed that “Russia is exploiting this to accuse Ukraine of allegedly being run by Neo-Nazis”. Research conducted by Dutch outlet Knack has further confirmed the link to ‘The Hunters’, a violent organisation that describes itself as “ordinary citizens of Lviv who are tired of what Roma are doing to their city” and that has been operating for some time

Ukraine, like many other European states, does have a serious problem with ongoing discrimination against its Roma citizens. The minority group has been targeted by far-right groups in multiple cities, has severely limited access to education and healthcare, and has faced violent ‘pogroms’ with little to no intervention on behalf of the state. Many Roma who now face poverty and discrimination do so after being forcibly displaced as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

Despite this, many have now been recruited into Ukraine’s army to fight back against the Russian invasion, and in early March, nearly 200 pro-Roma and Romani organisations across the world condemned and called for an end to Putin’s war. 

As unjustifiable and shocking as the ongoing persecution of Roma in Ukraine is, which shouldn’t be ignored purely because of factionalism or seen as a justifiable reaction to Russian aggression, it still doesn’t validate Russia’s claims of ‘de-Nazification’. 

The Ukrainian far-right received only 2% of the vote in the 2019 election, the Ukrainian Government has opposed Russia’s own persecution of Crimean Tartars, and Russia has its own problems with both the persecution of the Roma and repressive homegrown fascist tendencies.

Smoke and Mirrors

As the Russian retreat from towns closer to Kyiv continues to reveal mounting evidence of war crimes, it’s worth remembering that the human and civilian cost of war is often unknown until far too late.

It is clear that Roma have been among those targeted by vigilante groups during this war – turned into scapegoats. It remains to be seen how authorities will handle those gangs responsible, if at all. But reports of the decimation and death inflicted upon Ukrainian cities as the Russian army retreats have either been justified under the pretext of ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine or denied by the Kremlin altogether.   

Speaking in late March, RT editor-in-chief and key Putin ally Margarita Simonyan described Ukraine as being in a “collective madness” akin to Germans under Nazism, seemingly an attempt to justify the war crimes committed by Putin’s forces.

Two more of Putin’s top advisors, Dmitry Peskov and Sergei Lavrov have both disputed the substantive video evidence coming out of Bucha showing human atrocities. Peskov described the footage as showing signs of “video manipulation and some fakes”, and Lavrov dubbed the reports a “fake attack”. 

A recent op-ed in state-controlled news organisation Ria Novosti has now claimed – echoing Simonyan’s rhetoric – that “a significant part of the masses of the people, who are passive Nazis, are accomplices to Nazism”, adding that “de-Nazification is inevitably also de-Ukrainisation”, and “Unlike Georgia or the Baltics, Ukraine, as history has shown, is unviable as a national state, and attempts to build one logically lead to Nazism”.

To many Russians, at least those not serving on the frontlines, the war presented to them is still one of liberation, not imperialist devastation and senseless murder. Russia’s manipulation of reality, skewing the motives for local violence and exaggerating its pervasiveness, is one of Putin’s weapons in this disinformation war.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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