Relations between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro which have been fraught from the start sunk to new lows after Bolsonaro’s jibe about Macron’s wife, analysts say.
Macron was the only foreign leader to have greeted the election of the far-right Brazilian in October 2018 with a caution, Frederic Louault, coordinator of the Centre for America studies at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles said.
Congratulating Bolsonaro on his victory, Macron said France wanted to continue its “cooperation” with Brazil on the basis of “respect and promotion of democratic principles”.
For Louault, “it was a type of unspoken pressure, an expression of concern about his (Bolsonaro’s) commitment to democracy”.
– ‘Trump of the Tropics’ –
Tensions deepened during the negotiations between the European Union and four South American countries — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — on the huge Mercosur trade deal signed in early July.
Before signing Macron warned that if Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”, followed the US president out of the Paris climate accord signed by nearly all countries in 2015, he would refuse to ratify the Mercosur deal.
“As far as ideas go, the two men are polar opposites,” said Gaspard Estrada, director of the Latin America and Caribbean unit at Sciences-Po university in Paris.
“In Bolsonaro’s view, Macron is the antithesis of the kind of leadership he aspires to,” Estrada said.
“He has never hidden his allegiance to the values of Donald Trump. The defence of multilateralism. the environment, the desire to strengthen UN systems, all these values that France and Emmanuel Macron defend, are banned from Bolsonaro’s lexicon.”
– ‘Capillary emergency’ –
In July, the fractious nature of the ties between Paris and the Brazilian leader were on full display, with Bolsonaro cancelling an appointment at the last minute with visiting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Bolsonaro cited scheduling difficulties but at the time of the planned rendez-vous posted a live video of himself having a haircut, suggesting the snub was very much intentional.
The balding Le Drian, who had met earlier with Brazilian NGOs that are critical of the country’s new leader, remarked drily on Bolsonaro’s “capillary emergency”.
But it was last week in the run-up to the G7 summit in France that the sparks began to fly.
On the eve of the summit Macron, who is under pressure from French voters to do more to tackle climate change, declared the forest fires raging in the Amazon an “international crisis” and put it on the agenda of the gathering of the rich democracies.
A French presidential official further accused Bolsonaro, whom NGOs claim favours agribusinesses linked to logging in the Amazon, of having “lied” to Macron about his commitment to fighting climate change and vowed that France would veto the Mercosur deal.
Bolsonaro reacted furiously to the Amazon fires being taken up by the Group of Seven, which does not include Brazil, and accused Macron of a “colonialist mentality”.
– ‘Extraordinarily rude’ –
His reaction underlined the historically sensitive nature of the Amazon among Brazilian leaders, according to Louault.
“Whenever the international community talks about the Amazon basin, Brazilian governments get their backs up because they feel that 60 percent of the forest is Brazilian and no-one should be lecturing Brazil,” he said.
“They say ‘the Europeans destroyed their forests and it’s not up to them now to say how we should protect ours’.”
The war of words peaked on Monday, with Bolsonaro reacting with mirth to a Facebook jibe comparing Macron’s wife Brigitte unfavourably with his own wife Michelle, who is 29 years younger.
Macron condemned the remarks as “extraordinarily rude”, as did a number of Brazilians who took to social media to apologise to the French president’s wife.
But Bolsonaro remained defiant.
On Tuesday, he made clear he would only accept the $20 million (18 million euros) pledged by the G7 towards putting out the Amazon fires if Macron “withdraws the insults he made against me.”
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