Steve Bannon, the millionaire former Trump adviser turned rabble rouser of European populists, settled into a plush set of rooms this week in Paris at the Bristol Hotel, where suites run up to $32,000 (£25,000) a night.
An unopened bottle of Champagne in front of him, he presented himself as a man of the people and promoted Europe’s right-wing and populist parties even as voting was underway for the European parliament — “the most important” election in Europe, he said in an interview on Thursday.
For months, Mr Bannon has travelled around Europe, presenting himself as the linchpin of a populist revolution. But he was in Paris as nothing more than an “adviser-counsellor” to Marine Le Pen, the far-right nationalist leader. “These people don’t need my help,” Mr Bannon said.
That was good, because they no longer seemed to want his help, either.
All week in Paris, Mr Bannon was hissed at by enemies, dominated the airwaves and caused an eruption in the French political class for meddling in the country’s affairs. He was kept at arm’s length by allies, perhaps most surprisingly even by those from the far-right whom he has tried for months to pound into a Europe-wide populist rebellion.
These elections, taking place from Thursday to Sunday, were the big moment when Mr Bannon predicted that his assembled forces would storm the barricades of the European Union bureaucracy — except that now that it has arrived, many of them seemed to have moved on without him.
Mr Bannon’s presence in France had become so toxic that Ms Le Pen, the leader of the former National Front, rebranded as the National Rally, did not meet him. She told the French news media that he “was playing no role in the campaign,” though Mr Bannon did meet with some of her associates at the Bristol.
For a year, in often similarly plush hotels across Europe — in Italy, Britain, Hungary, the Czech Republic — Mr Bannon had promised polling for his far-right fellow travellers. He promised to hook populist parties up with financiers. He promised experts in campaign data mining. He promised a global clubhouse — based in an associate’s Brussels mansion.
“All I’m trying to be,” Mr Bannon said in a March interview in the Hotel Grand Savoia in Milan, “is the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.”
But in the homestretch before the elections, a distance began to grow. This month, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League party and one of Mr Bannon’s earliest recruits, held a rally in Milan of European populists, including Ms Le Pen.
In many ways, it seemed a manifestation of the movement Mr Bannon had been prophesising in his endless media scrums. But he was not there.
“We don’t need him,” Jörg Meuthen, a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, said after the rally.
The reasons Mr Bannon is not needed now have much to do with the contradictions of his “Nationalist Internationale,” as critics call his movement.
From the start, it was an incongruous effort by an outsider to stitch together far-right nationalists who all give pride of place to their own countries. Beyond watering down the European Union, the common interests of a bunch of leaders all wanting to put their own country first do not always easily coincide.
But his populists have also quickly internalised Mr Bannon’s most important lesson: that media attention creates its own political momentum. And for a while, he brought that media attention with him wherever he went.
Yet the stormy reaction to Mr Bannon’s presence in Paris this week spoke volumes about a delicate moment he has helped create in America’s relations with Europe generally, and with France especially.
The presidency of Mr Trump, his former boss who remains deeply unpopular in France, has infused the old alliance with insecurity and bitterness.
Much of the ruckus that accompanied Mr Bannon this week was based on a mutual misunderstanding — his lack of French gives him a sometimes shaky comprehension of local political life, and the French often have an equally fantastic notion of US politics.
Still, it all seemed a far cry from Mr Bannon’s oft-stated grand design to engineer the federation of Europe’s far right. Even he barely spoke a word of it during an hour-plus interview.
“The idea of my being here as some kind of puppet master, it’s just not true,” he said. “I don’t talk to the president,” he said of Mr Trump, and called Ms Le Pen “just a personal friend and a colleague.”
Yet if Mr Bannon’s goals were disruption and attention, he had richly succeeded, though possibly at the expense of his erstwhile far-right allies.
President Emmanuel Macron and philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy denounced him by name — which also served as a slight to Ms Le Pen — and five current and former presidents of the French parliament signed an angry op-ed condemning his “unwanted meddling.”
“To fight a Europe held responsible for all of our woes, we’re supposed to follow the orders delivered from a suite at a luxurious Paris hotel by a shadowy adviser to Donald Trump, recycled as a freelance lobbyist for the populist international,” they wrote.
“The nation, united, will not take orders,” they said.
Trying to drum up support for his own forces, Mr Macron told local journalists that he “saw for the first time connivance between the nationalists, and foreign interests, whose goal is dismantling Europe.’’
The disdain is strictly mutual. Mr Bannon concentrated much of his fire on Mr Macron, insisting that the French leader was going to lose big in the European parliament elections.
Mr Macron, he said, “is a product of the system” — the globalist system of free-moving capital that had betrayed working-class voters, valiantly championed by Mr Trump, in Mr Bannon’s restless farrago.
As for himself, “I totally identify with the Gilets Jaunes,” Mr Bannon said, referring to the yellow vest protesters whose often violent demonstrations over low wages and diminished expectations rocked Mr Macron’s presidency for six months.
Mr Bannon seemed to overlook the fact that the yellow vests have destroyed and vandalised symbols of excessive wealth in the heart of the capital. Had they been allowed anywhere near the Bristol — two blocks from the Élysée Palace in one of the most heavily protected zones in Paris — they might have trashed it.
The New York Times