Watching Charlottesville from Berlin

With the six-hour time difference between the East Coast of the U.S. and Germany, I often hear about things that happened in the States in the afternoon or evening when I wake up the following morning. This makes for a strange disconnect from home sometimes, particularly for someone who used to cover the minute-by-minute happenings of Washington and the current administration.

It was especially strange — and incredibly sad — to wake up last Saturday morning to tweets and images out of the Friday night white nationalist march in Charlottesville, and to follow the events the following day from afar as well. And watching Americans chant Nazi slogans and wave Nazi flags, spewing hate toward their fellow Americans, felt even stranger because I was seeing it unfold from Germany. (The president’s response over the following days was equally astonishing.)

What happened in Charlottesville last weekend, I think it’s fair to say, couldn’t have happened in Germany today. As one of my German teachers put it to me days later, it’s not that there aren’t still Nazi sympathizers here; it’s just that it is so socially unacceptable to espouse those beliefs that that kind of public display seems unthinkable. And more than being socially unacceptable, overt use of Nazi symbolism or gestures here in Germany is literally against the law. As The Economist put it this week, in Germany, “Free speech is upheld … but this right to expression remains firmly distinguished from a right to publicity or acceptance.” (This is why it’s not surprising, for example, that a drunk American man recently got punched for giving the Nazi salute in Dresden.)

For all America’s good qualities, self-reflection about past mistakes isn’t necessarily one of them. In Germany, however, the past is everywhere — Germans are confronted with it at seemingly every turn. That’s part of, I think, why the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has had less success here than its sister parties in Austria, France or the Netherlands have had: Germany knows what happens when populists with these kinds of views get too much power.

Thinking about this topic has had me reflecting on an article I read last year by Deborah Cole, a Berlin-based correspondent for AFP, about the culture of memory in Berlin — one that at times feels in-your-face and inescapable:

I have lived and reported from the heart of peaceful, prosperous Germany for more than two decades but am still not entirely steeled to the jabs to the gut you can get walking through its public spaces. No one does memorials quite like the Germans, accosting you in the streets as you go about your business. Particularly in Berlin, the past is never the past, even in a city with a knack for constantly reinventing itself.

First-time visitors often find it overwhelming. Friends from my hometown Boston, an older Jewish couple, for years couldn’t bring themselves to make the trip. When they finally did, they were bowled over by the city’s charms but had to brace themselves for what they called “the creepy factor” — those reminders of the past that seem to sneak up on you at every turn. My own walk to and from the office each day takes me through a beautiful, bustling and — when you open your eyes to it — harrowing landscape. It’s history that never lets you be.

This piece rings true for me in the two times I’ve lived in Berlin: my old office in 2013 was down the block from the Friedrichstraße station, which features a memorial outside to the station’s history as a starting point both for journeys fleeing Nazi persecution and those sending people away to concentration camps (“Trains to life, trains to death,” the inscription reads). Meeting my friends for dinner in a favorite biergarten, I would ride my bike home alongside the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße, past the metal poles symbolizing the concrete wall that not so long ago divided this city. And outside countless homes and buildings around Berlin (and elsewhere in Germany), golden Stolpersteine commemorate the fate of Jewish individuals and families who previously lived there.

Germany’s got some obviously dark times in its recent past. Germans have confronted them — and continue to do so every day. When Americans show up at a white nationalist protest bearing Nazi flags and shouting Nazi slogans, it’s a reminder that America hasn’t done nearly enough to reflect on the less-than-sterling parts of its own history.

 

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What’s next: Life in Germany

It’s been a bit longer than I would have liked since my last post: after the French election I spent some time back in the States taking care of logistical things, then traveled in Asia for about three weeks (Japan, China and the Philippines). Now, I’m about five weeks into my time in Berlin, where I’ll be living through next May on an 11-month fellowship.

The fellowship, sponsored by the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation), brings 16 Americans to Germany to learn German and work in German organizations. For me, this means I’ll be working with two different news organizations that have a presence here in Germany — more details to come on that later this fall. We also each work on a year-long project with relevance to transatlantic relations, which for me involves continuing along with my topic for the year of populism and European elections. Beyond just Germany, I’ll be taking trips to other nearby countries holding elections this fall — most notably Norway (Sept. 11), Austria (Oct. 15) and the Czech Republic (Oct. 20-21).

Since election season is really just getting underway here — with less than seven weeks to go until Election Day, a concept that still feels strange to a U.S. political reporter — I’ll post some thoughts soon on the upcoming campaign and my impressions thus far. In the meantime, here are some details about my program and the 15 other incredible Americans I’m sharing this journey with:

https://culturalvistas.org/articles/press-releases/meet-2017-class-robert-bosch-foundation-fellows/

 

More stories from France

With the election over, I’ve wrapped up my reporting here in Paris — and before I go into full vacation mode, I wanted to do a quick post with the results of some of my final France reporting.

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Outside the Louvre Museum in Paris covering Macron’s victory party on May 7, 2017

On election night, I spoke with more than a dozen young voters at Macron’s victory party about their reasons for voting the way they did, the most important issues facing France and what role they think young voters played in Macron’s victory. That piece ran here, for the GroundTruth Project.

After the campaign ended, I looked in a piece for The Atlantic at how French pollsters fared in 2017 — and came to the conclusion that overall, they fared better than their American and British counterpoints in this crazy political climate (though we’ll have to see whether that holds for France’s legislative elections in June, when Macron’s En Marche! party will face its next big test).

Next up: a bit of traveling around this gorgeous country I’ve been living in. I’ll spend some time in Alsace, explore Burgundy with a friend and maybe take a few other quick trips in my remaining two weeks here. (Don’t worry, I’ll be back with more campaign reporting later this summer and this fall!)

 

The future of the National Front

Well, it’s officially over: Emmanuel Macron won the French election last night, and with his victory my first foreign election experience of 2017 is coming to a close.

Unlike the first two stories I wrote, which focused more on Macron and his voters, I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking primarily about the National Front: understanding who Le Pen’s voters are, what they want and how the party has changed to attract its new supporters. So, what happens to Le Pen and her National Front after Sunday, when she underperformed polls and announced her party would undergo a “profound transformation”?

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It’s true that Sunday’s result elicited a major sigh of relief from most of the Western world, and that taken together with election results in Austria last December and the Netherlands in March this feels like a decisive third strike against far-right populism in Europe. But to write Le Pen off going forward would be premature: just because she lost on Sunday doesn’t mean she and her supporters will go away. In fact, there’s reason to believe this might just be the beginning (if Le Pen plays her cards right). I wrote about that last night for The Atlantic.

That said, her party faces some real, serious internal divisions — ones that are likely to grow, and spill out into public view, now that Le Pen has made it clear she wants to “deeply renew” the party (and, aides have said, potentially even change its name). There’s a faction, headed by her 27-year-old niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, that would prefer a return to the more hard-line message and tactics of Jean-Marie Le Pen; others, including Marine Le Pen herself, believe the party’s new message is what will win them electoral success. I explored those internal tensions here, in a piece for Foreign Policy.

And finally, my conversations with about two dozen National Front voters contributed to this piece for the GroundTruth Project, looking at how this election has reshaped traditional notions of political demographics in France.

It has been a busy few weeks — both with reporting here in Paris, and with a quick trip back to the U.S. during the last week of April — but I also hope to post some thoughts in this space about my first month in France, and on covering French politics generally. Stay tuned!

Giving votes to the vote-less in France

When I got to France, one of the things that interested me most is the idea that immigrants serve as the central scapegoat for the National Front’s Marine Le Pen — and yet, the vast majority of them are unable to vote in the election. (In France, you can only vote in presidential elections if you’re a French citizen — and there are an estimated 4.4 million people living in France who aren’t citizens.)

That’s part of why, when I heard about a group called Alter-Votants — which aims to help non-citizens have a voice in the election by connecting them with a French voter who’d been planning to abstain — I really wanted to write about it.

The group seems to be an answer to two undercurrents of the campaign: the first, this idea that immigrants don’t get a say in an election that very much affects them; and the second, that pollsters are estimating a record number of abstentions in this election, a dynamic which could benefit Le Pen.

In the course of reporting this story, I met some truly fascinating people: for example, Hamze, an Iranian political refugee who was imprisoned after working for the Reformist candidate in Iran’s 2009 election. There was also Natalia, who moved to France from Colombia 13 years ago and cares so deeply about having a say in French politics after watching her home country vote narrowly against a peace deal last fall.

You can read the piece here at Politico Europe.

My first piece from Paris

As a U.S. campaign reporter, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily do elections quite the way we do: whether it’s the sheer amount of money involved, the tactics campaigns employ or the laws that govern elections, not even our developed allies in Western Europe can come close to the all-consuming nature of American presidential campaigns.

I realized that firsthand while covering the 2013 federal elections in Germany. The difference, for example, between a $1 billion campaign (in the U.S.) and a €20 million campaign (in Germany) is massive — and the same is true here in France.

That said, there’s a real desire in other countries — particularly in Western Europe — to emulate the kinds of campaign tactics and strategies that helped President Obama win elections in 2008 and 2012. In 2013, I wrote a great deal on the topic from Germany: a piece on the Social Democrats’ door-to-door effort, one on why an Obama-style digital operation wasn’t possible in Germany, and even on the comparative lack of TV ads.

That same issue — the extent to which U.S.-style campaign tactics are applicable to local campaigns — interested me in France, so for my first story here I explored the way one French presidential candidate, centrist Emmanuel Macron, is using Obama-inspired tactics.

The piece focuses on Macron’s unprecedented efforts to create a party from scratch, with the help of three Frenchmen who learned the political ropes as volunteers for Obama’s 2008 campaign. In my story, I outline exactly how Macron’s army of volunteers built up the operation he has today — an operation that was able to help him take advantage of an opening in the race earlier this year, and which if he wins will be a huge factor in that victory.

You can read the piece here, at The Atlantic.

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My next project: Campaign 2017

As most people who know me well can probably attest, I’ve always been an elections nerd: I’ve covered three U.S. presidential elections, two sets of midterms, a German federal election and an Austrian presidential election. I’ve also always loved to travel and am always planning my next international adventure.

Starting this April, I’ll be combining those two passions in a year-long reporting project covering elections and the rise of populism abroad.

More than just being compelling stories with fascinating characters, elections have an immense and sometimes immediate impact on a country’s citizens—which is why I like covering them so much, and why they’re such important stories to tell.  And those stories are especially important in 2017, as the rise of populism in Europe and elsewhere threatens to upend the liberal world order that’s been in place since the end of the Cold War. In summer of 2015, when I first began thinking about the idea of a round-the-world elections project, we had no idea that less than a year later the United Kingdom would vote to leave the European Union, or that the candidate I was then covering — Hillary Clinton — would eventually lose the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

The rise of right-wing populism, both in the United States and in Europe, has become arguably the most important political story in the world. In the last two years, far-right populist parties and leaders have gained momentum in France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere. While these trends are concentrated in the Western world, it’s not the only place populism has prevailed at the ballot box in the last year: the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines last year, a Trump-esque leader who has allegedly supported thousands of extrajudicial killings in the name of fighting a war against drugs, is proof that today’s populism takes multiple forms.

The big-picture story about the success or failure of these movements is still being written, which is why I’m so eager to be there to see it firsthand. When it comes to far-right populist parties and leaders in Europe, they’ve had a mixed record: Brexit and Trump were two major victories for this populist, nationalist worldview, but in December, the far-right Freedom Party made it to the final round of Austria’s presidential election only to be defeated. And in March, the Dutch election provided a mixed message about the Dutch Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders, who gained seats in the parliament but came in a far second to the ruling center-right party (and never would have been able to form a government anyway).

So at a time when reporters and political leaders alike are trying to make sense of the seemingly new world in which we’re operating, I’ll be spending the next year covering these major political trends: hitting the global campaign trail, if you will. What will happen in France, where Marine Le Pen looks like a lock to make it to the second round of voting — and where her strongest opponent, Emmanuel Macron, also hails from outside the two major traditional political parties? And will German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has become the sort of de facto leader of the liberal world order, win a fourth term in office in September?

I’ll have more details to share about my itinerary and plans later this spring — and in the meantime, I’ll post dispatches and reflections from France in this space. Thanks for reading!