Breitbart Looks To Expand In Europe Amid Key Elections

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Nigel Farage raised a sudsy toast.

The British government had just formally triggered its “Brexit” from the European Union and Farage, the right-wing politician who had long championed it, hoisted a pint of beer, looked into the camera, and thanked the Americans he credited with helping make it happen.

“Well done, Bannon. Well done, Breitbart – you’ve helped with this hugely,” Farage said in a video toast tweeted last month to his 781,000 followers, thanking Stephen Bannon and Breitbart News, which Bannon ran before he left to become President Donald Trump’s adviser.

Breitbart, which has risen in prominence with Trump’s election and the surprise Brexit vote, has become a disruptive force far beyond the U.S. borders. The anti-establishment resentment that fueled Trump’s campaign is surfacing again overseas in elections in France and Germany, and Breitbart hopes to tap into the anti-elite, anti-immigration rage to build its global brand.

Breitbart’s top U.S. editor, Alexander Marlow, described expansion plans around the time of Trump’s election five months ago, with hopes to establish bureaus in France and Germany, opening what Bannon has called new fronts in our “current cultural and political war.”

Since then, no new bureaus have opened, and Breitbart so far has not replicated its U.S. success in any substantial way across the Atlantic, beyond Britain.

But even its harshest detractors see a potentially significant European market for Breitbart’s brand of crusading coverage of a handful of key issues, including immigration, Islam, terrorism, crime and globalization.

“Breitbart is part of a broad offensive against the progressive liberal order. They attack women’s rights, LGBT equality, immigration,” said Joe Mulhall of Hope Not Hate, a London-based research and advocacy group that fights “racism and fascism.”

“The pillars of European liberal democracy are shaking, and Breitbart is right in the center of it,” he said.

Founded in 2007 by right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart, the site averaged more than 15 million unique visitors in the first three months of this year, down from a high of almost 23 million during the 2016 elections, according to ComScore.

Bannon, who took over in 2012 after the founder’s death, grew the site into a relentless warrior for nationalism, constantly warning against mass immigration, especially by Muslims.

Critics have called the site xenophobic, racist and sexist, citing headlines such as “Europe’s rape epidemic: Western women will be sacrificed at the altar of mass migration” and “Feminists need to know – Islam kills women.”

While Bannon has officially severed financial and editorial ties with Breitbart, European critics said they suspect he is still an informal adviser, which Breitbart denies. On Tuesday, the committee that oversees news media access to the U.S. Congress declined to accredit Breitbart, saying that it was not fully convinced that Bannon was no longer involved.

“Steve is not advising us. He just isn’t,” said Chad Wilkinson, a Breitbart spokesman.

One-fifth of Breitbart’s 15 million monthly readers are already from outside the United States, according to SimilarWeb, an analytics firm. It already has a London bureau, a reporter in Rome and several in Jerusalem.

“The world is getting smaller, and our fates are tied together,” said Raheem Kassam, 30, editor in chief of Breitbart London, who said in an interview that he is overseeing the organization’s efforts to grow across Europe and into Canada and Australia.

Kassam said it was “nonsense” to call Breitbart racist or sexist; he said it simply reports truths ignored by mainstream news media. Kassam, the British-born son of Indian immigrants, was raised Muslim but said he became disillusioned with Islam, especially when Muslim college classmates in London cheered the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Well-known in Britain for his sharp-tongued conservatism as a blogger in his 20s, Kassam said some Breitbart headlines are “playful” and represent “slightly more of a tabloid fashion than an American market is used to.”

Some questioned whether continental Europe was ready for Breitbart’s loud-and-proud journalistic style. Critics said that Breitbart seems to be having trouble finding local journalists and that its screaming-headline style – so familiar to the British – might not appeal as much in France and Germany.

“Breitbart cannot succeed in France if they do only excessive or outrageous news; we are not that kind of people,” said Frederic Paillet of Reputation Squad, a digital consulting firm in Paris. “But if they do it properly, they will succeed because there is demand.”

There is also resistance: A French spokeswoman for Sleeping Giants, an anonymous online movement with Twitter accounts in 14 nations, said her group, which operates in individual countries without any centralized leadership, has persuaded nearly 2,000 organizations worldwide not to advertise with Breitbart.

Kassam said Sleeping Giants has not damaged Breitbart’s finances. News reports have said Breitbart is substantially funded by the family of American billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump ally and major donor.

Kassam said it was “total nonsense” that Breitbart has had trouble with its expansion plans. “Could it have been faster? Sure,” he said. “But it’s going to be great.”

Asked about critics who say his expansion plans are all talk, he said, “They’re idiots.”

Kassam said Bannon first pitched him on Breitbart at a 2013 dinner at Brown’s Hotel in London.

“I think that Europe is going to become a political tinderbox over the next few years,” Bannon said, according to Kassam. He said Bannon believed Britain was facing many of the same issues he saw in the United States, including anti-immigration backlash and working-class anger at elites.

The London bureau opened in 2014, and wrote favorably and nonstop about Farage and his U.K. Independence Party, a far-right, anti-immigration, anti-European Union party that was an important driver of the Brexit effort.

“If Nigel was giving a speech, we’d be there with a camera,” Kassam said.

Breitbart’s British audience grew and Kassam’s London staff expanded to about 10 journalists. When Brexit passed unexpectedly in June, Breitbart’s coverage was widely credited with being a small but significant factor.

To critics like Hope Not Hate, that proved that Breitbart is more political than journalistic. They noted that Kassam took time out from his Breitbart job to be Farage’s spokesman and briefly ran for the UKIP leadership job last year.

“It distorts and fabricates news to deliberately incite anger in its supporters and fear in others,” Hope Not Hate said in a recent report, “Breitbart: A rightwing plot to shape Europe’s future.”

Farage, in a London interview, said Breitbart’s expansion into London was “as political as it was commercial.” He said Breitbart speaks for “people who have basically felt ignored in the political process.”

He has known Bannon for several years. “I’ve heard this bloody rubbish about Bannon, that he’s white supremacist and an anti-Semite. I’ve never, ever seen or heard anything in that direction from him,” Farage said.

Kassam, he said, was a credible voice on Islam, in part because he was raised Muslim.

“There are some opinions that get published on Breitbart that obviously go a lot further than I would,” Farage said. “But is this a fair and reasonable debate to be having, given that extremist Muslim atrocities are becoming part of daily life in Europe? Yes.”

Vivien Hoch arrived for lunch at a Paris restaurant wearing a dark-blue suit, white shirt and a fireball-red tie worn just a bit too long.

“I love Trump’s style and charisma,” said Hoch, 30, a conservative blogger whose name surfaced in local media as a potential Breitbart writer in France. He met with Kassam at a meeting of French conservative activists in January but said Kassam was just “feeling us out a little bit.”

Hoch said Breitbart would have a significant market in France, because it had the financial backing and connections to “influence politics” and create “buzz.”

Tapping his lapel, he added, “Breitbart comes to France like an American general wearing two medals: Brexit and Trump.”

Hoch said U.S. news organizations HuffPost and BuzzFeed cover France with French-language sites that offer generally left-leaning coverage.

“There no reason that Breitbart couldn’t do that on the other side,” said Hoch, who bought a red “Make America Great Again” cap on Amazon and wears it as a lighthearted “provocation” to left-leaning French friends.

French right-wing populism is rising, most visibly in the campaign of Marine Le Pen of the National Front party and her anti-immigration, anti-European Union rhetoric. Le Pen won more than 21 percent in France’s first-round of voting on Sunday, second only to centrist Emmanuel Macron with about 24 percent. They face a May 7 runoff for the presidency.

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a niece of Marine Le Pen and a key figure in the National Front, also said Breitbart could succeed in France if it were less “tabloidy.”

“In France, we’re interested in reading more intellectual articles,” Maréchal-Le Pen, 27, said in an interview at her French Parliament office.

But Maréchal-Le Pen said she believed French voters were “rejecting the traditional press,” and “the majority of the French population would support Breitbart, especially the Forgotten France who suffer from the effects of globalization.”

Breitbart has been covering Marine Le Pen’s candidacy enthusiastically, but Kassam said that doesn’t mean the site endorses Le Pen. “We’re not shy of saying it when we do it. We’re just not doing it,” he said.

But that’s not how it feels to Maréchal-Le Pen.

“I am aware that Breitbart is supporting the National Front; I’m very flattered, although it’s not very influential in France,” she said.

In Germany, Breitbart’s expansion plans have also stirred anger and fear ahead of national elections in September in which Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term.

Advertising executive Gerald Hensel started a campaign late last year called #NoMoneyForTheRight, to inform companies that their ads were appearing on Breitbart and other right-wing websites.

Hensel said in a phone interview that he was bombarded by angry messages, calls to his employer demanding that he be fired and death threats. Within two weeks, he resigned as a digital strategy director with Scholz & Friends, a German advertising agency.

Hensel said Breitbart might have trouble setting up a bureau in Germany because Germans since World War II have been vigilant about the kind of extremism he believes Breitbart represents.

He and others point to Breitbart’s coverage of a New Year’s Eve incident in Dortmund, Germany, in which Breitbart reported that “a mob of more than 1,000 men chanted ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ launched fireworks at police, and set fire to a historic church.”

Some elements of the story were correct: There was a large gathering, including many immigrants. A number of people were chanting “Allahu akbar,” a phrase sometimes used in anger by radicals but also common in prayer and celebrations. Netting over scaffolding on the roof of the church briefly caught fire, but it was unclear whether fireworks had deliberately been fired at the church, which was not damaged. Police said one Syrian migrant threw a single firework that landed at a police officer’s feet.

German police, politicians and media said Breitbart inflated a relatively minor incident to create the false impression that Muslim immigrants had staged a large-scale attack on police and burned a Christian church.

“We shook our heads in disbelief when we saw how this operation was politicized,” a spokesman for the Dortmund police said.

Critics said Breitbart was attempting to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of the September election, in which Merkel’s immigration policies have been criticized by the anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany party.

Kassam defended Breitbart’s reporting on his website, accusing the mainstream media of “dishonest” criticism because it “clearly damages their broader goal of fostering a mass migration, ‘multiculturalist’ mindset.”

Merkel’s government has proposed a law, soon to be debated in Parliament, that would impose large fines on social-media firms like Facebook if they fail to immediately take down “fake news.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Kevin Sullivan, James Mcauley

{Matzav}

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