It was a welcome adjustment for a president.
Republican Guards at the Élysée Palace. A standing ovation to the European Parliament. A front-page interview in Spain’s biggest newspaper in which the visiting dignitary was hailed as a “cyclone” of energy.
“He’s a great man, ” gushed the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, as she offered her “dear” foreign friend a brasserie lunch in the east of the French capital.
The visitor wasn’t president, however – at least not since 2010, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stepped down as Brazil’s leader with an approval rating of almost 90%.
Instead, Lula is now the leading candidate to overthrow Brazil’s outgoing president, right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, and was in Europe as part of a global effort to restore his reputation – and that of his country – after a few scorching years for both.
“I must come back to help Brazil regain its international prestige”, Lula, who is expected to challenge and beat Bolsonaro in next year’s election, told El País at the end of his weeklong tour of Belgium, France, Germany and Spain.
Besides a controversial remark on Nicaraguan authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega, Lula’s mission, which ended on Saturday, was widely seen as a triumph.
In Germany, the 76-year-old received a punch from Angela Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz, who Bolsonaro had avoided a few weeks earlier at the G20.
“I look forward to our good discussions”, Scholz tweeted after meeting Lula, whose political return was made possible by the overturning of corruption convictions that led to 580 days in prison.
In France, Lula’s welcome was even warmer, Emmanuel Macron inviting the leftist to his palace in an undeniable snub to Bolsonaro, with whom he clashed over the dramatic acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.
Lula’s former foreign minister Celso Amorim said that in nearly six decades of diplomacy he had no recollection of such an honor being bestowed under similar circumstances.
“I have never seen a former president and a potential candidate be received by the president of France as he was,” said Amorim, who traveled with Lula and felt moved by “the affection “brought to his friend and former boss.
Amorim claimed that European leaders – including Macron, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell – had treated Lula “as if he was a leader in power”.
“I think if they could vote they would vote for Lula,” Amorim said, adding that he believed their hosts yearned for stability after Bolsonaro’s hackneyed tenure.
Lula’s continued fame stands in stark contrast to Bolsonaro’s international isolation, which deepened last week with claims Brazil withheld figures showing increased deforestation in the Amazon during the Cop26 climate summit.
During his three years in power, Bolsonaro alienated a succession of foreign partners, including leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, US President Joe Biden and European leaders such as Macron and Merkel.
At the October G20, Bolsonaro received a frosty reception and was filmed drift aimlessly around the top trying to strike up a conversation with the waiters.
“It was an unprecedented diplomatic disaster,” said Celso Rocha de Barros, an expert from the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.
Barros said Lula’s “absurd” comments in Nicaragua had tarnished an otherwise successful tour and showed that the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) needed to reflect on its stance towards leftist authoritarianism in Latin America.
Speaking to El País, Lula had warned that leaders do not become “little dictators”, but wondered why Angela Merkel could stay in power for 16 years but not Daniel Ortega, who oversaw a Deadly crackdown on protesters in 2018 and jailed dozens of rivals ahead of Nicaragua’s recent presidential election. .
Despite this, Barros believed that Europe was desperate for a return to rationality in Brazil under “a normal politician” like Lula. By kissing Lula, European leaders sent a message to Bolsonaro: “Look, we prefer this guy.”
“Lula represents a Brazil that had a lot of problems – and still has – but at least trying to solve them,” Barros said.