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The cunning politicisation of Neymar's move to PSG

Neymar Jr has become an unsuspecting pawn in an economic game of chess.

Neymar Jr's €500m+ move to Paris Saint-Germain might as well be paid for in Monopoly money. It’s made a mockery of UEFA’s already beleaguered Financial Fair Play rules. It’s shown that owners can still attempt to buy their way to Champions League success. It’s shown, more importantly, that money talks louder than league prestige, with the Brazilian seemingly all too happy to swap the history of Barcelona for the new money of the Parc des Princes. The fees which have caused all this are so unfathomably huge that Neymar will collect plenty of cash as he passes GO each year – £40m, to be exact. But while the transfer may shakeup European football, its scale means the deal will have a major impact off the pitch as well.

For a start it seems PSG's billionaire Qatari owners are getting more than just a pretty good footballer. As the Guardian pointed out, Neymar seems to have mysteriously become a representative for the Qatar World Cup for a fee of around £200m – around the £200m that allowed him to buy out his own release clause and help PSG circumnavigate small-print transfer technicalities.

Yet the bigger impact is likely to be felt in Neymar's new home. Speaking to France Info yesterday, France’s minister for public accounts Gérard Darmanin was salivating at the thought of Neymar’s proposed tax payments. “If Neymar is indeed coming to a French club,” he said, “then the minister for public finances will indeed be pleased by the taxes he will be able to pay in France." For the avoidance of doubt he added: “It would be better that this football player pays his taxes in France than elsewhere.”

Those comments leave unsaid one key point. France has an appalling recent track record in big name taxation. Gerard Depardieu’s self-imposed exile in Belgium to flee François Hollande’s supertax has left a dent in France’s tax-gathering reputation that has never really been filled. Bernard Arnault, chief-executive of LVMH and France’s richest man, also took Belgian citizenship to escape paying up. The supertax was shelved in 2014, only two years after it was proposed in Hollande’s election campaign. Ensuring some of that huge paycheck does make it into the French treasury may not be so simple.

Yet France's gains also go beyond the merely financial. Emmanuel Macron, always keen to be pally with the stars of the day, has also welcomed Neymar’s move to Paris, but rather than focussing on the tax take chose to highlight the supposed role of “l’attractivité de la France” in luring the star from Barcelona.

Macron might be optimistic in his theory that France’s attractiveness had a greater hand in the deal than ego and money, but his words have wider significance. Macron has long appealed for Europhilic businesses to abandon Britain for France in the wake of Brexit, and stealing Spain’s prize poster boy is a canny way to further his trademark pro-business agenda within the EU.

Both Darmanin and Macron have a lot to prove here. The primary concern is shoring up their still embryonic reign. En Marche has largely steered clear of disaster in the early part of their government – as a result, Macron et al are understandably keen to seize Neymar’s move for their own ends.

With this in mind, Neymar will certainly be a fantastic poster boy for French football, for Paris and for Qatar – it’s just that En Marche are hoping that he’ll be a fantastic poster boy for France, and for the French taxation system, too.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?