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The Pastéis de Belém has been baking custard tarts since 1837 and there’s always a long queue of both tourists and Lisboetas outside its doors. Among them, occasionally, is the president of the republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. He’s known to eschew some of the rigours of security and break with protocol. On his inauguration day he didn’t take the motorcade but preferred a leisurely stroll to the parliament building from his home in downtown Lisbon.

It was a casual yet choreographed stunt by a man well versed in playing to the crowd. A professor of law who regularly broke rank in his own centre-right Social Democratic party, De Sousa had a popular long-running Sunday evening politics slot on television. His punditry earned him a reputation as a fact-checker of political promises and cab drivers reverentially call him “the professor”. After an unpopular president who cultivated a cloistered image, De Sousa is on a charm offensive in order to rejig how Portugal’s head of state engages the country – down to joining the New Year’s Day swim in Cascais Bay.

He is late for our meeting in his baroque office of the presidential palace, once home to Portugal’s royal family. He’s been eating tuna pie at the house of a man who was once homeless but managed to turn his life around. Later De Sousa challenges kids to a race around the block to see who is the fittest. He comes in fourth.

It could almost be too twee, too father-of-the-nation sort of stuff. But De Sousa has so far pulled it off, with a public hungry for personal politicians. Talk turns to “openness” which, in an age of nativist movements, is increasingly the challenge and measure of nations. “We’re very open in a Europe that’s less open than it used to be,” says De Sousa.

Monocle: Is a head of state still important in a democracy?
Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa: The head of state is a symbol of unity and acts as a bridge between different parties, classes and communities. The only way to avoid populism is to solve people’s problems and have a direct connection with those people. If you’re distant from them, the vacuum will only be filled by new parties and personalities.

M: Why are there no populist movements in Portugal?
MRS: We have strong parties. For example, the Communist party has renewed itself and attracted a younger generation even though it’s very old and orthodox. Then there’s the Left Bloc: a new party comprising mainly young people with radical ideas but it occupies the space that left-wing radical populism could fill. It’s the same situation on the right: you have two open-minded parties and it’s difficult to have a radical right in Portugal because wherever the parties see [space for] a radical movement, they will occupy it.

M: You were a journalist during the Salazar dictatorship and after the revolution. Today some politicians call for critical media to be reined in. What’s the value of a free press?
MRS: Quality media without money is very difficult and that’s another problem the press faces, particularly in comparison to the 1970s. I will respect the media to the end of my mandate even if it means being criticised or attacked for it. That’s democracy: you can’t accept it when it’s favourable to you and then not accept it when it isn’t.

M: Why do young people across Europe, from the UK to Turkey, want to come to Portugal right now?
MRS: We were a migrant society as soon as we became independent. We had nowhere to go but to the sea. We went to Africa, Brazil, Asia and thereby became a society that accepts immigration. We ourselves were refugees in our civil war and have come to accept new ways of living. The day I took office, my first ceremony was ecumenical in a mosque with 18 other religious communities. In a sense people in Portugal feel that they are free.

M: Portugal’s economy is growing again – how has the crisis changed it?
MRS: Little by little we’re seeing the start of growth and young people have discovered that instead of going to big or even mid-sized companies, they could create their own micro-enterprises. This is quite a change. Many start-ups disappear but people get used to new cycles of jobs and activities: you create a start-up that’s not successful but then you start another one and another one and perhaps the fourth will be a success. By the age of 28, these people have had four or five different business experiences. This certainly wasn’t the case when I was younger.

M: What is Portugal’s place in the world?
MRS: It’s a platform between cultures, civilisations and seas – as it always has been. We are good at learning languages and living in different climates and societies. We can be European while at the same time building a bridge with the UK – our oldest ally. We also build bridges with Africa, Latin America and as far as East Timor. The Chinese are now taking a strong place in our banking sector and that’s because of [Portugal’s former colony] Macau. Of course, the British had Hong Kong – but that was completely different.

M: What is different about the Lusophone relationship?
MRS: We were an empire but not imperialistic. The empire wasn’t disciplined but there was a human relationship there and a mixture of people so intense that even today you can be in Maputo and you’ll hear people talk about the Portuguese soccer league as if the teams are Mozambican. This reality – made up of religion, football, wine, food and literature – is tricky to explain. And it’s difficult for any other former empire to copy.

M: What could other nations learn from the Lusophone world?
MRS: They can look at us and see what we did badly so that they never repeat those mistakes. But they can also see our qualities: a bridge to others, accepting everyone and being adaptable to change when change is required. We survive exactly in this way and it’s as if we are becoming young again despite being an old country.

M: On inauguration day you broke with protocol and walked from your home to the presidential palace. Why was that particularly significant to voters?
MRS: You have to understand that people were coming out of a crisis. The last head of state and prime minister were typical – very orthodox – and thought power and state needed protocol. Some people criticise me saying that being too close to people means you won’t have the authority to make hard decisions. But if you’re reasonable and you know the rules and are used to analysing politics for 50 years, then you know what to do when it’s needed. It’s not enough to have formal power anymore: you need the support of the people.


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