Gilles Ivaldi, CNRS-Affiliated Researcher at the CEVIPOF-Sciences-Po in Paris

May 26, 2021


Q. What does populism mean? Does it have the same meaning in France and in the US?  

A minimal definition of populism is that it is an ideology that sees society as divided into two antagonistic groups, the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’, and which claims that the sovereignty of the people should be paramount.

Populism is fundamentally Manichean in its interpretation of politics: it’s essentially good versus evil. The ‘people’ are considered as ‘the underdog’ and they are depicted as virtuous and ‘pure’, while the elite is mostly seen as ‘corrupt’ and an enemy of the people.

Populists consider themselves as part of a moral community. They have a monist, that is anti-pluralist, conception of society. Populism sees the ‘people’ as a single homogeneous entity, and therefore it challenges the diversity and plurality of social groups and interests.

Finally, populists consider that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale’ (general will). The ideal of ‘popular sovereignty’ is central to populism and it implies the supremacy of the people over any political or legal institution. For populists, the relationship between the people and the government should be unmediated and ‘the will of the people’ should not be constrained by legal or political institutions. Of course, populists claim to be the exclusive defenders of the people against the elite.

This minimal definition of populism applies to a variety of groups, actors and contexts. There are different types of populism across place and time, for instance left-wing populists in Latin America or right-wing populists in Europe and in the United States, but they all share the three core features of the populist ideology, that is the people, the elite and the general will.

Q. Can you tell us how populism developed in France and in the US, and what are the main similarities and differences between the two countries?  

Both France and the US have seen the development of right-wing authoritarian populist parties and actors. This is true of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national in France (formerly Front national) and of Donald Trump in the US. Both embody the typical right-wing populist party or entrepreneur. Both share a populist ideology associated with nationalist and authoritarian ideas and themes, and both primarily mobilize on immigration and law-and-order.

Trump’s discourses cultivated strong anti-elite and anti-establishment attitudes. In the 2016 election, Trump promised to “drain the swamp”, a pledge reminiscent of the RN’s traditional criticism of political elites in France. Trump’s rhetoric and his anti-immigration arguments clearly resemble those manipulated by nativist politicians in Europe, playing on economic and cultural fears. Both the RN and Trump stake out distinctive positions on immigration and trade. Like Marine Le Pen, Trump’s presidential campaign of 2016 pledged to give the “people” back their voice, to “speak to their hearts” and “stand up for their interests”.

There are differences, however. In the US, Trump essentially illustrates populism as a political strategy, taking advantage of the opportunities produced by American primary elections. Trump began his campaign as a political outsider opposing the GOP establishment. But he did not start his 2015 campaign as a populist – but rather as a case of entrepreneurial narcissism; studies show that he became more populist after the nomination, notably under the influence of Steve Bannon.

Trump is an interesting case of populism emerging within mainstream politics, a phenomenon that we see in Eastern Europe, in the radicalization of ruling conservative parties in Poland and Hungary for instance. Let us recall that, in 2016, Trump’s electorate was first and foremost the traditional electoral base of the GOP –he won 9 in 10 conservative voters– but it also attracted outside white working-class voters in swing states. Interestingly the profile of those ‘preservationist’ voters was closer to that of the typical populist right’s constituency in Western Europe/.

Turning to the RN in France, we see a very different path. The FN originated in the far-right milieu during the 1970s, at the fringes of the French party system and it has tried ever since to move into the mainstream. Marine Le Pen’s strategy of ‘de-demonization’ is precisely this attempt to change the party’s image and reputation in order to increase its electoral appeal and improve its credibility and coalition potential, which are key to winning the presidency under the country’s two-round majority electoral system.

The 2022 election will tell us whether she will succeed in breaking the glass ceiling in the presidential.

Q. The 2017 French presidential election was marked by a protest vote of unprecedented magnitude. Since then, protests seems to have become more regular and have taken multiple forms. How will this agitation, unprecedented in its unconventional form and intensity, find expression in the mechanisms of the 2022 presidential election? 

Yes, you’re right. The 2017 French presidential election showed a high level of polarization and substantial support for populist actors at both ends of the political spectrum. Let us recall that the combined support for populist candidates such as Mélenchon, Le Pen and Dupont-Aignan and Le Pen almost reached 50 percent of the first-round vote. Marine Le Pen progressed into the second round, winning over a third of the vote.

In France, voter aspiration to change is strongly linked with a general perception of French democracy as being ‘stalled’. Since 2017, we have seen a growing disconnect with the government, the president and mainstream parties. Trust in political parties is traditionally low in France, at less than 15%. Engagement in the electoral process itself has also declined. French presidential election turnout has dropped at 77.8 per cent in the first round of the 2017 presidential down from 83.8 in 2007. The legislative trend is even more stark: in 2017, participation in the first round of the legislatives fell to 48.7 per cent compared with 60.4 per cent ten years earlier, following a downward trend in turnout since the mid-1980s.

Another important form of protest occurred in the early stage of the Macron presidency, with the Yellow Vests movement, showing widespread discontent with the government’s socio-economic policies and profound distrust of party politics and representation.

The political agitation of the Yellow Vests and support for populists will find their way into the 2022 French presidential election and we may certainly expect more political turbulence. I see four important aspects.

First, rising socio-economic inequality is likely to top the presidential agenda of next year, even more so given the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and its many socio-economic repercussions. It has definitely become a lot more difficult for Macron to push his reformist and liberal agenda and his reelection bid will face strong opposition from both the radical left and right. As Macron continues to veer towards the right of the party system both economically and culturally, he may also alienate his former support among social-democratic voters in France.

Second, there is a strong sociological cleavage. Macron’s support is still relying on well-off urban upper-class voters, while losing ground amongst middle and working-class voters who are being hit the most by the economic impact of the pandemic, and who are increasingly turning to Le Pen. The RN is still promoting a national and social-protectionist agenda that speaks to the lower educated and working class voters in France. This sociological cleavage is also becoming generational, with younger voters being affected most by the health crisis. Recent studies show that Macron may be losing his appeal to younger voters under 25 years while those in the 25-35 years age band are increasingly turning to the populist right.

Third, this sociological cleavage corresponds with a strong geographical divide, which was already well in evidence in the Yellow Vests movement in 2018 and 2019. There is a growing divide between gentrified metropolitan areas that continue to support Macron and rural and periurban areas where working-class and lower middle-class voters are massively supporting the RN, both for economic and cultural reasons. Recent polls for the forthcoming regional elections show for instance that immigration, crime and law-and-order are the most salient issues, so there is a good chance that such issues will find their way into next year’s presidential. Let us note that this is something we see in the US as well: in 2020, Biden’s presidential win has shown that the rural-urban divide has grown further since 2016. Trump received his best scores in rural counties and the biggest swings in the vote occurred in more densely populated counties, with Biden winning the large cities –like Clinton four years earlier– and making progress across small and medium-sized metro areas.

Finally, there continues to be widespread mistrust of political institutions and parties in France, and this has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Such erosion of political trust may fuel support for populists in the next presidential election, as people may look for alternative solutions and strong leadership outside the mainstream.

The latest wave of CEVIPOF’s Political Trust Barometer conducted last February suggests that populist attitudes are widely shared by French citizens. More than 70% of respondents think that politicians speak too much and act too little, or that they are disconnected from reality; the appeal to popular sovereignty is paramount for nearly one in two respondents; around two thirds of the French feel there is a gap between citizens and their representatives, and nearly half of them say that they would prefer to be represented by an ordinary citizen than a professional politician.

Altogether, this makes a reservoir for populist mobilization of popular discontent in France.

Q. The Trump presidency has demonstrated the appeal of populist authoritarianism to many Americans. Do you think that his defeat last November signaled the onset of populism’s decline in the US?  

Probably not. It is true that concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic have been Trump’s Achilles’ heel in the 2020 election, especially among moderate voters who were worried most about coronavirus, but I believe there is still a political space for right-wing populism in the US.

First, let us recall that populism has been a constant feature of American political history since the late 19th century, from the People’s Party to Ross Perot or Sarah Palin and, more recently, Donald Trump and, looking to the left of the party system, Bernie Sanders as an example of left-wing populism.

Given its looming economic and social repercussions, the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to profoundly destabilize Western societies that have already been significantly weakened by the 2008 financial and economic crisis. This could pave the way for new populist successes once the public health emergency ends. At the moment, the US economy seems to be still struggling. A lot will depend on how quickly it will come around.

More generally, the issues and anxieties that drive support for populism continue to deeply shape public opinion in the US and in Europe, and they form a potential reservoir that could still play into the hands of populist entrepreneurs. Political distrust and skepticism still dominate the nation’s politics. The mainstream media is distrusted by a large majority of Americans. Economic, social, and cultural anxieties are bound to arise in the post-Covid era, and these will mainly affect the most vulnerable social groups, in the working and lower middle classes, which are traditionally most susceptible to populist appeals.

Concerns about the pandemic have fueled demand for protection, safety, and strong leadership, and they have also brought key populist issues of borders, sovereignty, and the protection of national interests to the forefront of the political agenda. All these resonate with the many economic and cultural insecurities produced by globalization, which were key to Trump’s successful mobilization.

Finally, looking at consequences of climate change and the explosion of extreme poverty in the most fragile countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we may expect more migration flows in the future. This could put immigration back at the top of the political agenda, to the benefit of the populist right.

So, in my opinion, a new political ‘cycle’ marked by a lasting decline of populism still seems highly unlikely.

Q. What do you see for the future of the liberal order vs the growth of populism in both countries? 

Clearly, right-wing authoritarian populism represents a significant challenge for the liberal order. Right-wing populists claim supremacy of the people over any political or legal institution. They are skeptical about constitutionalism and favor an unmediated relationship between the people and the government. They are also generally suspicious of liberal values, norms and principles such as minority rights, the rule of law, and the separation of powers.

The experience of right-wing populist government in Europe –e.g. Hungary, Poland, Italy– and the Trump presidency in the US show that populism relates negatively to liberal democratic quality. Right-wing populist government often results in changes or even the erosion of important components such as the system of checks and balances, antagonizing the press, courts and civil society groups and organizations. This is something we see also in less consolidated democracies such as Turkey, India or Indonesia.

Let us recall that the threat to liberal democratic principles and values does not only originate in populism but also in the nativist and authoritarian ideologies to which right-wing populism is generally attached.

In the US, Trump’s legacy of authoritarian populism will be one of post-truth politics and the viral spread of conspiracy theories. His presidency was marked with autocratic tendencies, antagonism with the judiciary and the press, support for violent protest such as the assault on US Capitol, and the many interferences with the operation of constitutional government in the 2020 elections. We should also remember Trump’s rather ambiguous relationship with the alt-right, and his exclusionary anti-immigration policies. More importantly, there are many questions as to the ideological recalibration by Trump of the GOP, and as to the future of moderate conservatism in the US in the context of cultural and political polarization in America.

In the French case, authoritarian and nativist attitudes are widespread and they align with the nationalist and anti-globalization ideology of the RN: according to the latest wave of CEVIPOF’s Political Trust Barometer, 60% of citizens think there are too many immigrants; 46% say that death penalty should be reinstated; more than 70% think income inequality should be reduced; 44% say their country should protect itself more from the world; 55% are dissatisfied with the way democracy works in France and another 34% embrace the idea of having ‘a strong leader who does not have to worry about the parliament or elections.’

All these indicators point to a serious crisis of liberal democracy in France as in many other countries. And despite Le Pen’s many efforts to change the RN’s reputation, her party continues to embrace typical radical right ideas and policies. As a significant surge in support for the RN in the 2022 elections seems ever more likely, we should definitely be concerned about a possible ‘trumpization’ of French politics, however without some of the ‘safety nets’ that still existed within the moderate sector of the GOP in America.

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