Obsessed with populism?

A serious contender to “post-truthfor the Word of the Year prize could have been populism. The term has marked political debates during and after 2016’s two key political events — the British referendum and the U.S. elections — and appears in almost every article about European politics. The 2017 French elections have already been labelled as the next big test for the spread of populism in the West. The problem is, while it would be absurd to deny the rise of strong populist movements both in Europe and the U.S., the misuse and overuse of the term weaken our ability to analyze political dynamics and understand the contemporary history of political ideas.

François Fillon’s victory at the primaries of Les Républicains came as a surprise to many. After the results of the first round, it was therefore time to read and learn about a candidate who had been largely overshadowed by Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy in the media during the campaign. Fillon, with his support for the anti-gay marriage movement Manif pour Tous, his Russophilia in foreign policy matters, and his references to the “Christian heritage of France”, suddenly became the center of all attention. The key question came rapidly: is Fillon’s victory another success for the populists? Can the results be explained by the same factors as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump?

The issue here stems from the unclear definition of populism. This increasingly fashionable term is extensively used to describe anybody criticizing the elites, the so-called system, or more generally challenging the liberal order. Reactionary political ideas are often said to be signs of a new surge of populism, which is even mixed-up with plain fascism. Finally, it has become a cheap way to delegitimize a political adversary who can be suspected of demagoguery. Obviously, this vague and catch-all use of the term populism does not help identify the real populists, and can only increase the general confusion. Quoting Jan-Werner Müller: “populists are always antipluralist: populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people”. Interestingly, while this more restricted definition entails a series of potential implications — for instance, political opponents are perceived as enemies to the nation, and populist movements can only explain their political defeats by blaming the “corrupt system” or the “biased media” — it does not necessarily imply anything specific in terms of policy or ideology.

As explained in a previous article (Making Sense of Fillon’s Victory), Fillon is a traditional right-wing conservative. His ideological pillars — authority, socially and culturally conservative, economically liberal — belong to a long tradition of the French right, and he is himself a product of the so-called “system”, having spent all his professional life as a politician at the local, regional and national levels. His style and strategy are all but populist: Fillon does not pretend to talk on behalf of the people against the elite, he has not called for more direct democracy in order to bypass the “corrupt system”, nor has he considered his political adversaries as traitors to the nation. A self-proclaimed Gaullist (but who isn’t these days in France?…), he has certainly not tried to delegitimize the institutions of the Republic.

To a certain extent, one could argue that the primaries of Les Républicains have seen the failure of the populist strategy with the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round. The former president, who explicitly took Trump’s campaign as a model, failed to create a momentum around his candidacy, despite having ticked all the boxes. Although Sarkozy’s third position may be explained by his personality as much as by his strategy, it challenges the simplistic idea that the same populist tools could lead to the same result regardless of the political context.

The opposition with Marine Le Pen may lead Fillon to rethink his discourse, and embrace a more antipluralist style on issues related to immigration and assimilation in particular. It is however unlikely that the mainstream right candidate will promote the binary populist vision “elite versus people” in the coming months. Those anticipating a populist surge in France should be careful not to overstretch the definition of populism. Clarifying its meaning can only help struggle against the influence of true populists on the road to the elections.

Martin Q.