The Spectre of Populism



A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre. Various political movements and politicians are described as ‘populist’ in the media and in academia. To name but a few: Nigel Farage’s Euroscepticism in Britain, Geert Wilders’s Islamophobia in the Netherlands, Beppe Grillo’s anti-elite campaign in Italy, Jobbik’s anti-Semitism in Hungary, Die Linke’s anti-austerity programme in Germany, Marine Le Pen’s Fascism with a human face or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s pro-6th Republic in France. What do these political forces have in common? In truth, very little. Some are ideologically and politically poles apart. If these parties are politically different, why indiscriminately refer to them as ‘populist’?

What is ‘populism’?

Traditionally, the notion of ‘populism’ has been used to refer to the opportunistic exploitation of popular, sometimes demagogic, sentiments with a resonance amongst the masses. More recently, the label of ‘populism’ has been more loosely applied. In its current acceptation, populism essentially entails:

– A criticism of the forms and practices of liberal democracy;

– A movement that tends to draw its values from the past and which offers an ideological and sentimental landmark;

– A ‘Manichean’ worldview in which the ‘people’ are celebrated and the political elites are presented as ‘corrupt’ and ‘out of touch’. Populism is therefore about siding with ‘the people’ against ‘the elites’.

– Demagogy and ‘catch-all’ politics.

Such typology is not entirely enlightening. Firstly, to be critical of liberal-democratic institutions does not necessarily make a politician or a party an enemy of those institutions, let alone a threat to democracy. Secondly, mainstream parties arguably can also draw inspiration and values from the past. Think, for instance, of conservatives and traditional social-democrats. Thirdly, there is nothing wrong with popular movements singling out ‘corrupt’ and ‘out of touch’ politicians. Fourthly, virtually all parties across the political spectrum are desperate to be in tune with ‘vox pop’ and practice various forms of ‘catch-all’ politics. Otherwise, why would they bother to run focus groups and why would they be over-reliant on opinion polls? These preliminary remarks show that populism is a rather ambivalent concept and therefore one has to exercise a degree of caution when using it.

Until 15-20 years ago, studies on populism referred almost exclusively to Latin America. In the 1930s and 1940s, many regimes based themselves on authoritarian politics such as Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo in Brazil or Juan Perón in Argentina. Here, populism meant that leaders and political forces adapted to the prevailing mood of the nation, moving within the ideological spectrum from left to right several times during their political lives. From the 1950s, Latin American populism managed to capture high levels of working-class support, notably when it was associated with left-leaning petty bourgeois nationalism.

A perceived threat to representative democracy

Over the past fifteen years or so, the word’s meaning has changed quite considerably. Nowadays, it rarely defines authoritarian regimes which appeal to the masses, but rather designates left-wing or right-wing movements which are seen as challenging the dominant ideas or policies. What is more, critics of populism worry about the mobilisation of the people in politics. Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, recently observed that ‘the mantra of the moment is “listen to the people” – a call for populist politics dressed up to look like a demand for the genuine democracy which is said to be denied to Britain by an unrepresentative and remote elite.’ According to this line of reasoning, popular democracy seems unnecessary and it can even be dangerous. It certainly has to be mediated though a professional political elite who is wiser and knows better.

More than anywhere else in Europe, the notion of populism has been used aplenty in French politics and academia. This is largely due to the persisting electoral successes of the Front National, an extreme-right party, from the mid-1980s onward. It is quite ironic to note that the reference to populism in French media and academia is inversely proportional to the presence and visibility of the ‘people’ in politics (understood as working-class or ‘popular’ classes). In other words, the less represented the ‘popular’ classes are in political parties, in parliament or in government, the more ‘populism’ is branded a threat for French society.

Talk about ‘populism’ culminated in 2005. After a politicised debate nationwide, 55% of French voters rejected the European Constitution. Mainstream parties and media had all called for a ‘yes’ vote. They were prompt to reprimand an ‘irrational’ and ‘immature’ electorate which had followed ‘populist’ politicians from the right and from the left. Hardly one year later, the Lisbon Treaty – a repackaged version of the European Constitution – was adopted by heads of state behind closed doors. This time, the French government did not consult its people. Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president, publicly admitted that had he organised a new referendum, the French would have opposed it again. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: by voting ‘the wrong way’, the French ‘people had forfeited the confidence of the government’. As the government could not possibly ‘dissolve the people and elect another’, it opted to impose its decision in this most undemocratic manner.

Distrusting the people

There is more to it than the question of people’s ‘political immaturity’. The ‘populism’ tag subliminally signals that the popular classes are morally corrupt and dangerous. Evidence of this is that they support demagogues. By labelling political movements as antagonistic as UKIP, the Five Star movement, Jobbik, the Front National or Die Linke, one tends to demonise forces which have only one thing in common: they disagree with mainstream political parties’ policies. In so doing, one confuses political movements which are historically antagonistic. For instance, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are both frequently called ‘populist’ in the media and by some academics. Yet their worldview and policies are totally at loggerheads. Le Pen’s politics is essentially ‘ethno-centred’ (end of immigration, anti-Islam stand, discrimination against foreigners), whereas Mélenchon’s politics is essentially a radical critique of neoliberal economics. By branding both politicians as ‘populist’, one rather insidiously suggests to the public that the Front National and the Front de Gauche are two symmetrical forces. In other words, they are the two flip sides of the same coin or the same rotten apples that spoil the barrel.

In the mid-1980s, the French political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff presented the Front National as a ‘National-Populism’; a notion originally used in the United States to describe the New Right [1]. He was adamant that the Front National was no longer ‘extreme’ or ‘fascist’, but simply ‘radical’. This is a contentious interpretation. The Front National in the mid-1980s was a party which had been founded ten years earlier by a ragbag of Monarchists, former Nazi collaborators, Maurrasians, former OAS members (French terrorist organisation in Algeria), and whose leader had been condemned several times for publicly expressing racial and anti-Semitic abuse. Critics saw it as an attempt to water down the Front National fascistic legacy (Vichy and Pétainism, French Algeria), as well as the extreme nature of some of its policies (on immigration and nationality law). Indeed to call the Front National ‘populist’ sounds less extreme and threatening. It somehow gives the party an air of ‘respectability’. Some have contended that it helped kick-start a long process of ‘de-demonisation’ of the French extreme right.

The categorisation of the extreme right as ‘populist’ has above all helped discredit both the left and the popular classes themselves. In the mid-1995, Pascal Perrineau talked of ‘Gaucho-Lepénisme’ to explain that a significant fraction of communist voters had transferred their votes to the Front National [2]. If true, this would demonstrate that the ‘two political extremes’ converge and are politically compatible. Furthermore, it would confirm the idea that blue collar workers are racist and authoritarian, and therefore politically unreliable. Annie Collovald has demonstrated that this was a far-fetched interpretation [3]. Marine Le Pen may have received 31% of the working-class vote in the first round of the 2012 presidential election; the truth of the matter is that 69% of them did not vote for her. Furthermore, the notion of ‘Gaucho-Lepénisme’ overlooks two important factors. Firstly, a very large number of working-class voters abstain from voting altogether. Secondly, since the 1950s, there have always been a fair number of working-class people who have rejected the left in France. So there is nothing new here.

Populism and demophobic feelings

‘Reasonable’ commentators in France suggest that the popular classes switch their allegiance from mainstream parties to the extreme right or the radical left for essentialist reasons; because they are allegedly ‘racist’, ‘authoritarian’ and politically ‘immature’. Few wonder whether this vote transfer might not have to do with the socio-political environment, such as the economic policies implemented by mainstream parties (austerity), the economic crisis, unemployment, the loss of class identity or politicians’ corruption and broken promises. As for the so-called ‘authoritarian’ penchant of the popular classes, the ‘reasonable’ mainstream parties only have themselves to blame. Both Parti Socialiste and Union pour un Movement Populaire have for so long put at the heart of their programmes and rhetoric the issues of immigration and law and order, both advocating a ‘tough stand’ on crime.

It is tempting to point out that the accusation of ‘populism’ for some betrays hardly concealed ‘demophobic’ feelings. Those who constantly fear or lament ‘populism’ seem indeed to believe that voters – notably of modest extraction – cannot be trusted to make the right political decisions. Thus when they do not vote the way the political elites had anticipated, their opinion is null and void. The 2005 referendum in France famously illustrated this point. Furthermore, mainstream parties as well as governments and international organisations have a tendency to project their own interests as ‘national interests’ while the interests of their opponents are belittled as ‘corporatist’ and ‘narrow’, or to put it in one word as ‘populist’.

Ambiguous and ill-defined, the notion of ‘populism’ offers little heuristic value. It furthermore fails to grasp the various backgrounds and motivations of anti-systemic parties as well as the nature and density of their conflict with the dominant social, economic and political institutions in our societies. The use of ‘populism’ is today problematic. In some quarters, the fight against ‘populism’ seems to be a convenient pretext to dismiss whoever challenges the ideas of what Alain Minc once optimistically called the ‘Circle of Reason’. Others call it the ‘Circle of Neoliberal Thought’.

Philippe Marlière is professor of French politics at University College London (UK). He tweets @PhMarliere


[1] Pierre-André Taguieff, ‘La rhétorique du national-populisme (I)’, Cahiers Bernard-Lazare, no 109, June-July 1984, p. 19-38 and (II), Mots, no 9, octobre 1984, p. 113-139.

[2] Pascal Perrineau, Le symptôme Le Pen. Radiographie des électeurs du Front National , Paris, Fayard, 1997.

[3] Annie Collovald, Le populisme du FN, un dangereux contresens, Editions du Croquant, 2004.


Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere

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