What to expect, and how dangerous this is.
When Emmanuel Macron got a convincing victory on the presidential elections in France in May 2017, and when just in few weeks his party “La République En Marche!” (“The Republic on the move!”) got a majority in parliament, many observers celebrated this as a victory of European idea over populism, personalized by Marine Le Pen and her “National Front” party.
In November 2018 according to the Ifop poll data, “National Rally” (a new title for “National Front”) may count on 21% of votes during the elections to European Parliament in May 2019, while “The Republic in the move!” has only 19%. Comparing to the August poll results, Le Pen’s party got extra 4% of votes, while Macron’s party lost one.1
It’s not much better with the France President’s rating of support: according to Kantar Public data, in October it reached record low 26%, while 71% expressed no confidence to Macron.2 It is worth to add that his first 100 days in Presidential chair were marked with record dip of rating, comparing to his predecessors; even Jacques Chirac was less unpopular in the same timeframe.3
Diminishing support of President who declares the pro-European course, instead rise of popularity of Euro-skeptics and radical rights in French society is an alarming but not at all sudden tendency, which one should prepare for right now. European Union will suffer more waves of populism in a future.
First of all, you need to get some understanding of nature of populism.
Populism per se is not quite a political ideology, more of the concept of communication strategy of politicians with the population. It is based on the interests and problems of “common man” or “simple man”, which suffers and is oppressed by the establishment. The reason for this may be a corrupted political elites, or fusion of political and financial capital, or some mythical “trid parties”, from Afro-Americans to Semites and even immigrants.
To put it simple, populists explain the problems of the people by the actions of some particular evil forces, and that’s who (i. e. those evil forces) are to blame for everything wrong. Populists rhetoric presents a certain picture of the reality through the prism of a simple frame, “friend or foe”. If this “foe” is an establishment (and we must keep in mind that populists are mostly out-of-the-system people), then we have a left populism here (a textbook example would be Latin America of the second half of XXth century). In case if establishment is not quite a reason of all wrongs, but rather cannot handle the “third forces” (the already mentioned Afro-Americans or immigrants, etc.), a populism like this we would call right populism.
Populists’ advantage is, they can fill the immediate urges of people, and can play them skillfully. Government of a country which suffers some kind of crisis (a political, economic one, or both at once), which uses a technocratic approach to its containment, theoretically does everything right, yet quite rarely is supported by a population, and thus is an easy target for populist forces. Actually, and evidence to this would be this year’s parliament elections in Italy, when Democratic party, which successfully led the country’s economy out of crisis by the means of gradual reforms, lost to out-of-the-system and radical right parties “Five Star Movement” and “Lega Nord”.4
We can also remember of Brexit referendum on Great Britain exiting from European Union, Donald Trump win in US, and also recent elections in Sweden, Germany, Latvia, Hungary, etc. — and then we must ask, why populism is so actual nowadays?
There are few reasons to this.
First of all, politic ideology of so-called classic parties becomes less and less pronounced since the end of XX century. Those who are considered to be conservatives started to borrow some elements of social politic from “left” agenda, while social democrats started to implement ideas of free market and business facilitation. Under the conditions of ideological confrontation of Cold War era the distinction between “left” and “right” was more relevant. After the end of confrontation between West and East the need of larger electoral base became more imperative, and this led to update of party agendas. Consequently, the voter does not anymore understand the principal difference between classic parties, which gives new political movements a chance to enter the field.
Secondly, traditional model of communication between government and people becomes eroded in the time of global transformation of the world. Now people do not want to limit their voice to elections and referendums. They want to be heard and listened to, for their problems and concerns to have some feedback from government, and also to be sure that the government is up to their expectations. If not, a communication vacuum appears, which is instantly filled with some out-of-the-system power, which doesn’t have an opportunity to make decisions of the government level, yet skillfully exploit the feelings of people, selling messages which people want to hear from government.
It is interesting that populist’s level of support doesn’t decrease even when they are caught using the untruthful statements or conscious manipulations. Because they don’t get any political repercussions for claiming that everything is a fault of government, which they have nothing to do with.
More even, populists often know little about how to act in the borders of institutionalized politics, both during the elections and in the actual cabinets (given they would win). It would be appropriate to remember not only Donald Trump, but also a former leader of UK Independence Party and a Suropean Parliament member Nigel Farage, who not only denied some of his own claims he made during the Brexit campaign in the very next day after Brexit referendum was held, he also refused to assume he can be a new Prime Minister after David Cameron’s resignation.
Let’s get back to France during the 2017 elections. This country serves as perhaps the best example of populists triumphing over classic political discourse.
First, candidates from out-of-the-system parties pass to the second round of presidential elections. More even, one of them (“La République En Marche!”) at that time was existing for only about a year.
Second, political programs of both candidates are filled with populist promises. For example, Macron promises not only to cut the governmental spendings, to decrease the budget deficit and to liberalize the labor legislation (which was something he addressed as a Minister of Economic in the time of former President François Hollande), but also to create new jobs for teachers and policemen, to increase the military budget and to decrease some of the taxes (particularly the business, household and a wealth tax). To put it simple, he promised to increase the social guarantees in the economy mode, which is a typical populist message.
Marine Le Pen simply proposes a referendum about France leaving the Eurozone (she later switched this with promise to introduce back a franc as a currency in the same time as Euro), a drastic cut on migration, cancelling of multicultural policy and introducing protective measures in economic. Or, to put it in other words, she connects all the issues in the country with third forces, overcoming which will fix everything in no time. Electing each of candidates inevitably leads to a problem of fulfilling promises, which are plain impossible, and thus the loser of elections can use this to his or her advantage.
Getting the power, Macron starts to implement a new economic model of social guarantees for workers by the Scandinavian blueprints. A “flexicurity”, a portmanteau of the words “flexibility” and “security”. It is based not on creating jobs, but on retraining and requalification of workers. He immediately is resisted by the worker unions5. Because an approach like this contradicts to a principle of sanctity of worker rights which took deep roots in French society. Add to this Macron’s a bossy, perhaps even authoritarian management style. Macron urges to play a role of powerful European leader, he wants to be always in the spotlight of media, and he wants to have a full control of everything that happens in his government. This, naturally, leads to a great number of public conflicts and resignations, that is, lack of political stability. Finally, all-European crises: economic downturn, refugees crisis, European Union institutions’ lack of effectiveness, lack of confidence in Eurozone because of political situation in Italy.
One of the Ifop polls in September shown that virtually all mentioned reasons were listed by French voters as a resons to growing populism in their countries: immigration (32%), worsening of living standards (23%), safety (12%), a problem of foreigners integration into society (13%), feeling useless (7%) etc.6 This is a fertile soil for populist messages communicated by Marine Le Pen. And this communication is supplemented with important management decisions: in particular, she changes her party name from “National Front” to “National Rally” to change its image and to cement its status as the main opposition force in French politics. “First we were a party of protest. Now there should be no doubts that we can be a ruling party”, she said on the party members rally in Lille in March 2018.7
Russia did used political instability in one of the most influential EU countries to its advantage. One of the Russian Federation strategies in Europe is, sponsoring parties with pronounced populist rhetoric, because, first, in EU parties like this at very least are skeptical about European integration, and second, they become more and more popular for the reasons aforementioned.
In May of 2017 French investigators found that Le Pen’s “National Front” during the years 2014-2015 was credited by three Russian banks: First Czech Russian Bank, “Strategia” Bank and “NKB” (all three bankrupted in 2016). A middlemen for this credit operations were: Jean-Luc Schaffhauser (a European Parliament deputy from “National Front”) and Alexander Babakov (member of the Federation Council of Russia, and a Special Presidential Representative in questions of compatriot organizations abroad). Schaffhauser is a president of “European Academy” foundation, which aim is to assist to improving of relations with Russia, and two of members of it (Russian experts Michail Plisyuk and Alexander Vorobyov) assisted to Le Pen as speechwriters, in particular those which dealt with Donbass question.8 A public claims made by leader of “National Rally” of supporting Vladimir Putin9 leave little room for doubt as of Russian interest in supporting this political power.
Events during the election period in France of 2017 are of great interest as well. In April a Japan company Trend Micro which deals with cybersecurity informed that campaign headquarters of Macron was attacked by a hacker group “Pawn Storm”, which is affiliated with Russian security forces and which is suspected in carrying the similar operations in other Western countries.10 In the next month a commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of National Security Agency Michael S. Rogers informed that Russia was behind the unprecedented information leak, obtained from tampering with French electronic systems, and the goal was a defamation of Emmanuel Macron during the election campaign.11
Another source of influence in France for Russia are TV channels: a channel RT (former name “Russia Today”), which launched French language version last year, and the “Sputnik” informational agency. Not long after the election win Macron himself claimed during the joined press conference with Vladimir Putin: “Russia Today and Sputnik did not acted as a media, they acted as an agents of influence and propaganda, and an untruthful propaganda. I felt that they should not have access to my campaign headquarters.”12 These channels may serve as a voice of populist powers, by hyping on controversial topics of French society, and even more undermining the political stability of the country.
What to do?
There exists a particular type of populism in European Union, where Brussels with all its institutions and bureaucrats serving as a scapegoat. The legend is, if only a country would leave the EU, would return a control which was taken by someone somewhen, and all the questions would be solved.
This question is especially painful in France. Because Macron is one of the most forward advocates of supporting and reforming of European Union project, while the significant part of French society is tired from economic downturn and a crisis of multiculturalism politics. And they connect these wrongs with the fact of France being a part of European Union. And these are the sentiments Marine Le Pen plays on in her populist rhetoric.
Yet it was mentioned already that populism is not a political ideology, it is merely another way to communicate with population. It is a way for French voters to show which questions worry them most. And it is natural that the question of European Union reformation will be far from top of the list.
Populists let you see the problem of the society, but they are not able to suggest a realistic solution to these problems. This is their weakness. And this is what one should emphasize on to prevent a next explosion of populism in Europe. Government should take into account the weak spots the populist play on to establish an effective dialogue with population and to pre-empt the growing tensions, which quite can be a lethal argument in the hands of out-of-the-system politicians.
But that is not possible without population taking an active part in the political dialogue. The more we know about populism, the more balanced decisions we can take when we hear the messages about the legitimacy of hostile government, or about the worl-wide conspiracy of immigrants or semits or about the miraculous growing of living standards.
The only real weapon against populism, as trivial as it could seem, is consideration and calmness.
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