Santul Nerkar

Political events across the globe have elicited interest from scholars and ordinary citizens alike, as myriad forces seemingly threaten the institutions of democracy and liberalism. The relative success of right-wing movements, such as France’s National Front Party and Britains “Leave” campaign, has led many to brand the international trend against liberalism as “populist.” In this sense, populism is commonly understood as a synonym for “anti-establishment,” which, as Müller (2016) points out, is perhaps too broad a characterization for such a complex political phenomenon. Within the European context, France and the United Kingdom are frequently cited as hotbeds of modern populism, yet important differences exist between the manifestations of populism in the two countries. I aim to provide a meaningful comparison between French and British populism in order to better understand the very nature of these political movements, their footholds in Europe’s strongest democracies, and the degree to which policy-makers in each country can draw upon common lessons to fight the threat that populism poses to democracy.

Before comparing the British and French cases of populism, it is useful to flesh out a clear definition of the movement, as this will allow us to draw clearer distinctions between its disparate appearances. In the realm of political science, populism is a “contested concept,” as scholars frequently differ on the ideology’s specific definition and application. Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008, 3) offer an expansive definition of populism, saying that it “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.” Müller, following from his claims about the movement’s frequent mischaracterization, argues that populism is “a set of distinct claims and has what one might call an inner logic.” The Economist notes that populism may be at odds with democracy itself, writing that populism “is the belief that society can be divided into two antagonistic classes—the people and the powerful. The people are presumed to have a single will. The powerful are presumed to be devious and corrupt, determined to feather their own nests and adept at using intermediary institutions (courts, media companies, political parties) to frustrate the people.” (The Economist 2017) A central question is whether populism should be described per se or according to the political or cultural persona it takes on, specific to location. Scholars such as Lachlau (2005) and Taguieff (2002) adopt the former position, arguing that populism should be treated as an ideology unto itself. However, others note that populism exists in many forms, including “left-wing” and “right-wing” populism, “economic” populism, and “ethno-nationalist” populism (Canovan 1981). Mudde and Kaltwasser (2017) speak to populism’s remarkable diversity, noting that the creed can refer to “left-wing presidents in Latin America, right-wing parties in Europe, and both left-wing and right-wing presidential candidates in the United States.”

Another important factor in defining populism is scholarly bias. While recent research into populism relies on the premise that populism is a threat to social order and democracy, it is necessary to keep in mind that several influential scholars, including Lachlau, view populism as a liberating force or even “the authentic voice of democracy,” as Christopher Lasch put it. Important insights can be gleaned from both normative perspectives. Related to this point, the evolution of populism in discourse, from the agitator against colonialism to the defender of the international liberal order, is relevant as well.

While each of the definitions are useful in describing elements of populism, I propose a unique definition of the phenomenon, one that aggregates the different definitions into a working conception. Though I agree with the per se characterization of populism in some respects, as it helps explain why populism has sprung up in different parts of the world at the same time, it cannot fully account for the differences in populist rhetoric, from the anti-immigrant, anti-liberal message of Le Front National to the socially democratic view of Bernie Sanders’ movement. Therefore, I accept the starting conditions espoused by Müller, namely that populism is “critical of elites,” “anti-pluralist,” and “a form of identity politics.” But I also contend that populism varies in manifestation based on its political flavor, connection to national identity, and the nature of the party that is leading its charge. Though such an approach may appear excessively individualized, it will become apparent that it preserves idiosyncratic elements of populism while providing an effective way to compare populism in different countries, such as France and the United Kingdom.

It is also necessary to consider whether populism is a threat to democracy. Perhaps the greatest reason that democracy has to fear populism is that democracy itself contains no safeguards against demagoguery. In fact, as Pasquino (2008) points out, democracy is uniquely vulnerable to populist disruption because of democracy’s “minimalism.” Analytically, if we start with a standard definition of democracy, we must show that populism’s appearance challenges democratic elements. Schmitter and Karl (1991) offer a useful definition of democracy, calling it “system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.” Now, whether populism is a threat to democracy becomes an empirical question, as we can test whether populism has eroded accountability of rulers, or if it has decreased the representative nature of democratic countries. Mudde and Kaltwasser (2017) contend that liberal democracy is fundamentally at odds with populism, as it “is hostile towards pluralism and the protection of minorities,” and exalts the so-called “general will of the people” as untouchable. Writing for the London School of Economics blog, Zsolt Enyedi says that populism threatens democracy because “it holds the potential of providing the state with a moral status that it otherwise lacks” (Enyedi 2017).

While most modern independence movements are arguably grounded in populist rhetoric, France provides one of the earliest examples of the ideational phenomenon on a large scale. The French Revolution can be characterized as a populist revolt insofar as it featured widespread resentment against an entrenched elite and defined the republic as being led by the so-called “real people.” The French Revolution also established what Paul Taggart (2006, 19) calls “the heartland,” which Mudde and Kaltwasser (2017) describe as “the populist’s imagined community and territory that portrays a homogenous identity that allegedly is authentic and incorruptible.” From the beginning, France’s political makeup has been defined by a strong national character in confluence with an adherence to specific principles that comprise the “imagined community.” The French Revolution was certainly not a one-off occurrence, as many of the same elements that brought down the Anciens Regime toppled the July Monarchy in 1830 and the Second Republic in 1848, and they also gave rise to the Third Republic in 1871 (Cohen, 2017). By the time De Gaulle established the Fifth Republic in 1958, following the War of Algerian Independence, France’s political system had been altered to acquiesce to populism’s characteristics, as the French Communist Party held significant power as the voice of the middle class while de facto power was concentrated into one elected position, the presidency (Cohen, 2017). Though populism’s rise in France is often framed as a contemporary aberration, demagoguery had become an extant concern in French politics by the mid-20th century, in large part due to the leadership of De Gaulle, loss of colonial holdings, and the increased political mobilization of the French working class. Surel (2002) echoes this point, writing that “the practice of the regime set up by de Gaulle made a deep and lasting impression on French political life, and reveals the extent to which his rejection of the Fourth Republic transformed the conception of politics, colouring it with a populist emphasis.” French populism had initially started as left-wing, before moving along the ideological scale to neoliberal and eventually far-right.

The Third Republic created the conditions necessary for populist upheaval in France, as societal groups that parroted anti-Semitism and strong nationalism helped create a conception of community that that was “defined by religious, racial, or historical criteria” (Cohen 2017). Seizing upon this, Jean-Marie le Pen created the National Front to profit from nostalgia for France’s colonial past in addition to virulent racism and anti-Semitism, as Müller contends, saying that the National Front “was initially a rallying point for right-wing extremists, monarchists, and especially those who could not accept France’s loss of Algeria in 1960” (Müller, 20). Mudde and Kaltwasser call the National Front (FN) “the prototypical populist radical right party,” and in many ways the progenitor of modern far-right European populism, saying that the FN “transformed the unorganized and elitist French far right into a well-organized populist radical right party, which inspired parties and politicians across Europe” (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 34). The National Front is broadly supportive of economic protectionism, opposed to immigration and free migration more generally, and espouses a harsh rhetoric on matters of law enforcement. While Marine le Pen has strived to distance the modern National Front from her father’s party, especially in light of his outright bigotry which alienated constituents, the party still operates within the confines of far-right European politics. Despite conscious efforts to re-brand, the National Front still targets a similar portion of the French electorate: the disaffected, traditionally-minded populace who view the elite and technocratic-driven nature of France as attacking their livelihood, rebel against entitlement programs for immigrants, and more generally view globalization and membership in the European Union as major detriments to their conception of French society. As such, Mudde and Kaltwasser ascribe FN’s experience to that of the rest of Europe, succinctly describing European populist parties as “accus[ing] the elite of destroying the welfare state to incorporate the immigrants, their alleged new electorate, and call for a welfare state for their “own people” first” (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 25). Müller also describes FN’s ascent in terms of symbolism, as he refers to the National Front’s annual rally at the statue of the Joan of Arc, which constitutes the party “symbolically rededicating itself to French independence and what it construes as authentic French popular sovereignty” (Müller, 20).

A recent Gallup survey elucidates the degree to which French discontent has manifested itself, setting down friendly conditions for populism to flourish. According to the poll, 70 percent of French citizens have no confidence in the national government or are disaffected, 64 percent view future life poorly relative to current life, or are discouraged, and 43 percent are both disaffected and discouraged. Among countries in the European Union with elections in 2017, France had the highest percentage of disaffected and discouraged citizens. Another poll conducted in 2017 found that French citizens are also extraordinarily distrustful of their government, as trust in government ranked 23 out of 28 countries surveyed. As Uri Friedman of the Atlantic points out, these numbers by themselves do not equate to a populist reality (The Atlantic 2017). However, they do produce conditions that are favorable to populist taking a foothold, and when coupled with terrorist attacks, a stagnating economy, and a history of nationalist sentiment to go along with resentment against immigrants, a perfect storm has arrived for a populist leader to take control.

An analysis from the European Elections of 1984 by Brechon and Mitra serves to provide another look at the conditions that allowed populism to succeed in France. First, the authors argue that the transnational nature of the elections allowed citizens to vote “freely”; that is, the domestic implications of the election were such that voters did not have to worry about “wasting” their vote (Brechon and Mitra, 64). Additionally, the authors contend that because of the unique structure of the European elections, in that seat allocation was done proportionally, voters felt further assurance against potentially wasting their vote under such a system, as opposed to the normal, largely two-party system that had dominated French politics. According to Brechon and Mitra, proportional representation “made it possible for parties without large followings nevertheless to campaign nationwide rather than concentrate only on areas of strength,” and “gave an advantage to small parties and electoral novices like the National Front.” (Ibid., 64) Related to the earlier referral of the capacity of individual events, such as terrorist attacks, to swing conditions in favor of populism, the authors highlight the October 1989 incident of the “Islamic headscarf” as successfully mobilizing the National Front’s voting base. As three girls of North African origin were held out of school for wearing headscarves that were allegedly in violation of French religious propaganda laws, the FN seized on the political moment, while mainline parties remained divided in their approach to handling the situation. The National Front argued that the incident was not a one-off occurrence, but represented a fundamental threat to France’s identity and represented a form of “religious and cultural colonization” (Ibid., 67). The FN then tied the incident to immigration into France, which the party summarily denounced as contributing to the aforementioned process of “colonization.”

In tracing the root causes of populism in France, it is difficult to separate out economic and social forces, as the two factors often go hand-in-hand. As Brechon and Mitra once more argue, an immigrant “becomes the prime target of hostility” in response to rapidly changing conditions; for example, immigrants arriving in growing cities or sectors have coincided with a rise in social problems, including “…unemployment, the general decay of public facilities, roving bands of idle youth, delinquency, and the clash of cultures in everyday life” (Ibid., 70).

Beyond an exegesis of history with regards to populism, another under-theorized aspect of populism is the internal machinations of the populist parties. That is, party structure and other specific characteristics loom large for relative success or failure of these ideational experiments. Analysis of party structure can lend insights into FN’s rebirth, as membership in the National Front has ballooned to 83,000, up from 22,000 in 2011 when Marine Le Pen replaced her father (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 53). The National Front has a meticulously centralized structure, as though the party leader is elected through its congress, he or she faces little to no opposition once elected and has a great degree of influence over the organization’s direction (Ibid., 53-54). Though the perch of party leader has proved problematic for the National Front in the past, as it was difficult for the party to expel Jean-Marie Le Pen, it has provided Marine Le Pen ample space to operate relatively unimpeded by party bureaucracy and politics. In addition to containing a centralized party structure, the National Front also boasts a vibrant overall operation, with a youth organization called National Front of the Youth that has over 25,000 members as well as “French Abroad” organization overseas that lays claim to members in over eight countries worldwide (Ibid., 54). The FN has also achieved success in co-opting trade unions into its sphere of influence, providing further evidence that it has emerged as “catch-all party” in some respects, evolving from the fringe organization it used to be. Müller posits this characterization about the National Front and ascribes it to a broader trend in European populism, saying that “in countries such as…France, populist parties have become so large that they effective resemble what used to be called “catch-all” parties: they attract a large number of workers, but their voters also come from many other walks of life” (Müller, 12).

In sum, while French society has always contained elements conducive to fomenting a populist upheaval, external and ideational factors of the last sixty years have accelerated the pace at which the ideology has taken hold in the Fifth Republic. Notably, French populism transitioned from initially left-wing, to neoliberal, to protectionist accompanied by virulent racist rhetoric. The latest iteration relies on anti-immigration, anti-semitism, and strong law enforcement to make up its platform. My definition of populism fits the French bill: The National Front, the primary leader of populist politics in France, is critical of elites insofar as it is suspicious of technocratic development and globalization, anti-pluralist, as evidenced by its otherization of Muslims and immigrants, and certainly constitutes a form of identity politics, as shown by its symbolic gesturing and call for preservation of national culture.

Now we can turn our analysis to that of the United Kingdom’s populism. In contrast to the National Front’s electoral failure, the most widely-discussed populist movement in the United Kingdom prevailed in June 2016. The “Leave” campaign, spearheaded by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), succeeded, as a bare majority of citizens voted to leave the European Union in a referendum called by former Prime Minister David Cameron. In contrast to France, the United Kingdom features populism not only from the right wing, represented by an uneasy coalition between Conservatives and UKIP members, but almost in equal measure from the left-wing, which is represented by the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. Michael Walker, writing in The Independent, argues that Jeremy Corbyn is undertaking a populist wager: “to define him against the political establishment through ramping up his outsider status” (Walker 2016). If populism is fundamentally about speaking directly to the population, bypassing the traditional political infrastructure of Parliament and abandoning the reliance on the dedicated “spokesperson,” then Corbyn is employing populism per se while rebranding it under leftist premises, unlike La Pen and FN’s right-wing groundings.

Taking a historical view of British populism, we see some key commonalities in comparison with the French case. Similarly to France, the United Kingdom had an “aggrieved people” whose voice had traditionally been heard by at least one of the two major political parties. Baggini (2014, 111) writes that the aggrieved people had a say in politics, “initially through the unions and in time through the Labour Party.” Following the 1970s, however, the construction of “the people” was fractured by a combination of policy and extant social factors. As Baggini further argues, populism was held in check by virtue of the fact that the “virtuous people” had a commensurable voice, which gradually changed following the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. While Thatcher did not harness populism for electoral benefit in the immediate moment, her time in power “unarguably contributed to the blurring of any clear sense of who the virtuous, homogeneous masses were” (Baggini, 112). Since the end of the 1970s, working-class self-identification has declined, though only slightly, in the United Kingdom, as “65.7 percent of Britons self-identified as working class and by 2005 that figure had fallen only as far as 58.2 percent” (Baggini, 112). Thus, class distinction no longer provides an easy answer for populist sentiment in the U.K., though the sentiment has arguably grown in recent years.

In much the same way as class lines have blurred with regards to populist undertones, so has the definition of “elite” insofar as a target of populist resentment. “Elite,” in this instance, refers not to a higher income bracket, but rather to the cultural milieu of educated, urban Britons who allegedly look down on the rest of the country. The “rest” is the self-defined majority, who feel as if “a virtuous, homogeneous people comprising white, respectable, Christian, ‘hard-working ordinary families’ threatened by a dangerous left-wing elite who want to advocate atheism and minority religions, prefer to give money to immigrants and the unemployed than to working tax-payers, and who are more supportive of gay rights than heterosexual families” (Baggini, 113). This general feeling of alienation of the “real” people is mirrored in France and other countries that have experienced populist “revolts,” as well as being supported by the expansive definition of populism that I have put forth.

UKIP, often thought of as being the primary vehicle for populist sentiment in the United Kingdom following Brexit, is classified as an “APE,” or “anti-political establishment party.” This definition is proposed by Abedi and Lundberg (2009), who contend that an APE “challenges the status quo in terms of major policy issues and political system issues, perceives itself as a challenger to the parties that make up the political establishment, [and] asserts that there exists a fundamental divide between the political establishment and the people. It thereby implies that all establishment parties, be they in government or in opposition, are essentially the same” (Abedi and Lundberg, 74). Structurally, UKIP thus constitutes a populist APE party, as it aimed to change the status quo in such a momentous way as to remove the U.K. from the European Union.

Despite some ideological similarities to the National Front in France, UKIP differs from it in some notable areas: in particular, UKIP’s party structure is far more decentralized than that of the National Front. In contrast to the strong, centrally controlled organization fostered by Marine Le Pen, UKIP is subdivided into twelve regions: South East, South West, London, Eastern, East Midlands, West Midlands, North East, North West, Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, in many ways mirroring the political devolution that the United Kingdom has undergone in recent years. While Le Pen’s charismatic personality dominates the National Front’s rhetoric, policy decisions, and overall rhetoric, there is no single individual that exercises outsize control over UKIP, despite the attention drawn to figures such as Nigel Farage, former leader of the party. Though an evenly-distributed balance of power within the party may in theory improve its functionality, the reality has been the opposite. Party infighting in 2013 resulted in the dissolution of UKIP Scotland, as the chairman of the branch quit while Farage terminated Lord Christopher Monckton, UKIP’s candidate for a Scottish constituency (The Scotland Herald 2013). Fresh controversy arose in 2018 as the party’s deputy leader, Margot Parker, and the overall leader, Henry Bolton, resigned amid organizational turmoil (The Independent, 2018). While UKIP supporters may point to Brexit’s success as a validation of the party’s model, the organization has struggled to make electoral strides outside of the 2016 referendum. The party’s overall vote share plummeted in the 2017 general election to just 1.8 percent, down from 12.6 percent in 2015 (BBC, 2017).[2]

Abedi and Lundberg further expound on UKIP’s troubling party structure, as they note that populist parties are distinct from mainstream, non-APE parties in terms of their “more ‘unorthodox’ organisational make-up, inextricably linked to their electoral appeal” (Abedi and Lundberg, 1). In sum, the leading purveyor of populism in the United Kingdom follows a discombobulated and chaotic party structure relative to France; this cleavage has shaped the degree to which populism has gained a foothold in each country. The authors’ main finding, that “groups failing to adapt their structures are more likely to be unsuccessful in the attempt to establish themselves as viable and (potentially) governing parties,” is supported by UKIP’s recent fall from grace, as the party has undergone a maelstrom of conflict while refusing to address pressing issues within its internal composition (Abedi and Lundberg, 2).

Furthermore, UK populism as defined in the particularly modern sense contains some key differences with that of France. Namely, Brexit was not borne merely out of populism but rather relied on a “populist, conservative, and Eurosceptic tradition,” as Tournier Sol (2014) argues. While the National Front’s success as a party came from entirely outside the French political mainstream, the same cannot be said about UKIP, which was grounded in relatively modern ideational precepts. In fact, there is nothing fringe about Euroskepticism which, while a component of the National Front’s platform in the French elections, was the basis of UKIP’s entire message. From this perspective, it is worth considering whether Brexit was even the result of populist agitation at all, as the roots of the movement are found in mainstream British politics. Tournier Sol expands on her theory of UKIP’s development, stating that its Euroskepticism “lies at the heart of the party’s very foundation,” its conservative ties depends on “the recurrent perception of UKIP as a right-wing offshoot of the Tory party,” and finally that its populist undertones are facilitated by “positioning as the party of the people versus the political establishment represented by the ‘LibLabConsensus’” (Tournier Sol, 141).

Tournier Sol’s analysis forms the main crux of the difference between the manifestations of British populism and French populism. In the United Kingdom, populism has coalesced into broader conservative and Euroskeptic ideals, which has both put a leash on populism’s overall reach while allowing it a foray into mainstream political life. Tournier Sol comments on populism’s effect on bulwark parties, stating that UKIP “has forced the mainstream parties – particularly the Conservatives, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats may follow suit – to shift policy lines on a number of issues, especially immigration and Europe” (Tournier Sol, 154). The National Front’s populism has had no comparable effect on other parties in France, even though it has achieved more electoral success while following a more logical party structure, especially since its recent rebranding. The current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is widely considered to be a pro-free trade, neoliberal leader, an embodiment of his center-left party, La Republique En Marche. Accordingly, it is possible that the populism espoused by the National Front is better understood as a symptom of France’s changing demographics and catalyzing national events, while UKIP has shown a stronger ability to shape mainstream parties’ platforms, despite its own organizational shortcomings.

Both France and the United Kingdom have been presented as modern day breeding grounds for populism, with the former experiencing the ideology through the presence of the National Front Party and the latter by way of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). However, describing each country’s political environment as “populist” is reductive and leaves out distinguishing elements of their unique paths. One such element is that France’s turbulent political history contains more relevant precedents for demagoguery than does the United Kingdom. Additionally, the National Front follows a much more centralized structure than does UKIP. UKIP’s lack of organizational coherence has hindered many of its electoral goals, as it has underperformed amidst internal tempestuousness in recent times. Finally, the National Front’s populism has paradoxically remained on the sidelines of mainstream French politics while UKIP has more successfully integrated its rhetoric into mainstream British parties. This last point has had much to do with UKIP’s overall rhetoric coalescing into that of traditional Conservatism and Euroskepticism, while the National Front has found no such comparable political ally.

The extent to which populism has found a home in two of the world’s most established liberal democracies is concerning. Though neither the National Front nor UKIP has held a controlling majority in French and the British parliaments, they have succeeded in either shaping the national conversation around populist rhetoric or directly affecting the platforms of traditional parties. However, referring to the French and British political moments as merely “populist” misses the overall story of their ascendance. By more readily identifying the distinguishing aspects of not only French and British populism, but populism around the world, policymakers and citizens can take a more active and informed approach in fighting back against the danger it poses to democracy. Populism is a contested concept in political science, a fact that often hinders good-faith attempts to identify its root causes, symptoms, and effects on society. Deeper analysis of populism’s appearances in diverse settings will move us toward an even more encompassing definition, one that will help drive back demagoguery and build a stronger liberal consensus.


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