Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017 appeared as the defeat of Marine Le Pen’s populism. Yet, the president embodied as a candidate an innovative populism that imposes upon us to rethink the catch-all term, perhaps to ban it from our political vocabulary.
Theories of populism inevitably recalls Macron’s candidacy. But the singularity of the latter lies in innovative rhetorics that surpassed the traditional conception of populism.
Candidate Macron refused intermediary structures. With his movement En Marche launched in 2016, he rejected the party system and its newly implemented primaries. He led a hyper-centralized campaign, without any supervisor. That allowed him to present himself as a candidate that, alone, spoke to the people. Macron exploited the 5th Republic’s tradition of “Republican monarchy” and tried to follow De Gaulle’s footsteps in building an image of a man above the political system. Even more consistent with populist theories, he claimed openly that verticality.
Macron presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate primarily because he did not emerge from one of the two traditional parties, which is surprising by both his academic and professional background. It is a typical speech of populist figures, especially when the anti-establishment is more constructed than accurate. And it worked. His innovation lies here. By fracturing the idea of the elite, he managed to draw a new populist dichotomy of the us vs the them. With Macron, the problem isn’t the whole system but the old elite in power. Macron’s rhetorics condemned the traditional bipartisanism and the inefficient bureaucracy that slow the country. To this them — the immobile elephants of politics and their administration —, Macron built an us, in movement. He defined the people as a homogeneous active mass that must be put at the center of French politics, as indicated on En Marche‘s website. Macron’s mass-clientelism characterized the French people as a large middle-class that wants to progress in society. With this dynamic true people, he erased political horizontal cleavages by pointing their superficiality and incoherence, recalling extreme parties’ discourse of a global approach of parties. He thrown in the same pot all moderate political sensibilities — mainly the traditional Les Républicains and the Socialist Party — and excluded extremes — Marine Le Pen’s far right but also Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left party — from the democratic life. That construction of a people is unprecedented, as it doesn’t follow class or ethnic lines. This novelty eventually allowed Macron to refuse pluralism. Being more a voluntary posture than an ideological absolutism, Macron’s definition of the people is flexible. It is plural but potentially united. Macron embodies people’s diversity and therefore doesn’t have to share the political power with others. He surpassed the common populist anti-pluralism with an efficient ambivalence. Again, he claimed openly the “populist character” of his relationship to the French people.
Macron’s candidacy also carried another component of populism: the oversimplifying language. He delayed the publication of his program until last minute and built his discourse on the reform idea. Its traditional use in French politics made its emptiness if let alone obvious after the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. In Macron’s campaign, it remained efficient because he managed to associate it with optimism. He doubled the populist simplistic terms with a strong positivity. It is a rupture with the common angry posture on which populism constructs itself. Another central term in his campaign was pragmatism, which is what the French people should aspire to. He used the idea of disruption to both engage advocates of change and conservatives. To those who accused him of demagogy, the candidate opposed “his pedagogy”. That emphasis on explaining to the French people what must be done was constitutive of his campaign. Such examples show how Macron built a populist discourse, based on an compromise, efficiency and optimism.
Yet, is it ok to qualify Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Macron in the same way? Some French journalists did. For them, Macron invented the populism of extreme-center, or the populism of the CAC-40, the French stock-market index.
Whether he saw it as a necessity or a fruitful strategy, Emmanuel Macron aligned with populist practices that his adversaries overused. Populism does not carry any ideological premise, as the term is used to characterize radically different political realities. It is a language, that Macron smartly associated with the rhetoric of the dynamic youth. This innovation raises concern on the accuracy of the concept, as it often associated with accusing postures.
Macron’s presidency will tell if this 20th century political category still holds.
Populist governance features defined by the politologue Jan-Werner Müller in What Is Populism? slightly echoes the first months of Macron’s mandate. His hyper-presidential governance and his dominance over the Parliament recalls a hijack of the state apparatus. The constitutionalization of the state of emergency is an attempt to democracy, that has been condemned so far by the Constitutional Council, the guardian of the French Constitution. The use of ordonnances — ability for the executive to legislate— on the sensitive Labor law prevented any political debate. Such news raise the question of the extent to which Macron embraces the populist strategy of using a democratic language to implement undemocratic politics. Yet, less than a year after his election, we owe him the benefit of the doubt.
Macron claimed a « Jupiterian » presidency. The synthesis between a liberal dynamism and a social justice that he embodied is an opportunity for true change, if it is not merely a posture. Between a strong president and a little despot, it is a small step. Between a Jupiter and an Icarus too. The fortune of Macron’s innovative populism will depend on his actions.