May 26th marks the day of the European elections and in France, tensions are at a boiling point. On the front-lines of Europe’s battle against populism, France’s resistance is not new. Two years ago, the National Rally (Rassemblement National) party fully entered the French public arena during the presidential elections when Le Pen made it to the second round of elections. The party suffered a crushing defeat, as Macron overwhelmingly won the majority. So why then is the May 26th election so worrisome? It’s because in this election populism stands to gain more ground than ever before.
In studying the wave of populism sweeping Europe, France is an important country to look at. Its populist party, the National Rally, has historically held more than a few seats in the EU’s parliament. They often head coalitions between other extreme right-wing parties from other countries (such as Europe of Nations and Freedom). For being such a small party (currently they hold only one seat in the French Senate) they have an incredible amount of clout in the EU.
Le Pen displays all of the characteristics of a populist leader. Her platform is a morally charged “us vs. them” list of demands centered around immigration and chock full of anti-elitist rhetoric. Jan-Werner Muller, an expert on populism, specifies that populists uniquely and rigidly define who “the people” in a democracy are . The RN notoriously defines the people as French native citizens; one of their most well-known slogans is “French First!” (Les Français d’abord!), at the exclusion of immigrants. Muller adds that a populist party claims to solely represent this “moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err” . This anti-pluralist rhetoric is strong within the RN, as Le Pen has, on numerous occasions, claimed that “no one can defend national interests more than the French themselves”.
But Le Pen’s brand of populism differs from a more standard definition of populism in one key way: mobilizing voters. While Mueller writes that “populism without participation is an entirely coherent proposition ”, this description in no way fits the National Rally. The RN is notorious for their ability to turn out at elections, especially ones with historically low participation rates. At the European Elections, France is one of the lower scoring countries, with an abstention rate over 50% in the 2014 election. And while the rest of France abstains, Le Pen’s supporters turn out in droves. It’s why their party is consistently overrepresented in the EU parliament. In the last election, the party won a shocking 25% of the vote, more than any other French party.
What is most surprising about the RN’s success in the EU is their hatred for the institution itself. Their mistrust of the EU centers on their belief that it weakens French sovereignty, and thus weakens the power of “the people”. It was not until just recently that the RN abandoned their platform on withdrawing from the euro. Their platform for the upcoming election includes a plan to eliminate the European Commission. The commitment to weaken the EU from within by winning elections lines up with Muller’s assessment of populist aims. According to Muller, populists pose a subtle threat to democracy by changing it from the inside, often using democratic means to accomplish undemocratic aims .
After its success in the presidential election, the RN has the most support it has ever had. Its history of success in EU elections should be a warning to us. But what can we do to stem the flood of populism in Europe? Muller has a few suggestions. Above all, populists must be engaged with . Refusing to engage with their arguments perpetuates their complaint about being ignored by elites and furthers the rift between the two sides. Turning the elections into a two-sided battle aimed only at bringing the other down will not solve the root of the issue. But a promising first step came on Wednesday (April 24th), when several European politicians wrote an opinion column that advocated for deep reforms instead of coalitions aiming at blocking populist objectives. As May 26th grows closer, we must continue efforts to engage with parties like the RN and create policy platforms that engage with the issues populists care about. Jan-Werner, Müller. “What is Populism.” (2016), pg. 17.  Ibid, pg. 57.  Ibid, pg. 21.  Ibid, pg. 29.  Ibid, pg. 58.