Many consider National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s loss of the 2017 election a victory for the preservation of French democracy, as she is widely considered an anti-democratic populist. By Levitsky and Ziblatt’s standards, populist leaders are characterized by some or all of the following traits: rejection of or weak commitment to democratic rules and processes; denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; toleration or encouragement of violence; and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents . The most glaringly obvious of these traits is often the second; candidates like Marine Le Pen frequently criticize their political opponents, seeking to discredit them at any cost. A good example of this behavior is the televised debate on May 4, 2017 between Le Pen and opposing frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, during which she openly questioned his legitimacy by accusing him of collusion. Macron, however, responded with criticisms of equal weight, calling her out for corruption and dishonesty. This raises some important questions; should Macron, who likewise denies the legitimacy of his political opponent, also be thought of as a populist? Although French voters of different political parties joined forces to ensure that the winner of the election was not a populist like Le Pen, were they forced to elect one anyway? Levitsky and Ziblatt say that a politician who fits even one of the above criteria could be a cause for concern .While Emmanuel Macron is accepted as the lesser threat to French democracy when compared with Marine Le Pen, he can still be characterized as a populist outsider.
It is particularly important to study the behavior of incumbents like Macron, given the current trend in European politics; populist executives and candidates are increasingly gaining legitimacy and electoral success across the continent in many well established democracies. This type of leadership poses an existential threat to democratic regimes according to the theories of Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, who argue that the choices of individual leaders are the most important determinant of whether or not a democracy survives long term; even clearly defined constitutional powers are subject to interpretation and therefore are not sufficient in themselves to prevent democratic backsliding . Democratic backsliding is the gradual undermining of institutions necessary to preserve democracy, through the use of its laws and powers already in place. Because constitutional guidelines are not inherently enough to maintain a stable democracy, this sort of backsliding is likely to occur when leaders do not follow the informal constitutional norms named by Levitsky and Ziblatt: mutual toleration and forbearance. All populist leaders, based on the criteria used to define them as such, are unwilling to do this . There can be no mutual toleration between candidates who do not recognize each other as legitimate opponents. As such, the incumbent is unlikely to practice restraint and will exercise constitutional powers to their full extent, with no regard for the preferences of the citizens whose interests their political opponent represents; in other words, they will refuse to practice forbearance. Because having populist leaders in power is a threat to the survival of democracy, it is crucial to identify these individuals.
Emmanuel Macron, in addition to his refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of his main political rival, can be further described as a populist outsider because of his status as an independent. In 2016, Macron started the En Marche movement, abandoning his affiliation with the French Socialist Party, and becoming a political outsider. Macron himself also acknowledges that his background is not in politics, but instead in philosophy. He uses this detail of his life to identify himself with the average citizen, a group that typical anti-establishment populists try to appeal to . Additionally, Macron claims that he will always say what he thinks, no matter what the consequences are. This indicates a lack of restraint, or forbearance; however, Macron frames this tendency of brutal honesty as part of his commitment to freedom of expression. Whether this is sincere or not is unclear, however, as Ozan Varol points out that one of the ways that populists maintain legitimacy and avoid scrutiny of the public and other nations is by using rhetoric that links their image with democracy, rule of law, and constitutionalism .
Of course, it is difficult to say what Macron’s true intentions are, and without knowing for sure, there is always a risk of misidentifying a respectable political leader as a populist who intentionally undermines democratic institutions for their own political gain . However, it remains important to evaluate the legitimacy of the threat posed by a politician by identifying the various warning signs. Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.  Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. (2017). How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy. Working paper.  Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100(4).
While I can see why you can be worried that Macron is a populist with this criteria, I think it is a bit of a stretch to imply that he is near the same level as Hugo Chavez, or Evo Morales. Candidates have attacked each other since the 3rd presidential election in the US, it’s not populist to say that you are better than one candidate for whatever reason. On top of that, Macron has made it harder to be corrupt in France. He introduced reforms that make nepotism even harder. I don’t see Macron as anyone to be worried about.
Personally, I would not consider French President Emmanuel Macron a populist leader. Also, I don’t think that him discrediting political opponent Le Pen during the debate is a clear sign that puts him in the populist category. You are absolutely right that there has been a trend of emerging populist and right-wing politicians and political parties in European politics which poses a danger to European democracies. Being an independent and his background in philosophy possibly makes him more of a political outsider, but I doubt that there’s enough evidence to declare him a populist leader. Macron declaring that he will speak his mind no matter what the possible repercussions may be could probably also make him an outsider, but it also may be something that appeals to French voters and enabled him to win the election. While your analysis offers an interesting perspective to look at Emmanuel Macron as a populist, I am not convinced that we can really classify him as such.
Hey there Leilani,
This is interesting to look at because I hadn’t really considered Macron to be a populist leader. I am going to take a slightly different approach here to the other people in the comment section I am going to agree with you. On only one aspect. I think that leaders can be populist and not be destructive. I agree with Brian in his discussion of how there is potentially a rise in populism in France. I do not think one should be too worried about Macron, however, France as a whole has been increasingly becoming more Islamophobic and problematic. There is more and more decision in the region and I think that is more worrisome than Macron as a figure.
Very informative and interesting article! I would say Macron is a populist, but not in the way we traditionally think. I think the rise of populism in the mid-2010’s has made us automatically assume it can only be far-left or far-right in nature, ie the AfD in Germany or Morales in Bolivia. In our minds, Macron can’t be a populist since he is defined by his opposition to it.
He is a bit different though. I personally agree with a statement about Macron made by Turkish President Erdogan, who speaks of “an alleged Napoleon and his Mediterranean campaign.” While tensions between France and Turkey have been increasing for sure, I think Emmanuel Macron could be classified as perhaps a very “Napoleon”-like figure. He paints himself and his party as both center-left and center-right; a revolution against established elites. His speeches are written in such a way to cater to the emotions and demands of the public, be it through ramping up the rhetoric on climate change or pushing for further European Union integration – whether or not he actually means it. His minister appointments for economics and the environment also suggest Macron thinks he can combine environmentalism and pro-market policies. Basically, he is a “populist of the center” and a “populist of pragmatism.” He is definitely a force in French politics now and I think fitting of the title. Whether or not the far-left or far-right can defeat such a figure is yet to be seen.