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).