Does the European Union (EU) have a populist problem? While many cannot even agree on what populism is, my answer to the question is an emphatic “Yes.” Media and political discourse in Western democracies been dominated by discussions of the rise of populist leaders over the past decade. Discussions of whether populism is a useful term and disagreements over its definition abound. For the purposes of this blog, I will employ the common European understanding that is associated with the rise of populist, Eurosceptic politicians in combination with Jan Werner Müller’s description of populism as a perilous shadow of representative democracy.
The EU has marketed itself as a post-national, inclusive community and unified much of Europe post-World War II and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Symbolically and physically this unification includes the introduction of a common currency, the use of an anthem and displays of the EU flag alongside national flags on government buildings in Europe and at embassies around the world. Many in Europe greeted the EU as an indication of the blurring of national lines and a more harmonious, unified Europe. Others, with some amount of political encouragement, have promoted the narrative of the EU as a threat to cherished heritage and national distinction.
Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Heinz Christian Strache, and Jarosław Kaczyński are among the most prominent standard bearers of the right-wing populist, Eurosceptic resurgence in the EU over the past decade. As concerning as each of these cases has been, the effect their success has had on more establishment politicians, their platforms and the overall political narrative in Europe is attention-grabbing. To preserve electoral viability politicians across Europe have embraced policies in line with their more populist opponents.
In France, recent rhetoric and decisions by President Emmanuel Macron are emblematic of Europe’s shift to the right. Coupled with his decreasing popularity in the context of his response to the COVID-19 crisis, this could open the door for someone like Marine Le Pen to again be a serious contender in the French presidential elections in 2022. The Macron government’s questionable legislation supposedly aimed at strengthening French “republican values” (previous iterations called it an “anti-separatism” law) is a strong example.
I do not believe, at his core, that Macron is a far-right politician. Macron is making a political calculation based on the disorganization of France’s left. This legislation is clearly in line with center-right and right-wing rhetoric and paints the Macron government as the defenders of the French principle of Laïcité, or secularism. The legislation passed the National Assembly in February and is currently being debated by the French Senate.
The law would, among other things, limit the availability of homeschooling, create a new form of crime related to posting personal information online with intent to harm, increase disclosure requirements for religious organizations, and allow local authorities to potentially shut down places of worship where discriminatory ideas or theories are promoted. At the surface, none of these provisions sound terrible. It is not hard to imagine, however, how they could be abused. Alarmingly, the French Senate this week passed an amendment to the legislation that would ban anyone under the age of 18 from wearing a hijab in public. The amendment is unlikely to pass once the legislation heads back to the National Assembly, but its passage is a clear indication of the strength of anti-Muslim sentiments.
The legislation has been described by its proponents, including Macron himself and French Prime Minister Jean Castex, as not aimed at religions or Islam in particular. At the same time, however, the stated purpose of the legislation is to counteract perceived separatist Islamist elements within France that hold Islamic law before French law. The legislation was first introduced at the end of 2020 and is Macron’s attempt at a response to terrorist attacks that have killed some 260 people and wounded close to 1,000 more in France since 2015. Barely a year out from a presidential election, however, there is likely also a distinctly political motivation as well.
Opponents of the legislation have criticized it as an infringement on religious rights and further marginalization of France’s significant Muslim population. Opposition to the legislation has come from the left within France, Muslim-majority countries including Turkey, and even from the U.S. envoy on international religious freedom under President Trump. To me, the legislation is a response to horrible attacks that furthers a nationalist-populist narrative that likely will not keep those attacks from happening.
In the broader EU context, this legislation is concerning
because it is yet another example of a shift to the right. In this case, the legislation would contrast with the EU
value of religious freedom. It is also part of a trend of increased
criticism of the EU overall, often referred to as Euroscepticism. Brexit is the
starkest manifestation of that criticism to date, but the rhetoric of populist
leaders such as Le Pen in France, Orbán in Hungary and Kaczyński
in Poland, as well as more recently Sebastian Kurz in Austria should raise red
flags in Brussels. Decisionmakers across Europe who support the continued role
of the EU as a unifying force must push harder to counteract these populist
narratives that potentially threaten to tear the EU apart from within.
 Jan Werner Müller, What is Populism? (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2017), 11.