The year 2016 brought about quite a shocking presidential candidate and elect for the United States. President Donald Trump, in his 4 years of candidacy, made himself well-known throughout the international community for his rash and at times demonizing comments made in regards to his political opponents. Trump was later voted out of office in the 2020 American presidential election, with Democratic candidate Joe Biden inheriting the position. Biden is now in his second year as the president of the United States and has some time before he has to win over the American people once again. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, presidential elections are very much ongoing in the country of France and interestingly enough, they’re showing telltale signs of a phenomenon known as democratic backsliding.
With France and the United Students often hailed as birth places of democracy, it could be rightfully assumed that they would be classic models for this form of governance. However, in recent years, the two have shown symptoms of democratic backsliding, which is the gradual decline in the quality of democracy and the opposite of democratization. This has mainly been shown through a symptom known as populism, and politicians’ adoption of it. Populism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” This approach was blatantly obvious in President Trump’s rhetoric, where he slandered his political opponents by calling them “horrible [people],” “a failed presidential candidate” who used a “religion as a crutch” and calling another a “corrupt politician.” This was also evident in his criticism of the Democratic party for their supposed prioritization of newly-arrived immigrants, rather than current U.S. citizens.
Now, how easy would it be for us to believe that similar comments have been consistently made by French presidential candidates in their race to win the presidency? It’s likely that this could come as a shock, as the international media has focused much more on the political climate in the United States. In reality, a populist, anti-elitist movement is on the rise in France as well, and it is being sustained by people like Conservative female candidates Valérie Pécresse and Marine Le Pen. Pécresse specifically has made several comments similar to those of Donald Trump, where she claimed that her political rivals were “extremists,” that they were “lying to [the French People]” and that French citizens should “Refuse the venom of their nostalgia. [And not] let anger and fear win.” She has also made comments distinguishing “French of the heart” and “French of the papers,” which is an expression used by right-leaning politicians to describe naturalized citizens, rather than those born and raised in France.
This is a point of view typically employed by populists, which is described in political philosopher and historian Jan-Werner Muller’s book, What is Populism? In his book, Muller notes that “populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite” and that when populism becomes an “exclusionary form of identity politics” is when it “poses a danger to democracy.” Based on Pécresse’s comments, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that this could be the case for France.
As was mentioned, these symptoms of what was previously mentioned as democratic backsliding were widely noted on the international stage in regards to the United States. However, it was not for France, and this begs the question of why. This is likely due to the fact that the French people are to some degree more united in their political beliefs than Americans are. The United States is much more polarized in its political beliefs, with the country quite literally split in half in terms of these beliefs. Ideologies in France seem to be more consolidated. Nonetheless, united or not, if we’re to believe that what Mueller is saying is correct, then this means that France’s democracy is in much more danger than has been generally noticed. This could be even more dangerous for the country as the issue is not publicized.
Democratic backsliding is characterized by income inequality, waves of migration, anti-elitism, anti-immigration and “international learning,” which is the imitation of discourse and strategies of other world leaders. While France has been improving economically in the past decade, the latter symptoms have all made themselves known during the current presidential election. Pécresse has shown startling similarities to Donald Trump, even in terms of their reference to immigrants as perpetrators of crime. Due to this, it’s quite obvious that France, as quiet as it is about it, is on the road of democratic backsliding. The French people have become increasingly less tolerant of immigration and have a widespread feeling of being neglected by the state. Interestingly enough, this isn’t reminiscent of most cases of democratic backsliding, where deterioration is coming from those in power. Instead, it seems like it stems from the people themselves and their current ideologies, which means France could be an interesting case study as its political climate develops over the next few years. Now, two western allies, who for centuries have been considered to be champions of democracy, seem to be inching further and further away from that. This leaves a lot to be considered for the future of democracies all across the globe.