What is populism? Is there a clear-concise definition of populism? Scholars have different perceptions of what populism is and the definition differs worldwide. As Jan Mueller in What is Populism? tells us there are a variety of definitions. In the United States, for example, it’s common to hear “liberal populism” meaning an “uncompromising” or distorted version of liberalism. However, in Europe it would be contradictory to hear liberal and populism being combined because the latter would mean to ignore the government systems and constrain the public will. As Mueller puts it, populism is an imagination of politics that puts the world together as fully unified and morally pure, but the significance of populism does not come from its definition, rather the dangers it proposes. Every country can become victim to a populist government because of the appeal to have someone in office who seemingly is “for the people” and against the “elites”. I think it can be widely agreed upon that sometimes our voices are not heard in the government or we feel like officials are not doing what the public asks of them, which is why it’s so easy for populists to play into an “us versus them” narrative. Populists appear to adhere to the people’s will, when in reality, they are a threat to democracy. With all this said, is France in danger? Does Marine Le Pen pose a threat to France’s democracy?
Marine Le Pen was a Presidential candidate in France during 2012, 2017 and in this year’s election in 2022. With 4.7 points behind current President Emmanuel Macron, the run-off election could be close, worrying citizens about the potential populist threat: Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is a known nationalist in France, but the upcoming campaigns and past campaigns have made people believe that she is disguising her populism beliefs. While campaign slogans are not nearly enough to determine whether France is in danger of a potential populist government it’s important to note that her previous slogans she ran from were “in the name of the people” and “beyond the left and the right” which is a common sentiment of populists, giving a certain narrative that there is “us” and a specific set of elites that they are against. During this election season, her current slogan “for all the French people” in an attempt to make the growing mistrust halt and for those to trust the platform she is running on. Le Pen’s policies and ideas are arguably the most crucial aspect to look at when deciding whether or not she could be a threat to French democracy.
Le Pen’s immigration heavily runs on xenophobic and nationalist ideals, however there is a lot to be said about exactly what she is arguing for and the way it is framed. For her agenda during this current election, she has removed herself from far right to slightly less far right, hoping to appeal to more liberal citizens. In 2017, she ran for dual citizenship for Europeans only and was against any person from outside the continent of Europe to gain dual citizenship. During this election, she did not run on that platform, but she still wants to make it harder for immigrants to get French citizenship. Le Pen wants to get rid of family reunification, which allows immigrants who have family currently residing in the country to stay there for up to a year, unemployed. Thus far, her agenda has a nationalistic tone, the want for France to be for the French. But, there is an agenda she is running for that somewhat forces the idea that it is the people versus the elites, who benefit off of immigration. Le Pen wants to reserve monetary aid for French citizens and only for non-citizens who have worked for five years, pitting the working class in France against immigrants, justifying this point in her agenda as a “national priority”. From an outside perspective, Le Pen is framing this specific point in her immigration policy as “us versus them” and while the “them” in this scenario can be pointed to the immigrants, but is it really? This framework of thinking makes it so citizens in France will believe that the intellectual elites who currently hold office do not care about their will. Instead the elites are benefitting off the current immigration policies and “terrorism” that occurs in the country. When looked at from this point of view, her policies seem less nationalistic and more populist, which can be either a good or bad thing. Most people know populism undermines democracy, but so can extreme nationalism. Often the two can be confused, especially when examining immigration policies, but it makes us look deeper. Le Pen is not putting immigrants against citizens, rather citizens against the elite.
The recent war in Ukraine prompted Marine Le Pen’s other policies including removing France from NATO. Le Pen no longer wants France’s military under control of NATO or “any other European country”, refusing subjection to “Washington”. Although she is no longer running to remove France from the European Union, she does want to put French law and policy above EU law and policy. Her goal is to reform the EU from the inside by refusing to make payments to the EU, ending free movement throughout France with its neighbors, and restricting employment or state benefits for EU citizens. Le Pen’s policies are for the people, she wants to help the working or poor class of France.
The question remains, is France in danger? Is Marine Le Pen a populist threat? Given her past and current agendas and the rhetoric Le Pen uses to gain support, I think it is realistic to call her a threat to French democracy. While she is trying to “de-demonize” her party, the constant switching of support from one policy to another makes it hard to trust whether or not her intentions are truly “for the people”. With France’s run-off election just a few days away and the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning, it is very possible that France is in danger of a populist government.