Marine Le Pen’s populist-nationalist tactics, anti-immigration, and xenophobic sentiment could damage French democracy if she were to be elected in the April 24th runoff elections.
As political scientist Joseph Schumpeter writes, the classical doctrine of democracy recognizes that individuals are elected to realize the common good of the people and carry out its will. Current President of France and leader of the centrist En Marche Party, Emmanuel Macron, has been in power ever since he beat Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French elections. Once again, Macron is now in a close presidential election race with populist-nationalist opponent Marine Le Pen of the far right National Rally Party. Marine Le Pen, also known as MLP, led a grassroots campaign this month where she focused on gaining voters of rural areas, strategically avoiding Paris, those of whom find her extreme right populist tactics promising. MLP’s populist tactics, among other attributes, could greatly undermine French democracy in the long run. The undermining of democracy, especially among European countries is something that we have seen before.
For instance, we can analyze Hungary and how their Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, rose to power through a democratic electoral process. Orbán has been engaging in antidemocratic policies since his election into office in 2010. A new constitution alongside hundreds of antidemocratic bills were passed questioning the liberal democracy of Hungary. According to the Journal of Democracy, “Orbán and his lieutenants have downgraded or done away with the checks and balances that are widely considered essential for the rule of law.” This could possibly occur if populist MLP were to win as well, not to the extent of passing a new French constitution, but in the sense of a general trend towards an illiberal democracy in France. MLP allegedly claims to be more accepting in her policies than the far-right candidate Eric Zemmour with aims to gain voters, but could apply extremist policies as soon as she gains the presidency. Similar to the Hungarian case, she may not necessarily guarantee more moderate right- wing policies once elected to office, but pursue her own extreme agenda. MLP’s public agenda is questionable because in the past she has claimed strong anti-immigration policies, but she is surprisingly publicly advocating for the immigration of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian invasion. However, will she pursue her own far right agenda once elected?
In What is Populism by Jan-Werner Müller, he argues that populist governance poses a threat to democracy because it entails mass clientelism which puts restrictions on legal flow– limiting it to people the populist favors. Furthermore, populist governance causes discriminatory legalism which is the unequal application of the law based on political allegiances. Finally, populists are anti pluralist and do not recognize a legitimate opposition. This all leads to corruption within the government. The use of populism to rise to power, and then erosion of democracy could very well take place under the presidency of MLP. According to Müller’s book, What is Populism, “populism distorts the democratic process…. and it is especially hostile to institutionalized checks and balances, which serve largely to block, distort or water down the expression of the popular will as enacted by the leader.”
There is reason to believe that Marine Le Pen will engage in antidemocratic actions since these tendencies have been seen by her and her party in the past. Since her first electoral campaign she has used extreme right wing populist tactics in order to gain voter support. For example, she is infamously known for her xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigration policies, claiming immigrants undermine French culture, and even have economic repercussions. According to political scientist Elias Dinas, scapegoating of immigrants tends to be a more common aspect of right wing populism in Europe, and can directly lead to democratic erosion. With MLP’s influence in government, her waves of support could likely extend to influential lawmakers and undermine refugee and immigrant rights. She has vouched for the “de-Islamization” of French society and has argued she would repeal laws allowing illegal immigrants to become legal residents and reduce immigrant benefits to decrease immigration as well as a moratorium on legal immigration. MLP could pose a threat to France’s recognized democracy by potentially limiting the fundamental rights and freedoms of refugees and immigrants, and the overall common good. Additionally, minorities, or other groups which don’t fall in line with the classic “French culture” could face consequences as well.
According to Hofstander, the “paranoid style” in politics is an exaggeration and conspiratorial fantasy. This is dangerous, as the conspiratorial xenophobic ideologies of Marine Le Pen could be damaging to French democracy if she were to win the runoff elections on April 24th. The President of France is meant to represent the will of the people, but active discrimination towards people trying to seek asylum or immigrate into France poses a direct threat to democracy.
Furthermore, Marine Le Pen’s propaganda and misinformation rhetoric increase votes for her regardless of those voters fact checking. A free press can exist in France, but can still allow for misinformation to easily spread. According to Oscar Barrea, in a randomized experiment conducted during 2017 he subjected French voters to facts by Marine Le Pen and found that fact checking voters does “not affect policy conclusions or support for the candidate.” So even provided with facts, supporters of MLP will not be persuaded to change their vote, but instead remain blinded by her “paranoid style” of conspiratory ideas and rhetoric.
Overall, Marine Le Pen has shown strong anti-democratic populist tactics in the past, rooted in xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment. She has shown time and time again a “paranoid style” in the political arena, communicated through misinformation and propaganda. A Presidency under MLP would likely decrease democratization in France as she could potentially shift immigration policies, leading to an unfree and unfair French society.
Very interesting points, and I think this article does a great job of chronicling the various ways in which Le Pen does and could threaten democracy in France. One thing that I think will be very interesting to watch for in the general election is where the supporters Jean-Luc Melenchon, a left-wing candidate who performed unexpectedly well in first round. Partisanship would suggest these voters would tend to gravitate towards Macron, who is closer to Melenchon on policy than Le Pen, but the populist rhetoric that was present in both Melenchon and Le Pen’s campaigns could make more of his voters choose Le Pen instead. If Le Pen succeeds on Sunday, I think it is very likely that it will be owed to this sense of populism drawing Melenchon voters away from Macron.