Opinion: Populists, demagogues and the French elections

Four of the main French presidential candidates (L-R): Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen
One of these candidates is not like the others: Francois Fillon (L) is the only one with a credible vision for France’s future (source: dpa)

The National Front’s lead in France’s election campaign has once again put the spotlight on populism. “Populism” has become a buzzword that is increasingly used as a negative label meant to discredit non-mainstream movements and kill any substantive discussion about the merits of their proposals.

Such methods are intellectually arrogant. They imply a disrespect for voters’ judgment and therefore contradict the idea of democracy. Populism is, in fact, an ingredient of any functioning democracy, though it needs to be reined in by a system of checks and balances. It is only when populism becomes demagoguery that it turns dangerous.

Since equality is deeply against human nature, a society that denies inequality can only be totalitarian

Such damaging demagoguery can be seen in the discussion about equality. It targets envy and leads to a totalitarian culture. Men are unequal by nature: this is the biggest driver and strength of mankind, while love – man’s most noble characteristic – is also only possible in accepting inequality. Inequality does not mean that we must see others as better or worse, but it does entail an acceptance of the individuality of other people, families and social groups. Since equality is deeply against human nature, a society that denies inequality can only be totalitarian.

‘Undemocratic’ bulwarks

Thomas Piketty, a French economist famous for his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, claims, in a manner that is rather questionable scientifically, that inequality is the root of most of society’s problems. It is significant that – leaving his field of study, economics – he criticizes the European Parliament for its “inequality” because the votes there are not precisely linked to population size. It is true that a member of parliament from Luxembourg or Malta needs fewer votes to be elected than one from Germany or France, but the smaller member states should be properly represented.

His argument is further undermined when viewed from another perspective. The protection of democratic institutions and the rule of law is important: there must be checks and balances. These include “undemocratic,” well-entrenched institutions designed to withstand the negative forms of populism. Two countries that have maintained a strong democratic culture over a long period of time – the United States and Switzerland – ensure that the smaller and larger members of their federations are represented equally. In the U.S. Senate, Rhode Island’s representation is equal to California’s. A similar system exists in Switzerland, with its cantons.

A monarchy is much better placed than a political party to withstand turns toward populism and demagoguery

Such architectures make these countries less prone to the negative consequences of populist excesses. This is also the role of monarchies. A monarchy is much better placed than a political party to withstand short-term turns toward populism and demagoguery.

French surprise?

France, which is proud of its democratic tradition, has a centralist system. The principle of subsidiarity, with strong regional representation and decentralization, is not a decisive factor in avoiding the excesses of a populist majority. Checks and balances are guaranteed by the judicial system, while sometimes the president’s party does not have the majority in parliament and the government is controlled by a different party, a phenomenon called “cohabitation.” Nevertheless, this centralist system can make France vulnerable to populist and even demagogic movements.

Mr. Fillon is the only candidate with a realistic economic and social agenda. He is also the only real reformer with a plan to slash the state bureaucracy (source: dpa)
Mr. Fillon is the only candidate with a realistic economic and social agenda. He is also the only real reformer with a plan to slash the state bureaucracy (source: dpa)

This year, the French election campaign is a huge, messy spectacle of populists and demagogues. Most candidates make promises and promote programs that will have damaging long-term consequences. This is not limited to Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Emmanuel Macron, who has been considered the favorite in recent weeks, is making proposals that are attractive on the surface, but are unrealistic and financially unsustainable. As the campaign heads toward the finish line, he has repeated an old nationalist-protectionist mantra, blaming Germany for being too productive and creating imbalances.

France has the chance to show Europe that it is possible to win an election without being a populist or a demagogue

But France is always good for a surprise. Republican Francois Fillon still has a chance to win over enough voters, despite the allegations against him. Of all the candidates, his program is the most realistic, and he has the courage to address unpopular issues and big problems that urgently need solving. With Mr. Fillon, France has the chance to show Europe that it is possible to win an election without being a populist or a demagogue.

The French political scene

Emmanuel Macron: The representative of the international, status-quo preserving, socialist establishment. Beloved by media and intellectuals because he will continue comfortable policies to appease the electorate. It is often forgotten that precisely these policies of expediency are at the root of many of today’s problems. Favors limiting personal freedom and property rights through regulations, high taxes and camouflaged protectionism. Prefers the European Union as a centralized unit for financial transfers and an authority for harmonization.

Election consequences: Further deterioration of the current situation: no reform, more debt, rising youth unemployment. Finally, France’s staggering debt levels will either ruin the euro or force Germany to leave the common currency. A nail in the EU’s coffin.

Marine Le Pen: a left-wing, nationalist, socialist rogue. Her strength is the envy she creates, as well as the requisite hate of her adversaries, which attracts voters. Favors limiting personal freedom and property rights through regulations, high taxes and open protectionism. Euroskeptic.

Election consequences: The disaster that would have been brought about passively by the policies of President Francois Hollande and Mr. Macron will be actively initiated by Marine Le Pen. Ms. Le Pen’s election would result in a horrible end for France, while Mr. Macron’s would result in unending “horror.”

Jean-Luc Melenchon: Communist hardliner. Favors direct expropriation through transfers of wealth and an income tax of up to 100 percent. The EU is, at best, not a central focus of his campaign.

Election consequences: His victory is rather unlikely. If he were to win, the differences between the government – accountable to the parliament – and a communist presidency would paralyze the country, which would make the best of a bad situation.

Francois Fillon: The only real reformer. Favors free markets and a smaller role for the state bureaucracy. Wants to enhance competition and innovation. Socially conservative and economically liberal. Pro-European Union in the tradition of Charles de Gaulle, seeing it as a fatherland of fatherlands that provides a free common market but respects national sovereignty and the principle of subsidiarity.

Election consequences: Mr. Fillon is the only candidate with a realistic economic and social agenda. By reducing the role of the state in the economy, slashing bureaucratic regulations and streamlining the tax system, he could bring about a Thatcherite renewal of France – and, consequently, of Europe.


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