And the winner in the French presidential election is… populism

National Front party leader, Marine Le Pen, has been campaigning on a populist agenda. Charles Platiau/Reuters

The first round of the 2017 presidential election highlighted a transformation in the French political landscape. This is clear from the weak performance of candidates from the two major parties that have dominated the political scene in France since 1981.

The votes cast for both François Fillon (Republican Party) and Benoît Hamon (Socialist Party) added up to just 26% of the total. The remaining 74% went to candidates who did not participate in the primaries and who have not dominated parliamentary life for decades.

But the greatest victor of the presidential election is clearly populism. Together, candidates who in some way exploited populist ideology captured about half the vote.

Populism relies on the principle that “the people” (a vague concept that’s now back in the political discourse) know what is best for themselves and that, as a consequence, they do not need political representatives.

Thus, argue sovereignists, nationalists, and a few half-baked intellectuals, the oligarchic divide between the people and the elites is intolerable. And the European project is reprehensible.

In the same vein, scientific or intellectual study of society is considered unnecessary. Throughout the campaign, polls were frequently called inaccurate and cited as instruments of media manipulation – an assertion disproved on election night.

Populism takes root

If we add up the votes for populist candidates in the first round – that is, all votes except those for conservative François Fillon, socialist Benoît Hamon, and centrist Emmanuel Macron – they make up 50% of what was counted on the night of April 23 2017.

This is in line with a French electoral survey carried out April 16-20 by Cevipof, demonstrating the extent to which populist ideas have taken root in the French collective imagination.

The survey included five statements that allowed us to measure populist attitudes among those surveyed:

  • Parliamentarians in the National Assembly should follow the will of the people
  • The most important political decisions should be taken by the people, not by politicians
  • The political differences between ordinary citizens and elites are greater than those between ordinary citizens themselves
  • I would rather be represented by an ordinary citizen than a professional politician
  • Politicians talk too much and do not take enough action.

Each of these statements garnered various rates of positive answers (four or five on a scale from zero to five). The vast majority of people agreed with the statement that parliamentarians should follow the will of the people, and that politicians talk to much and do not take enough action (80% and 84%, respectively).

But while 71% of respondents agreed with the statement that political differences between ordinary citizens and elites are greater than those between ordinary citizens themselves, just 57% thought that the most important decisions should be made by the people rather than politicians. And 51% would prefer to be represented by an ordinary citizen rather than a professional politician.

These lines of inquiry may appear questionable because, for example, of their use of rather vague concepts such as “ordinary citizen”. But they help us identify strong criticism of political representation, and the professionalisation of elected representatives.

If we establish a populism index on this basis, counting the number of positive answers and using a scale from zero to five, we can see that the average level of agreement with these statements is very high: 69% of respondents are at level four or above on the index.

We can then split the index, as this simplifies the calculations and allows us to distinguish the 55% of respondents with a high level of support for populism from the 45% with a weak to moderate level.

Table 1: Populism Index (%)

Number of times that respondents agreed with each statement (answers of four or five on a scale from zero to five. Total respondents = 8,122). French electoral survey, Cevipof, phase 13.

Populism affects even the most highly educated

According to our survey, the average level of support for populism did not correlate with the respondent’s age, employment status (working, unemployed, retired, or self-employed), or whether their career is in the public or private sector. But it did depend of their level of education.

Among those who ended their studies after primary or secondary school, the level of support for populism is at 63%. And it drops to 40% among those who completed their tertiary education at one of France’s prestigious grandes écoles.

This correlation is also evident when looking at socio-professional categories. While 44% of professionals and entrepreneurs and 45% of executives can be categorised as highly populist, this percentage rises to 58% for private and public sector employees and to 64% for skilled labourers in the private sector.

Overall, the rate of populism’s appeal is at 59% for low-income families, 54% for median-income families and 44% for high-income families. This demonstrates that the feeling of unease with the state of democracy goes far beyond the working class.

The difference lies in the extent to which each category rejects professional politics: 38% of professionals and managers (as compared to 56% of labourers) would still prefer to be represented by ordinary citizens than professional elected representatives.

Prominent political figures against the populists

As shown in table 2, the level of support for populism varies significantly for each electoral base and remains associated with each candidate’s level of support for the European Union. Among supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise), it is similar to that found among supporters of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (National Front).

Table 2: The level of populism for each candidate’s electoral base (%)

Faible = weak; Forte = strong. Results for Artaud, Asselineau and Lassalle suffer from small sample size; Cheminade’s electoral base is not featured. French electoral survey, Cevipof, phase 13

Conversely, supporters of the candidates from the movement En Marche (Emmanuel Macron), the Republicans and the Socialist Party — themselves fairly representative of French elites — are relatively less eager to challenge the idea of elected representatives and representative democracy.

As for minor candidates, their supporters – from the left and the right – are even more comfortable with populism. This is perhaps the basis for the argument that France has moved beyond the left-right divide, even though those in each camp still have nothing in common when it comes to economic or societal values.

This confrontation between populists and elites, which is embodied in the May 7 Macron-Le Pen run-off, revives the historical opposition between advocates for direct democracy and supporters of a liberal democracy that allows representatives enough freedom to take action during their mandate.

It also reveals very different perceptions of political life. Anger plays a greater role in the political choices of populists: 62% of highly populist voters (versus 41% of less populist voters) say they are angry at France’s current political situation.

This initial, rapid examination of the situation shows that the current French desire for political change is expressed by a blanket challenge to modern representative democracy. The model, born of the French and American revolutions, requires unconstrained mandates, competent elected representatives trained in the political profession, and a sharp separation between the public and private spheres.

First round presidential election results from France suggest that the question of this separation will hang heavily over the next five-year term.

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

This article was originally published in French