Populists, demagogues and the French elections

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 …

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Populists, demagogues and the French elections

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