Editor’s note: This article has been revised since its initial publication.
Europe has gotten tired of being anguished about Donald Trump and has now moved on to being anguished about itself. The question being asked by all the Big Think editorials and news magazine programs runs: “Is Europe going populist too?” It’s especially unavoidable this weekend because of the coincidence of three events:
‐French president François Hollande, facing the prospect of a humiliating defeat, announced on Thursday that he would not contest next year’s presidential elections, in which, as everyone knew, he would have run a poor third to the populist Right’s Marine Le Pen and the conservative Right’s new favorite, former prime minister François Fillon.
‐On Sunday there will be a referendum in Italy on constitutional reform that, if rejected, will lead to the resignation of the prime minister and new elections in which an anti-euro party, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement, would at least start out as the favorite.
‐Also on Sunday there will be a rerun of the Austrian presidential election, which – because the first, narrow victory of the establishment candidate was overturned owing to irregularities – could swing a victory for the candidate of the populist “far right” Freedom party.
As if this trifecta were not excitement enough, almost every news broadcast reminds us that next year we will have – in addition to the French presidential elections — a Dutch election in which the populist party of Geert Wilders (who is currently on trial for demanding fewer Moroccan immigrants in Holland) may end up as the largest single group in parliament, and a German election in which Angela Merkel will seek a fourth mandate in a contest in which, for the first time, a populist anti-migrant party, the AFD, may win a serious number of votes and seats and deprive the conservative Christian Democrats of office even in a coalition, as now..
Something big is clearly going on. It fills the imaginations of the more excitable members of mainstream parties of Left and Right with dramatic fantasies of fighting neo-fascism alongside Paul Henreid and Ingrid Berman. Worse, it suggests that Donald Trump may inspire a new populist politics in Europe that will put them out of a job.
So a little ground-clearing is in order.
“Populism” is a scare word meant to delegitimize rebellions against political establishments and mainstream elites. It draws together under the same big, scary tent parties and causes that have a little in common otherwise. There is no “populist” ideology that unites these various dissidents the way Marxist ideology united international socialists for more than a century.
Brexit, for instance, was a campaign to recover Britain’s status as a self-governing democracy. Opinion polls showed that a clear majority of Leavers supported it for that reason. It was backed by members of all British parties — including UKIP, which, however, is not a protectionist party. For practical purposes, Nigel Farage is a Thatcherite in economics, and so were most of the Tories backing Leave. They don’t overlap ideologically with the Five Star movement (a fun-anarchist party of the Left whose main ideologist is the late Dario Fo, the author of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay), nor with Hungary’s far-right Jobbik, nor with the welfare-protectionist Danish People’s party. Most of these parties have only the occasional issue in common with each other or with the Trump insurgents.
What unites them is not ideology or policies (which are usually responses to specific national situations) but a raw spirit of revolt. If they were to attain power, they would start to look very different as they put their ideas into effect. But few of them have actually gotten into government, none into single-party government, as yet. And it is quite likely that they never will.
What unites Europe’s populists is not ideology or policies (which are usually responses to specific national situations) but a raw spirit of revolt.
Populism is therefore a portmanteau term for the many different political/ideological responses to the failure of the major parties to represent the interests and values of their traditional supporters. Parties of the Left have been quietly abandoning the blue-collar workers who supported them on economic or class grounds, while parties of the Right have gradually held themselves more and more aloof from those who voted conservative on religious, moral, patriotic, or prudent grounds. (Prudent? Do savers have any reason to vote for the engineers of monetary quantitative easing?) Both parties have then gravitated to different positions on a political spectrum that represents the interests and values of a highly educated, post-national, meritocratic, progressivist elite. For several decades the supporters, though doubtless disappointed or wondering, kept voting for those they had always voted for. Eventually, however, reality broke in. As a result the traditional parties are breaking up (even if sometimes they keep their old names), and the voters are joining together in new alliances.
What is most striking in almost all European countries is the decline of the Left – a Left that according to conventional thinking should have benefited enormously from the 2008 financial crash. Instead the Left has vanished almost entirely in parts of eastern and central Europe – notably Poland, which now holds electoral contests between an urban liberal party and a rural conservative one. Hungary is only slightly more favorable to the Left: A dominant conservative government there faces an opposition divided between a weak Left coalition and a rising far-right populist party. And the Left is weak almost everywhere else – with the perhaps significant exception of Germany.
It is the forthcoming French election, however, that offers the most instructive example. Both parties have been officially committed to statist and interventionist economic policies known as the “social model” for several decades. But both have found it an obstacle to the economic policies their supporters wanted and tried to move it slightly towards either more welfare socialism or more (market) reformism.
Neither could succeed – in part because of France’s membership of the euro and the EU. Hollande brought in a 35-hour week, but he had to abandon it because it was adding to the unemployment that he had promised to bring down. He could neither devalue a non-existent franc nor bring in tariffs to protect the market share of industries that were damaged by the resulting labor costs.
No fewer than three leading French conservatives tried to cut taxes and bring in other market reforms in the last 30 years: Alain Madelin in the 1980s, Alain Juppé in the 1990s, and Nicolas Sarkozy in the early days of his presidency. None of them succeeded. Arguably, Sarkozy never really tried. All of them ran afoul of both the legend of the French “social model” and the constraints of, first, the ERM, and later the euro, which ruled out any economic experiments that might weaken the currency. All lost office.
As a result, France has stagnated, failing also in its mood of hopelessness (occasioned by economic stagnation) to deal effectively other problems such as migration and the constant public disorder in its banlieues housing young people of North African origin, disappointing the natural constituencies of both parties, and finally dooming Hollande’s chances of reelection.
These recurring failures, however, have gradually produced a new party system. Blue-collar workers (and others) have moved towards the National Front, which has taken traditional welfarism and economic protectionism from the Left and wedded it to a tough nationalism, opposition to multiculturalism, and control of immigration, all expressed in the rhetoric of revolutionary and republican France that was the national orthodoxy until yesterday. It was a package that neither the Socialists nor the mainstream Right — committed to Brussels, the euro, and supranationalism as both were — could seemingly match.
While this was happening, however, the Right in opposition recovered some of its nerve, delved into French history before the Revolution, and in the recent party primary selected a candidate who evokes French traditions both older and different from the red cap. Fillon will now fight the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s election.
A former prime minister, Fillon combines two qualities very rarely found in French politics (at least together in the one person): He is both a candid market reformer who doesn’t disdain the label “Thatcherite” and a bold Catholic traditionalist who opposes same-sex marriage and rejects the political correctness that has restrained the French Right from defending the conservative moral values of many of its supporters.
It doesn’t sound like a recipe for victory. In fact, it sounds like a recipe for an honorable and eccentric defeat. But Fillon is getting a warm welcome from voters and now looks like the man who will emerge as president in the second round. He may be tapping into sentiments that have not been taken seriously since 1848 or even 1789. For the first time in a long time, two traditions in French politics have a champion who is unambiguously on their side: In economics, the liberal tradition of Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant, and in morality, the Catholic tradition of provincial France (where, not coincidentally, Fillon is a longstanding local mayor).
So the presidential election next year will be between a Catholic traditionalist and Thatcherite, representing a conservative Right, and a radical egalitarian nationalist, representing a populist Right. Strip away the contemporary trappings of television debates, polls, and focus groups, and the smoke lifts to reveal a battle between Jacobins and the peasants of the Vendee.
After the withdrawal of Hollande, does the Left have a candidate who can win against Le Pen and Fillon? It has several contenders for the job, of whom the most promising is Prime Minister Manuel Valls. All would be improvements on Hollande, but all would still carry the heavy burden of defending not only a failed government but also a failed socialist ideology. We are all post-socialists now.
Except for Angela Merkel? But I will stick my neck out and predict that she will not be the chancellor after the next election. She is the incarnation of the European political establishment that has called forth all these rebellions. She has weakened the Christian Democrats and their conservative allies in the last two elections to the point where the coalition she heads rests on Social Democrat support, and in the next election the “populist” AfD (which is essentially a response to the refugee policies Merkel adopted) is likely to gain more seats at the further expense of the CDU and its Bavarian cousin, the CSU. She is no longer wanted by the Christian Democrats and no longer needed by the Social Democrats. She is, one might say, the former indispensable European. Martin Schulz, the German Social Democrat who heads the European Parliament, clearly shares my judgment.
He has just resigned to return to German politics.