Populism Reflections of the French Pension Law: An Opportunity for Marine Le Pen?

01.06.2023

Europe is under the influence of a new wave of populism. However, this is mostly seen in the far-right wing today, unlike that which emerged between the 1960s and 1980s. While Populist Radical Right Parties (PRRPs) have come to power in some European countries, others have gained representation in the parliament or show that they will reach these positions in the future by increasing their influence.

One of the most striking countries where far-right populism both finds its place in the parliament and increases its influence among the people is France. The pension plan law, which is frequently encountered and subject to violent protests today, creates a convenient environment for populism to bring itself to the fore. For this reason, examining the connection between this law and the protests and populism will be illuminating about the possible political developments in the country in the future.

Populism

Claiming that society is divided into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ” the corrupt elites” and the “the pure people”[1], populists see themselves as the voice of a silent and moral people whose demands and grievances cannot be met by corrupt politicians and the institutions of liberal democracy.[2] The expression that they are the only true representative of the people, which they frequently emphasize in their rhetoric, aims to mobilize the majority around a common issue and gain their support by taking advantage of the current bad conditions.

It is known that populism usually rises in times of crisis, though not always. Populists generally weaponize the gap between promises and performance of the government[3] and emphasize that the corrupt political elites who think only of their own interests and make decisions based on their own interests are responsible for the current conditions that the people are going through. While doing this, they also claim that they are one of “the people”, so that only one of the people can solve the problems of the people.

Populism, and especially the far-right populism we encounter in Europe in the context of our subject, has generally emerged from the political and economic dissatisfaction of the people.[4] The fact that the mainstream parties could not meet the demands and needs of the people led to dissatisfaction and the people, who could not reach the level of economic or political satisfaction, increasingly turned to marginal parties instead of the mainstream. It is known that the PRRPs were at the margins of the political spectrum when they emerged on the stage of history, but in today’s Europe, these parties have abandoned their marginal positions and become mainstream.[5]

The threat of far-right populism to democracy comes not only from themselves, but also from the fact that they push mainstream parties to use populist rhetoric. In order to cope with these parties, mostly mainstream parties adopt the same line as them.[6] However, if the promises made through the populist rhetoric used by the mainstream parties are not fulfilled, a greater dissatisfaction and distrust occurs in the people.[7] This will lead the populists to become stronger and consolidate the support they receive from the broad masses.

Populists generally focus their attention on economic issues such as unemployment, retirement age, health care, taxes, and housing in order to gain the support of the public.[8] These problems, which directly affect the way of life of the people, are the most likely to be mobilized around through populist rhetoric. If the demands of the people on these problems cannot be met by the government, the appropriate ground for the rise of populism begins to constitute.

The French Case

One of the first examples of far-right parties in Europe, Front National (FN), which was renamed the National Rally (RN) after 2018, was founded in 1970 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of current leader Marine Le Pen. Increasing its influence in the 1990s, RN is currently the second party with 88 deputies in the French Parliament, which consists of 577 deputies. Considering the last 2 elections in France, Marine Le Pen has shown an increasing performance against French President Emmanuel Macron. Reaching 33.90% of the votes in the elections held in 2017 and 41.45% in the elections held in 2022 shows that Le Pen has gradually increased the support she receives from the public against her rival.

The reason for this difference between the two elections might be explained by the occurrence of a series of protests called “Yellow Vests” that took place in France in 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic that broke out globally in 2020, and even the Russia-Ukraine war that occurred in early 2022 and its effects reflecting on Europe in the form of refugees and energy crisis, because as it is known, crises prepare a very favorable ground for the rise of PRRPs.

The new pension plan law, which French President Emmanuel Macron insists on, has been causing violent protests in the country for a while. In brief, this new pension plan aims to gradually increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030. The current stance of Macron, who stated months ago that the French people are tired [9]of top-down reforms, has received quite harsh reactions from both the far right and the far left, as well as the unions. According to the surveys, more than 70% of the French people oppose this law.[10] These results show us that until 9 months ago, Macron, who said that the people were tired of top-down reforms, now insists on passing this law despite the overwhelming majority of the people.

Macron, who considers that he probably does not have enough majority to pass the law, uses a special constitutional power called Article 49.3, in order not to undermine his authority in public. This constitutional power enables the passing of a law without a parliamentary vote. Le Pen emphasized that this situation is a “failure of democracy”.[11] It is a great political paradox to give populists, who are often seen as a threat to democracy, this opportunity, which they can easily turn into propaganda in their rhetoric.

This inconsistency between Macron’s rhetoric and implementations is likely to be propagated by populist parties in France in the future. In the current situation, the reaction to this stance of Macron comes from the far-left populist party La France Insoumise (FI). Le Pen is not overly prominent in this regard now. This silence of Le Pen is interpreted by some circles as a political gain.[12] In fact, the populist rhetoric that is likely to be compelling for Macron in the future is more likely to come from the far-right RN, whose domestic influence is more consolidated than from the far left.

The fact that RN is the second strongest party in the parliament and the main opposition clearly shows that the biggest populist threat to Macron can come from the right. Le Pen has his eyes set on the 2027 elections, and she wants to show the public that they are capable to govern in order to win these elections.[13] When the issue is handled in this context, Le Pen’s reactions to the latest developments have the potential to cause the majority to shift to them, whose demands are not met by the current government.

Conclusion

This situation in France is preparing the ground for populist parties in the country to gain power. The gap in Macron’s rhetoric and practices is an important weapon for populism. The lead of far-left populism to the protests now taking place in France points to radicalization. Violence in populism is not physical but discursive.[14] In addition, populism is unlikely to become a revolution because it is not entirely against the political system.[15] Therefore, if this resentment of the people, fueled by the radicalized far left, is reflected effectively in Le Pen’s discourses in the future, RN will be the most profitable in this debate.

However, whether Le Pen turns the current resentment of the people in her favor and increases her support from the people, or whether the protests led by the far-left turn into a revolution or the FI increases its vote rate, populism will win anyway. This threat to democracy does not come only from populist parties, moreover. In order to combat these, other parties, especially the ruling party, that may adopt the populist line should also be considered.

In addition to the discourse of populist parties, it will not be surprising that Macron, who has faced violent protests and seems to continue to do so, also accepts populist rhetoric to fight them. The use of populist rhetoric by Macron in order to maintain his power in the country and to deal with his populist rivals and defeat them in the political arena carries the risk of putting the country into a populist cycle.

Populism will become a more enduring phenomenon in Western democracy in the future. There will be more populism as the silent and pure people feel that they are no longer represented by the political elite and dissatisfied.[16] It seems that the current situation in France is a signal of this.

 

Bibliography

[1] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2004): 543.

[2] Margaret Canovan, “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy,” Political Studies 47, no. 1 (1999): 2-5.

[3] Canovan, “Trust the People,” 12.

[4] Yavuz Yıldırım, “Liberal Demokrasinin Krizi Bağlamında Avrupa’da Sağ-Popülizm ve Yükselen Aşırı-Sağ,” Amme İdaresi Dergisi 50, no.2 (2017): 60.

[5] Mudde, “Populist Zeitgeist,” 542; Cas Mudde, “Three decades of populist radical right parties in Western Europe: So what?,” European Journal of Political Research 52, no. 1 (2013): 2.

[6] John Abromeit, “A Critical Review of Recent Literature of Populism,” Politics and Governance 5, no. 4 (2017): 178.

[7] Mudde, “Populist Zeitgeist,” 559.

[8] Margaret Canovan, “’People’, Politicians and Populist,” Government and Opposition 19, no. 3 (1984): 327.

[9] https://www.politico.eu/article/emmanuel-macron-france-politics-pension-reform-elisabeth-borne/

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/14/france-faces-another-day-of-strikes-ahead-of-key-vote-on-pension-reforms

[11] https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/france-pension-reforms-emmanuel-macron-vote-b1067876.html?itm_source=Internal&itm_channel=section_banner&itm_campaign=breaking-news-ticker&itm_content=1

[12] https://english.elpais.com/international/2023-03-10/le-pen-emerges-as-political-winner-in-battle-for-pensions-in-france.html

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/11/france-far-right-le-pen-2027-sanitise-image

[14] Burak Gökalp, “Otoriterizmin Yüzleri: Popülizm ve Faşizm,” Moment Dergi 6, no. 1 (2019): 264.

[15] Gülden Çamurcuoğlu, “Çoğunlukçu Demokrasiye Yöneliş Olarak Popülizm,” İnönü Üniversitesi Hukuk Fakültesi Dergisi 10, no. 1 (2019): 283.

[16] Mudde, “Populist Zeitgeist,” 563; Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016): 135.

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