When I traveled to Provence in the summer for a three-week teaching gig, the French coastal region’s famed beauty was undeniable, with its blend of peoples and cultures integrating seemingly harmoniously. But make no mistake: Provence long has been a stronghold of the French far-right National Front (FN), which rails against immigrants and the European Union (EU). The FN, with its telegenic and combative leader, Marine Le Pen, almost won the recent regional elections there and elsewhere in France.
She was prevented from winning by the two-round system that allows for run-off elections for the top contenders. French citizens and mainstream parties jointly averted a dramatic shift to the right. Just as in the United States, populist movements, parties and tactics are becoming more commonplace in European countries.
What should we make of populist appeal on both sides of the Atlantic? Le Pen and Donald Trump are similar in that they exploit popular dissatisfaction with the economy (rising inequality and stagnation) and national-security concerns (immigration and terrorism), and thus receive a disproportionate amount of media attention. Both have seen a dramatic increase in popularity, although Le Pen’s party is well established and able not only to vilify mainstream parties and immigrants, but also to use the EU as a scapegoat for France’s domestic malaise.
Neither populist is a lone wolf or a short-lived phenomenon. Le Pen, just like Trump, is aiming for the presidency (in 2017). Regardless of their positions on the political spectrum, politicians calling for policies that address citizens’ concerns and portray politics as unaccountable are on the rise.
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In the United Kingdom, the governing Conservatives are proposing to either reform the EU or withdraw from it — the so-called “Brexit,” — while the Greek leftist government is positioning itself against the Union’s austerity measures despite the continued risk of a “Grexit.”
Even politically stable countries such as Germany and Sweden have witnessed the emergence of right-wing parties trying to upend the prevailing liberal-moderate political consensus. Hungary, and now Poland, have right-wing governments that are seeking to undo liberal-constitutional policies. Recent elections in Spain were dominated by two successful newcomer parties, Podemos (We can) on the left and Ciudadanos (Citizens) on the center-right. Together with separatist parties, they will undoubtedly shake up the political system there. This political trend, however, is not a new one.
Ever since the effects of the Eurocrisis became sorely apparent seven years ago, populist forces have intensified, based on a mix of economic discontent and fears about security.
As a result, a somewhat obsessive preoccupation with national-security and cultural issues, suggesting all-or-nothing policies stemming from a black-or-white worldview, has replaced more sensible approaches to border and immigration policies, and inter-cultural coexistence. Many issues, including global economic and political inequalities that underlie phenomena such as terrorism or immigration, are disregarded and addressed with simplistic solutions.
The call of Trump and Le Pen to erect physical boundaries or expel Muslim migrants are almost identical in their demagoguery. While the hope is that they won’t ever be implemented, such views may lead to a general move to the right by mainstream parties aiming to replicate some of those ‘popular’ policies.
Despite these challenges, the French people have come together to defend liberal democracy (for now) against Le Pen, and German Chancellor Merkel, arguably Europe’s most powerful leader, continues to appease concerned Germans with a moderating stance. It also appears that the affinity for populists like Trump or Le Pen is not necessarily translating into votes. It would be wrong, however, to simply dismiss them.
Without doubt, politics is in need of continual reevaluation and reform. But it is important that fickle electorates consider the consequences of voting for populists that instill fear, suggest overly simplistic solutions and, in the process, undermine the fabric of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Markus Thiel is an associate professor of politics and international relations, and director of the European and Eurasian Studies Program at Florida International University.