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European Populism, From Left to Right

European Populism, From Left to Right
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

Populists have been on the rise for several decades now. Of course, the prominence of the parties and movements that fall into this category fluctuates over time. Unexpected electoral successes are sometimes followed by sudden and unpredictable setbacks that immediately make such advances appear as mere feverish outbursts. The truth is that contemporary populism has taken root in most European societies, overturning party systems and changing the foundations of our democracies.

Populism is a political phenomenon that takes the form of movements and leaders who proclaim a major rift between a supposedly united, good and virtuous people, and a homogeneous, perverse elite permanently plotting against the former. Consequently, populists assert the boundless sovereignty of the people, which must be expressed through unlimited referendums, and the intrinsic superiority of direct democracy over what they consider to be outdated forms of liberal and representative democracy.

According to populists, no issue is complicated, there are only simple and immediate solutions. Their fundamental Manichaen worldview leads them to select scapegoats: elites and - most frequently - immigrants, foreigners, Muslims or Jews. Finally, populism is characterized by the concentration of power in the hands of a leader who supposedly embodies the people.

A wide variety of populisms exist, on the Right and Left ends of the political spectrum, yet far-Right ones are much more pervasive.

Populism offers a belief system, plays on emotions, cultivates nostalgia and seeks to make people dream. It is both a composite and a flexible ideology that merges with the remnants of traditional political cultures and a strategy for attaining power. Once that is achieved, it turns into a ‘political style’. A wide variety of populisms exist, on the Right and Left ends of the political spectrum, yet far-Right ones are much more pervasive.

Several Right-wing populists have achieved significant electoral success in recent years. This is the case in Poland, Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Latvia, Sweden and Germany. Populists are in power in Hungary, Poland and in the Czech Republic.

Right-wing populists have much in common. They reject all ruling elites and other political parties, whom they accuse of hijacking democracy. Distrustful of globalization to varying degrees, they assert the need for strong national sovereignty above all else and emphasize national interests. Their idea of the nation is based on ethnicity and identity, thereby rejecting foreigners and immigrants. They do not hesitate to inflate figures regarding the presence of these groups on their soil, or even to ring the alarm about the "great replacement" allegedly underway. Almost all of them denounce Islam as a threat to their country’s entire cultural heritage, which they reframe in their own image. They promise to be resolute defenders against the "multiculturalism" that they abhor. Finally, they present themselves as the best possible guarantors of security and authority in the face of delinquency, criminality and a threat of decay.

The extent to which they fall on the Right of the political spectrum varies greatly. They range from the center-Right with Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi’s party, or the austrian New Popular Party, to the extreme Right, with the Rassemblement national in France, the League and Brothers of Italy in Italy and even to neo-fascism, with Golden Drawn in Greece. But many of them refuse any and all categorization, aiming to speak "in the name of the people" instead, as reflected in the 2017 presidential campaign slogan of France’s Marine Le Pen. Moreover, deep divides are emerging between different Right-wing populists, in addition to the rivalries inherent to their respective nationalisms. Hostility towards Jews is often muted, and sometimes even publicly erased. Similarly, despite the usual rejection of democracy by the far-Right, Right-wing populist parties present themselves as the best of all democrats and accuse traditional parties of both monopolizing and perverting democracy. They claim to restore the original meaning of democracy by returning power to the people. Not all adhere to the "illiberal democracy" put forward and practiced by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish leaders. 

Similarly, right-wing populists are divided between defenders of Christian, traditional and conservative values, and those who, like the Dutch, adopt open attitudes on social issues, including homosexuality. For the latter, tolerance on social issues is a response to the "Muslim threat" which as they see it, represents a return to the Middle Ages. These fault lines sometimes run right through the parties themselves.

There are further differences on social and economic issues. The neo-liberals in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and to some extent also Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, are less bitter about globalization, if at all, and address both the working and middle classes by promising tax cuts to the latter. French, Polish and Hungarian populists are against globalization and advocate protectionism. However, these populists often make contradictory promises - liberal and social, pro- and anti-government - in order to appeal to very different voters. In particular, many of them, including those who claim to be liberal, promote a form of ‘social chauvinism’ that aims to reserve social gains for nationals only.

All EU populists are vocal critics of the Union, but the intensity of their opposition is changing. With the exception of Thierry Baudet, leader of the Forum voor Democratie in the Netherlands, most eurozone populists no longer consider leaving the EU. The Covid-19 pandemic and the European Council’s huge stimulus package embarrassed them. As a result, European populists are now more interested in influencing EU policy and institutions from within, as many stated in a joint declaration instigated by the Hungarians in July 2020. Right-wing populists also disagree about Putin: while some admire him, others, most notably the Poles, do not trust the Russian leader.

European populists are now more interested in influencing EU policy and institutions from within, as many stated in a joint declaration instigated by the Hungarians in July 2020. 

These differences among Right-wing populists explain why they are divided in spite of their overall success in the 2019 European elections, though the surge was not as big as they had hoped and predicted. The majority are part of the Identity and Democracy Group (ID), including Lega Nord and France’s Rassemblement national. The ID Group now boasts 73 MEPs compared to 36 prior to the last elections. Other Right-wing populists sit in the Conservatives and Reformists Group.

There are fewer populists on the Left end of the spectrum than there are on the Right. Spain is the only country where a Left-wing populist party is in power, as part of a coalition. However, Left-wing populists are no less of a political reality. They are characterized by a number of specificities and differences that sometimes fuel heated debates within their ranks. This is the case when it comes to the euro, for example, or to the EU, which they all criticize but for which they do not propose the same solutions. Views also diverge on what Left-wing populism should look like. Should they still have political parties in the traditional sense of the word, as Die Linke does in Germany? Or should they rather invent new types of movements, such as La France insoumise and Spain’s Podemos, which both attempt to combine horizontal, participatory, internet-driven democracy with the absolute vertical power of their leaders? Finally, opinions differ on what political strategy to adopt: should they conclude electoral alliances with the reformist Left or not? Above all, though, European populists of the Left, often inspired by populist regimes in Latin America, constantly oscillate between a desire to present themselves as forces that can revive the Left and, conversely, to affirm that the Left-Right divide is outdated and has been replaced by a rift between the people and the elite. 

Most populists on the Left and the Right share their hate for the ruling classes and all other organizations they believe to be part of the "system". The irony lies in that, sometimes, they represent the system too. They are opposed to globalization, criticize the EU, want popular sovereignty to prevail and are doubtful of liberal and representative democracy. Their vision of today’s world and the situation in their countries is riddled with catastrophe and placed in contrast with an idealized version of the past and contours for a better future.

Does this mean that Right-wing and Left-wing populists are identical? Absolutely not. Those on the Left, with a few exceptions mainly from Eastern Europe, do not attack immigrants. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise, whose statements are sometimes ambiguous, never ceases to praise France as a country of many ethnicities and to present himself as a resolute anti-fascist and anti-racist, especially in comparison with Right-wing populists like Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Moreover, Left-wing populist opposition to Europe does not rest on the same basis as that of their Right-wing counterparts. More generally, Left-wing populists advocate an inclusive form of populism, as opposed to the Right. The difference in their notions of "the people" is essential. For Right-wing populists, the term basically refers to the common people. Those on the Left may also address the "plebs", like Mélenchon does when he speaks to "les gens" (French for "the people"). But for them, the term refers mainly to the "populus", meaning the active, politicized citizens who essentially live out Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of general will. Finally, Left- and Right-wing populists do not exactly share the same electorate. Supporters of Right-wing populists are, on the whole, part of the most poorly-educated segments of the working class, those from peripheral regions who face unemployment and are frightened by globalization, Europeanization and the presence of foreigners. There are some exceptions, as is the case of the support for Eric Zemmour in France that is more interclassisits than the more obvious class lines amongst Marine le Pen voters. Left-wing populist voters, on the other hand, are more likely to be educated, urban middle-class citizens with jobs in the public sector.

When they are in power, as is the case in central Europe, populist parties develop policies that have national and European impacts. But the bottom line is that, from now on, populists of the Right and the Left will be an important component of politics in Europe. Even if they don’t win elections. 


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