The next populism battleground: France

Much has been written about the rise of populism in the past few years, but even more so in 2016 following Brexit and the election of Trump. Populist candidates seem to be on the rise both in America and Europe. Some places have so far held out against this tide (Canada, Spain) but it continues to infiltrate several countries. After the US and UK examples, the next battle for populism will be France which holds its presidential election in the spring of 2017.

Candidates from the centre-right are currently engaged in their party’s primary while the socialists are not nearly that close to determining their candidate yet, particularly given the fact that the president hasn’t yet decided if he will run for another term. Macron, who has built up his En Marche! movement over the year declared his intention to run on November 16, although it’s unclear how his running will play out with the socialists and he may run as an independent. While the traditional parties determine who will run, all eyes are on Marine Le Pen of the FN.

The populist candidate has tried to tone down the rhetoric of her party over the past few years and has reaped the rewards. Although the French electoral system prevents an easy growth in the number of elected officials, the FN’s share of votes has undoubtedly risen drastically over the past five years. And while the party may have distanced itself from anti-semitic rhetoric, it is still anti-immigration and very eurosceptic. There is also much talk about what it means to be “French” and a sense of France being under threat from outside forces and from Islam. This kind of rhetoric puts the FN and Le Pen right alongside Farage in the UK and Trump in America. Polls have put Le Pen into the second round of the presidential elections, and although it is too early to know for sure how well she will do, and political polls are not exactly highly regarded these days, it is still a significant sign of the power of populism in France.

The conditions for Le Pen are very promising. First there is an incredibly and consistently unpopular president – approval ratings for Hollande have long been under twenty percent. The FN has also had some significant gains in departmental and local elections in the past few years. Although there was no large sweep, the party did manage to get into the second round in many areas across the country, something that had not been achieved in the past on such a large scale.

Another positive sign for Le Pen is that the same cleavages that have developed in the UK and the US also seem to be developing in France. The first is a divide developing against urban and wealthy cities and surrounding areas and the rest of the country, usually exurban and rural. In the UK this divide is usually between Greater London and the northern and eastern areas of England. In the referendum results, such a divide was evident with London voting overwhelmingly to remain while the north voting decisively to leave. Greater London had a 60-40 remain ratio while North East England voted 58% leave and East England voted 56% leave.

In the US, a similar divide has taken place in the latest election where Hillary Clinton handily won states in the wealthy northeast and the west coast while lost the south and, surprisingly, some of the upper midwest. This left-right divide in American politics has been relatively consistent with slight shifts over the past few decades. However the fact that the democratic candidate lost Michigan and Wisconsin, for the first time in decades, in the upper midwest speaks to the success of populism in such areas that used to rely on industry and have suffered as manufacturing jobs disappear.

The rise of populism in these areas is a constant in all three countries. It is the upper midwest in the US, northern areas of England in the UK, and northern France near the Belgian border. These areas also are similar in that they are all former strongholds of the centre-left. The breakdown of the traditional centre-left coalition has become evident in 2016 and it could perhaps hand Le Pen a victory in 2017. The similarities between the three countries are striking.

Formerly the most industrial areas of all three countries, they were friendly territory for the centre-left parties due to the left putting a bigger emphasis on workers’ rights and being more supportive of unions.. They all became reliable strongholds that each centre-left party eventually took for granted while they tried to score votes elsewhere in their respective countries. But as manufacturing has faded in each of the countries, at least in the areas concerned, economic hardship and poverty have risen, as well as, perhaps most importantly, a sense of being forgotten or ignored by those in Washington, London, or Paris. Enter the rise of populist candidates like Farage, Trump, and Le Pen. They tap into this sense of being forgotten and the subsequent anger and then place the blame on “elites” (a term that can mean anybody in politics in the capital) and on ethnic minorities and immigrants.

As voters in these area flock to the far-right, the left loses a large share of votes and thus any likely chance of winning an election. Labour cannot even hope to get close to a majority if its strongholds in the north are threatened. It is clear from the recent election that the Democrats cannot beat the Republicans if they lose hold of the Upper Midwest, despite expanding the battleground map to include “New South” states like Virginia and North Carolina. And finally, the PS in France, already dragged down by an unpopular president, has no hope if it starts to lose its traditional voters in the north. These voters have begun to leave the left and are leading to a breakdown of the traditional coalition that used to be able to reach a majority.

While this has partly been countered by a rise in support by those in urban areas, for example a greater Labour share of the votes in London and success in northern Virginia for the Democrats, the gains do not make up for the losses. Furthermore, as centre-left parties try to woo voters in urban wealthy areas, they lose voters in their traditional strongholds, and vise-versa, a real catch-22.

Both results of 2016 were shocking to many, and a Le Pen victory in 2017 cannot be ruled out. The same anti-establishment and anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment has taken hold in France just like it has in the UK and the US. Even if Le Pen loses this election, the tide of populism continues and there will likely be other similar candidates popping up across Western democratic countries, at least until (or if) traditional parties figure out a way to communicate with the voters who feel forgotten and ignored.


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