How Populism Took Root in France

It’s not about the rise of the far right. It’s about the collapse of both left and right.

Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

The idea that politicians operate on a spectrum, with the right on one end and the left on the other, originated with the French Revolution, when royalists sat on the right side of the National Assembly and revolutionaries on the left. So it’s only fitting that, 228 years later, France is at the forefront of a phenomenon on display in many democracies at the moment: the crumbling of left-right politics.

Of the four leading candidates in France’s presidential election, the first round of which takes place on Sunday, only one hails from a traditionally dominant left- or right-wing political party. And that exception, the Republican Party’s Francois Fillon, is currently embroiled in a scandal over whether he improperly funneled taxpayer money to his family members. As some observers have noted, the French political spectrum now looks more like a circle—or, more accurately, a tangled mess of circles where the most significant differences are not between left and right, but between nationalists and internationalists, populists and pluralists, rebels and preservationists. The National Front’s presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, advocates far-right anti-immigration policies and far-left economic policies. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the candidate for the new France Unbowed movement, is way to the left of Le Pen on many issues, but not so far from her sympathy toward Vladimir Putin and hostility toward globalization and the European Union. Emmanuel Macron, the candidate for the new On the Move movement, rejects “left” or “right” labels altogether.

Le Pen and Macron are expected to advance to the second round of voting, marking the first time in six decades that the main parties of the left and right wouldn’t be represented at that stage of the presidential election. It’s a bit like Donald Trump creating his own America First party and competing against Michael Bloomberg, of the newly launched America for Everyone party, in the 2020 presidential election, as Republicans and Democrats watch from the sidelines.

In a new analysis of polling data, Gallup offers some compelling clues as to why left-right politics is being scrambled in France and other European countries. Gallup’s study is focused on identifying the factors that fuel populism, a logic as old as politics according to which politicians claim to exclusively represent the righteous people in a moral struggle against the corrupt elite. Populism comes in left- and right-wing forms and is often paired with other ideologies; in France, Le Pen and Melenchon could both be described as populists. And, as Gallup reports, populist parties appear to be gaining support in countries where two things are true: 1) Many people are disaffected with government and 2) Many people are discouraged about their future.

Of those surveyed by Gallup, the French are among the most likely to have little confidence in government and little hope that their life will be better in five years than it is today—with more than 40 percent of French respondents saying they feel this way. Judged by these metrics, Gallup notes, Europe in general seems more prone to populism than the United States, despite the fact that Donald Trump is currently the most prominent example in the West of a (semi-) populist leader. In 18 of 27 European Union countries, Gallup encountered a higher percentage of disaffected and discouraged people than in the U.S.

Disaffected and Discouraged Citizens in the EU and U.S., 2016

Among EU countries with elections in 2017, France is home to the second-most disaffected and discouraged voters, behind Slovenia. (In the Dutch election in March, the populist party finished in second place.)

Disaffected and Discouraged Citizens in EU Countries With 2017 Elections

A 2017 poll by the communications marketing firm Edelman similarly found that France had one of the lowest levels of trust in government of the 28 countries it surveyed; only South Africa, Poland, Brazil, and Mexico fared worse. As Richard Edelman, the head of the firm, told me when the survey was released, the “system” in countries like France is widely perceived to be failing, meaning “we don’t have a sense of equality—the rich get more than others. We don’t have a sense of ... opportunity. We don’t have good leaders. And we ... demand change.” He offered up an equation: Lack of belief in system + economic and social fears + loss of trust in institutions = potential for populism. “Populism is people ... taking authority back from institutions they no longer have faith in,” he explained.

But these inputs don’t always produce populism; often they simply fragment the political landscape, dispersing votes across a range of established and upstart parties as people search for new forms of democratic representation. A disaffected and discouraged citizenry isn’t just a boon for populists, who condemn the “establishment” and ease worries about the future with nostalgic appeals to past greatness. It also has consequences for left-right politics. If you lack confidence in the government in general, you’re unlikely to distinguish much between left, right, and center. If you doubt that your future is bright, you’re unlikely to be satisfied with the same old ping-ponging policies of the center-right and center-left.

In France in particular, a sudden surge in terrorist attacks, a deeply troubled economy, and a long struggle to assimilate immigrants, among other factors, have spread distrust and despair. The measure of the resulting disruption is this: All that’s currently standing in the way of a populist revolution in France is a political veteran under investigation for embezzlement and a political independent who has never held elected office.