438. Forms of populism: the case of Macron
Populism is varied, takes different forms. Its most distinctive characteristic is that it opposes ‘the’ elite in defense of ‘the’ people.
Increasingly, ambitious leaders see an opportunity to profit from this. They then claim to address the people directly, skirting the ruling elites, to create a personal bond and claiming to represent the people directly. They can go to the extreme of skirting parliament, dressing it down or even abolishing it, as superfluous since the leader knows his people and caters to them directly.
The irony, of course, is that with this they create a new one-man elite.
Opting for the people, populism tends to slide into nationalism, projecting the people as ‘one’s own’, uniquely deserving, with a superior cultural identity, dressed up in historical myths. Personal identity is wrapped up in national cultural identity.
There is a temptation to make excessive promises to the people and when those inevitably fail to be realised, this is loaded off onto some scapegoat. Jews, immigrants, the Islam, foreign races.
Populist leaders project themselves as more capable, efficient and fast in solving problems, making and implementing policy without the delay, the slow pussyfooting, going back and forth, the watered down compromises of parliamentary democracy.
With this pretended direct rapport with the people and his unique ability to rule, the populist leader is authoritarian, issuing decrees rather than consulting the people, or anyone.
There are the obvious cases: Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Johnson, and in the Netherlands Baudet. How about Macron? Here I base myself on an article in the London Review of Books by Didier Fassin.[i]
Macron claims to side-track the traditional ruling elites on the left and the right, in a direct address to the people. In that sense already he can be seen as a populist.
In response to the uprising of the ‘yellow vests’, he did, one must grant, try to engage in debate with them, in, to quote Fassin, ‘.. dozens of hours of debates across the country, which he often turned into didactic monologues in front of impatient audiences’. And when the revolt did not subside, Macron resorted to extreme police violence, with unorthodox offensive weapons that seriously harmed many.
On the face of it, Macron does not slide into nationalism, and in fact opposes it, and indeed he also claims to oppose populism. He promotes further European integration, and he is against the ostracism and exclusion of immigrants. However, ‘On several occasions he addressed the theme of identity, championing “patriotism”, the “art of being French” and the “core values” that must be defended in order to achieve a “European renaissance.” He may not be nationalist but he certainly is a chauvinist.
He certainly is authoritarian, issuing decrees, and, Fassin claims, with several measures he ‘diluted the power of the legislature and the judiciary’ … and ‘he is now installed as a “Jupiterian” (in his coinage) head of state’. He celebrates his elevated position with show and conspicuous consumption.
Distinctive also is Macrons leaning towards a continued neo-liberal economic regime, which he projects as ‘progressive’. Among other things, Macron abolished a wealth tax, re-wrote the labour code to enhance corporate power, ended inflation-indexed pensions, cut housing benefits to the poor, and privatised companies with a state majority holding. Concerning European policy, Didier Fassin sums it up as follows: ‘Macron is interested in the consolidation of the free market, not the expansion of social rights’.
Summing up: One cannot equate Macron with the brand of the more extreme populist leaders, but he certainly has a brand of his own.
[i] Didier Fassin, ‘Macron’s war’, London Review of books, 4 July 2019, p. 23-24.