“I’m against the Right of money, and the Left of money. I’m the candidate of the people!” Sound familiar? You may think this is a quote from a Trump rally, and you’d have good reason to. Trump ran on a platform of “draining the swamp” of corrupt politicians and giving the people their voice back. Although this quote would fall in line with Trump’s campaign rhetoric, its true author is France’s Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is the National Front (NF) candidate in France’s 2017 presidential election, and is the leader of a surprisingly strong populist movement.
Populism is a slippery term: there is no one ideology behind it. Political scientist Cas Mudde said, “Populism is a ‘thin ideology, one that merely sets up a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite” (The Economist 2016). For example, Occupy Wall Street Democrats and “Drain-the-Swamp” Republicans are both populists, though each group hates the other’s ideology. What makes them populist is not what they want government to do, but rather how they want government to go about doing it. The common thread between all populists worldwide is a distrust of the ruling class mixed with a faith in the layman.
With this understanding of populism in mind, we’ll move on to what’s happening over the next several weeks in France. The country is currently in its runoff elections. France’s government is not a two-party system, so the country holds a first round of elections (this year it was April 23rd), then the winners of that move on to the next round. The two winners of the runoff election this time were the liberal, globalist Emmanuel Macron and the conservative, nationalist Marine Le Pen. Noteworthy is the fact that neither of these victorious candidates are political insiders. France, like the United States and Britain, is going through a period of dégagisme, or “a popular urge to hurl out any leader tainted by elected office, establishment politics or insider privilege” (The Economist 2017). Still, Macron is not the black sheep that Le Pen is; being an outsider is her whole platform.
I should pause here to note that most pollsters do not expect Le Pen to pull off a Trumpish come-from-behind victory over Macron (but then again, nobody expected Trump to do that either). Whether she becomes president or not, more than twenty percent of France has made clear that they are sick of the status quo. But what are they rallying around? It’s clear that they are growing increasingly skeptical of “the establishment”, but we need to know what they’re fighting for, not just what they’re fighting against.
According to National Front official Julien Odoul, members of the NF and other conservatives in France rally around four issues: work, immigration, Islamic fundamentalism, and national identity. Of these four, the two that we should really understand are immigration and national identity, since they are two focal points of the populist movements of 2016 in the United States and Britain, and I believe the two issues are tied together.
First, the populists within the United States and Britain almost universally cited concerns over immigration among their reasons for voting as they did. Many in the United States were worried that illegal immigrants—primarily from Mexico—were committing crimes and taking jobs. Many in England feared that large numbers of Middle-Eastern immigrants were coming into the country, taking over sections of cities, and committing crimes. And France has grown increasingly angry that it is forced to play host to many illegal immigrants awaiting entrance (legal or illegal) into England. Whether or not these claims are actually true, all that we need to know to understand these populist movements is what the people believe to be true.
These fears over immigration are largely tied to the other issue that conservatives in France can gather around Le Pen for: a sense of national identity. This is another hallmark of the populist movements of the last two years. Trump promised to Make America Great Again. Englishmen carried the Union Jack through the streets of London to raise support for Brexit. Le Pen assured France that she would make the country proud and distinct once again; no longer would it be just a part of the European conglomerate. These conservative populists wanted to be proud of their countries again, and consequently they chose leaders who would slow the changes they were seeing.
Many Christians find themselves in a difficult place now. They agree with the moral conservatism of the right-wing populist movements, but are (rightly) unwilling to adopt the more radical ideas of xenophobia and white supremacy that some populists hold. That is why we need to pave our own way in modern political times. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt clears the waters a bit, by explaining that these conservatives who are becoming increasingly more populist are not hateful people—they are people who fear their countries are changing too quickly and are shedding their morals, their pride, and their God (Haidt 2016).
So arises the prevailing question: how are we, as Christians, to act? The answer is simple. We need to find our identity in Christ, which means that the only group we should bring ourselves into conformity with is the Church. We cannot take any political movement wholesale, without subjecting it to Him. If we are seen as political activists first and Christians second, we’re doing something wrong. The current populist movements are trying to address real problems, many of which we should be with them on. We need not feel obligated to accept the entire movement, but should learn why these sentiments are rising. The people are rejecting corruption, nepotism, and an increasingly isolated ruling class, and on this we should support them. But as Christians we must focus on construction, not demolition. Jesus tells us to count the costs and be thoughtful about what we build before we start to build it (Luke 14:28 [KJV]). We should be known for constructing something better, not simply bringing down the powers that be.
The Economist. 2016. The Economist Explains: What is Populism?. December 19. Accessed April 22, 2017. http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2016/12/economist-explains-18.
The Economist. 2017. The urge to elect an insurgent is helping Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in France. February 16. charlemagnetheurgetoelectaninsurgentishelpingmarinelepenandemmanuelmacroninfrance.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2016. “The Rise of Populism and the Backlash Against the Elites.” Lecture, Emmanuel Centre, London, November 21. Accessed April 20, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gZ5UD1hFM4&t=3814s.
Great analysis, Luke. I’d be interested to hear more from you on French cultural change. I think the novelist Michel Houellebecq could be brought into the conversation.
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