Populism and the French elections

Lord Malcolm Bruce, Marianne Magnin and Dr Sean Hanley

On the evening of 5 April 2017, the Liberal International British Group held our first joint forum with MoDem (Mouvement démocrate), France’s liberal, centrist party.

Given the recent rise in populist parties, the topic for debate was on ‘Populisms in a Post Truth World’.

Chairing the forum was Mathieu Capdevila, President of Northern Europe MoDem who introduced the speakers:

  • Lord Malcolm Bruce, Member of Parliament for Gordon from 1983 to 2015 and the chairman of the International Development Select Committee from 2005 to 2015
  • Dr Sean  Hanley, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL
  • Marianne Magnin, Board Chair of the Cornelius Arts Foundation and MoDem’s Parliamentary Candidate for Northern Europe.

Lord Bruce began by asking what constituted “populism”.  Citing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he said that Brutus spoke in prose, but Marc Anthony spoke in poetry. On BREXIT, there were no good reasons why the EU Referendum should have been taken as ‘binding’ as opposed to only ‘advisory’.  However, what we needed to do now was to acknowledge that the electorate had valid reasons for voting against the establishment and to find solutions to manage the economy and the wealth more equitably.

Dr Sean Hanley, an academic, said that Populism was akin to an empty vessel into which one could pour any ideology, whether from the left, the right, the centre or even a lifestyle movement.  Whilst agreeing that Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of history still held, there were nevertheless governments in a number of countries which continue to undermine democracy.  Populism affected not just fringe parties but the mainstream too as seen from the election of Trump in the US.

Last, but by no means least, was Marianne Magnin who commented on the sense of nostalgia in countries such as France and the UK. There was another similarity with UK in so far as there was no PR voting in the presidential elections.  There was therefore a risk that the French electorate would do one of 3 things: vote against the Government, vote for an extreme party or “absenteeism” ie not voting at all.

Ms Magnin said that France needed a strong and inspiring leader more than ever before to defend its liberal and democratic values.

The meeting was then open to questions from the floor ranging from Turkey and the refugee crisis to the influence of the media.

I spoke up in support of France’s integration policies and Lord Bruce conceded that multi-culturalism in the UK had its shortfalls.  But that the fears with regard to immigration were as much to do with the rationing of public services as on identity politics.  Ms Magnin stressed the importance of understanding the drivers of the refugee crisis and the need for Europe to create a real alliance with countries in the Middle East and N Africa in order to solve the crisis.

It was all in all an inspiring evening and hopefully only the first of more similar joint events with other sister parties.

* Merlene Emerson is an Executive member of LibDems Overseas.

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  • France does indeed need an inspiring leader. Macron is that person. Sadly his agenda owes more to the ENA than to any liberal instinct but nevertheless he is on the right lines. His book, Revolution, is well worth a read if you can stomach the over the top French that candidates employ. France desperately needs change and above all it needs free markets, solutions offered by smaller parties such as the Parti Liberal Democrate (of which I am a member) or the Alternative Liberal movement, but realism makes Macron the only acceptable vote, certainly in the second round.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Apr '17 - 1:35pm

    The confusing thing about French populism is that it’s being driven by the youth. Maybe it’s the high unemployment, or an acknowledgement by the old that the past wasn’t that great and Europe needs to work together.

    When I first started following French politics I was surprised by the amount of young men proudly announcing they were “de droite” or “à droite” (right wing). Right wingers in Britain often keep it quiet, but there is a strange kind of pride about it in France. From my fairly limited knowledge.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Apr '17 - 5:22pm

    French politics is in a complete mess, worse even than the UK. I have no doubt that Macron is the best hope in the short term, but what then? If Le Pen can get 40% or more in the second round the FN might get on a roll which means the new National Assembly might end up as a real fragmented shambles.

  • Eddie Sammon
    Personally, I suspect French populism has been driven by terrorist attacks and loss of life. If it attracts the young it’s because rock gigs and satirical magazines are mostly young peoples concerns. It’s the elephant in the room. High unemployment and economic stagnation doesn’t help.
    I think putting it down to nostalgia is a deflection that comforts people who believe the future heads one way and that this future is universally appealing. The problem for progressives is that a lot of us brought into the End of History narrative (I certainly did to a naïve extent) and history carried on as usual.

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