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Marc, France has just entered a new political phase, with Emmanuel Macron embarking on his second term in office. But some weeks later he did not succeed to obtain the absolute majority at the “Assemblée nationale.” How do you assess the results of Marine Le Pen, who won 41.6% of the vote? Can one speak of an electoral defeat and yet a political victory? At the legislative elections in June, the National Rally (RN) gained significant representation with 89 deputies. How do you explain this general performance of this party?

Indeed, while Emmanuel Macron won, his opponent, Marine Le Pen, recorded the best result in the history of her political family, namely the French far right. With more than 41.5% of the vote, she acquired over 2.6 million votes compared to 2017, while Emmanuel Macron lost 2 million.

Their respective groups of voters are completely different. Those who voted for the incumbent president belong to the two age groups at either extreme of the spectrum: 61% of 18-24-year-olds and 71% of over-70s voted for him․ According to an IPSOS survey, Marine Le Pen, for her part, won the most support among 50-59-year-olds. Macron’s electorate tends to reside in the West of France, the Ile-de-France region, the East and Occitania, and the big cities. They belong to the upper classes of society, earn more than €3,000 per month, and have degrees. In contrast, 57% of white-collar workers, 67% of blue-collar workers, and 64% of the unemployed preferred his rival, along with 56% of those earning less than €1,250 per month. The same is true of people living in rural areas, as well as in small and medium-sized towns. Marine Le Pen is consolidating her position in the south-east of France and the de-industrialized north and east, strengthening her position in the eastern suburbs of the Paris region and the south-west, and breaking through in Corsica and the French overseas departments and regions.

These two electorates are also culturally diverse. President Macron’s is characterized by the values he embodies, namely optimism, dynamism, acceptance of the market economy, openness to Europe and the world, and tolerance concerning social issues. Marine Le Pen’s is characterized by pessimism, fear, anger, and distrust of institutions, politics, and elites, but also of others, foreigners, Europe, and globalization—hence her aspiration to withdraw into the nation and “national preference.” These two Frances clash and no longer understand each other. Making matters worse, they distrust each other.

With the 2022 election, Marine Le Pen has lost for the third time, and this partially weakens her. However, her defeat is offset by two main reasons for contentment. First, her effort to de-demonize herself and transform her image has met with success. Twenty years ago, the unexpected qualification of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, for the second round of the elections aroused indignation in France and provoked a strong mobilization of the electorate. Turnout, which was low in the first round, at just under 72%, jumped by 8 percentage points 15 days later. In the second round in 2017, which pitted Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen, nothing similar happened. On the contrary, 25.4% of voters abstained, a figure three percentage points higher than in the first round. Five years later, abstention hit 28%. For many French people, Marine Le Pen is now a candidate like any other and no longer poses a threat to democracy. In fact, many researchers prefer to classify her as part of the radical right. Marine Le Pen, unlike her father, no longer defends the Vichy regime, does not make anti-Semitic remarks, and is no longer anti-Gaullist. She distinguishes between Muslims and jihadists, calls herself a republican and pro-secular, and even suggests that she is almost a feminist. However, she still belongs to the old family of the extreme right, as reflected in her traditional motto of “France for the French.” Marine Le Pen is the far right with a human face.

Her second reason for satisfaction is that her competitor, the journalist Eric Zemmour, failed not only electorally, but also politically because he could not eliminate her.

The third reason for satisfaction is the excellent result of her party at the second round of the legislative elections. For the fist time since 1945, the far right has 89 deputies. It’s the first parliamentary group of opposition to President Macron’s government before the France insoumise (radical left) which is the preeminent component of the Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (Nupes), an electoral coalition which brings together the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the Greens. The RN’s electoral progression both in its traditional strongholds and in new regions is spectacular because this voting system does not favor the party. One of the reasons for this increase is that when a RN candidate was tied in the second round against a NUPES candidate, many voters voted for the RN. A dam broke. Especially since the presidential coalition was divided on what to do in the second round of voting when it pitted a RN candidate against a NUPES candidate. Some called for a vote against the National Rally, others refused to choose between the two. The “de-demonization” of this party continues.

How should we analyze Mélenchon, whose party dominates the aforementioned Nupes? Is leftist populism the best descriptor for him or should we also see him as an embodiment of leftist illiberalism?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received almost 22% of the vote, failed to qualify for the second round of the presidential election, but managed to secure a position as the third political force in the country. Moreover, he signed an electoral coalition agreement, the Nupes. The slogan of this coalition was “Jean-Luc Mélenchon, prime minister.” This had no constitutional significance, but it served as an instrument of mobilization to try to obtain an absolute majority. This objective was not achieved, but the Nupes has a total of 149 deputies, including 84 for La France insoumise. A rather good result, but not up to the real or simulated expectations of Mélenchon. Moreover, the whole of the left remains at a low level in terms of number of voters. But this agreement of the Nupes is unprecedented for three reasons. First, it was achieved in a few days after several months of invective between the candidates of the left-wing parties. Second, never in the history of the French left had an agreement been signed that allowed the presentation of single candidates in the first round of legislative elections. That said, some Socialists opposed to this agreement refused to follow it and presented themselves to the voters: the failed completely. Finally, essential economic, social, ecological, and political proposals are now being put forward by a representative of the radical left. This has never happened before.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon can be called a left-wing populist, at least this year. This calls for an explanation. He is certainly a populist because he constantly opposes the people to the elites, but also because of his virulent style and the form taken by his movement, which, on the one hand, intends to deploy forms of participatory democracy, but, on the other hand, gives all the power to the leader. However, he has not always referred to the left: In 2017, he explained that the left-right divide was outdated and that all that existed was an antagonism between the people and the elites. Indeed, he returned to the left only this year. The economic and social program of the Nupes marks a return to the omnipotent state with considerable expenditure, reminiscent of the program of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party in the 1970s. But it also contains some undeniable novelties. The main one is the decisive place given to the fight against global warming.

Politically, Jean-Luc Mélenchon criticizes not only the European Union, but also French institutions. He advocates a more parliamentary and participatory Sixth Republic, in contrast to the personal and even hyper-personalized power he exercises over his movement and the Nupes. But like most contemporary populists, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, if he is democratic, is anti-liberal. In this sense, at the heart of this left-wing populism is the potential for illiberalism, because Mélenchon is a supporter of unlimited popular sovereignty, which undermines the checks and balances in place in a liberal and representative democracy, which should submit to popular sovereignty. Nupes expects to win the legislative elections and impose cohabitation on President Macron, but this seems rather unlikely.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, if he is democratic, is anti-liberal. In this sense, at the heart of this left-wing populism is the potential for illiberalism, because Mélenchon is a supporter of unlimited popular sovereignty

You have conducted extensive analysis of La République en Marche and Emmanuel Macron’s political strategies. Can Macron be considered a populist, in the sense of a man who believes in a “Jupiterian” model of power, speaking directly to the population and avoiding intermediary organizations? Does En Marche! represent a new model of a political party or social movement?

Yes, in my opinion, Emmanuel Macron’s political strategies contain an element of populism—or at least they did during his last campaign and part of his first term. Of course, it all depends on how one defines the catch-all word “populism.”

Without going into detail about the theoretical basis of this notion, one might say that there are three basic meanings of populism. It can be seen as a form of ideology—a “thin” ideology, as Cas Mudde puts it—that is based on the irreducible opposition between the people, seen as a virtuous whole, and the disgraced, homogenous elites, who continuously plot against the people. Populism can also be seen as a strategy for gaining and managing power that constantly refers to the people. Finally, populism is a style, specifically a way of speaking, moving, behaving, and sometimes dressing. These three ways of conceiving populism are not mutually exclusive.

In 2016-2017, Emmanuel Macron did not hesitate to borrow a sort of populist style. He had studied at Sciences Po and ENA; and served as a senior civil servant, a banker, deputy secretary-general to President of the Republic François Hollande and then his minister of economy, industry, and information technology. He appeared as an anti-system candidate, an outsider, a critic of the traditional parties, and even of the whole political and ruling class. He had a chance to refer to that to the people. He devoted a chapter of his book, Révolution, to castigating political parties, local elected officials, and intermediary bodies. And indeed, once elected, he put into practice a vertical, “Jupiterian” conception of public action that the institutions of the Fifth Republic facilitate, since the President has considerable power. In addition, he has often used shocking, violent, provocative formulas to impose his point of view.

In a way, President Macron paid a high price for this when faced with the Yellow Vests movement. From that moment on, he tended to want to renew a form of dialogue, for example with the trade unions and elected representatives. Similarly, at the end of the first round of the presidential elections (taking into account the high rate of abstention and the scores of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen), and after the second round (where he noted that his opponent was certainly defeated but had progressed compared to the second round of 2017, and that abstention was high), he said he had understood the message of the French people and made changes. He also announced a different form of governance, one that is more participatory and more open to negotiation, particularly on the announced priorities of his second term: social and ecological issues. He will repeat this after the second round of the legislative elections since he does not have an absolute parliamentary majority. It remains to be seen whether these promises will be translated into public action by the government led by Elisabeth Borne, who has been appointed as Prime Minister.

All in all, the paradox of Emmanuel Macron is that he fights populists of the right and the left, that he is not a populist in substance but used a populist style to win in 2017, and that during his first term he represented a form of government that can be described as centrist or government populism.

All in all, the paradox of Emmanuel Macron is that he fights populists of the right and the left, that he is not a populist in substance but used a populist style to win in 2017.

You and your colleague Ilvo Diamanti have published “Peuplecratie. La métamorphose de nos démocraties.” Can you explain this notion of peoplecracy and how it is distinct from the concept of populism? Do you see this transformation as something structural (i.e., as something that will shape the future of our democracies) or as a temporary movement that might soon disappear?

Ilvo Diamanti and I coined the strange neologism of “peoplecracy” for the following reasons. On the one hand, we believe that populists, whether in power or opposition, contribute to changing the content and modalities of democracy. Indeed, they impose their themes, particularly on right-wing populists, immigration, the denunciation of Islam, the systematic simplification of major policy issues, their way of doing politics, their temporality of urgency, etc. In other words, populism is not limited to leaders or the parties that fall under it; it spreads throughout the party system and society.

peoplecracy establishes an imbalance between demos and cratos to the benefit of the former, whereas modern democracy is the precarious balance between the two constituent elements.

On the other hand, whereas modern democracy needs to strike a difficult balance between popular sovereignty and the organization of counter-powers, when populists gain control, unlimited popular sovereignty triumphs and overturns institutions. As a result, peoplecracy establishes an imbalance between demos and cratos to the benefit of the former, whereas modern democracy is the precarious balance between the two constituent elements.

Finally, peoplecracy is immediate democracy, in the double sense of the adjective. Even when they are only in opposition, populists establish the temporality of immediacy, of urgency; according to them, no problem is complicated because there are only simple and easy-to-implement solutions. Equally, peoplecracy seeks to dispense with mediation, parties, unions, associations, and intermediary bodies; it is free of mediation because the leader embodies the popular will.

Peoplecracy is the emergence of the democracy of incarnation, that of the leader, to the detriment of the democracy of representation: incarnative democracy prevails over representative democracy. Let me clarify one point: in our opinion, peoplecracy has not yet been established in France and Italy, the two countries we have taken as case studies. It is a potentiality that is underway in our societies and our political systems. If it has not yet been established, we are nevertheless in a sort of transitional phase that opens a clear alternative. Or perhaps our democracies are capable of profound renewal because they are indeed worn out, exhausted, and the populists are now—and this is one of the great historical changes compared to many of the populists of the past—presenting themselves, like the best democrats, as capable of solving the “crisis” facing our democracies. If they do not, we might see a shift to an illiberal democracy on the Hungarian model after the peoplecracy phase.

As an expert on Italy, how do you regard the transformation of the Italian extreme right? The Brothers of Italy are gaining influence and Lega seems to be on the decline. What are the reasons for these transformations: the personalities of the two leaders, their public policy choices, their sociological background?

First of all, we need to agree on the terms we use. In Italy, politicians, analysts, and researchers use different terms to describe political forces. The term “center-right” is used to describe not only Silvio Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, but also political parties such as Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s (a woman who took her first steps in politics in a neo-fascist formation) Brothers of Italy—two parties that could be classified as right-wing, far-right, or radical-right.

The Lega has undeniable radical right-wing characteristics, especially since Matteo Salvini became its leader in 2013. It is sovereigntist, even nationalist, hostile to migrants, immigrants, and the Muslim religion for the sake of a conception of the Italian nation based on the right of blood and the Catholic religion in its most traditional version. Salvini was close to Putin and Viktor Orbán.

At the same time, the Lega is associated with Mario Draghi’s government, while constantly waging a sort of guerrilla war to make its difference heard. The party is divided between a sensibility of protest that is embodied by Matteo Salvini and a more pragmatic, more realistic one represented by the ministers who participate in the executive and the many elected in the northern part of Italy. Since Mario Draghi took over as President of the Council in 2021, the Lega has been vacillating between these two tendencies. It is both, according to an expression in use in Italy, a party of government and a party of struggle.

But this is at the expense of its identity. It is therefore experiencing a decline in voting intentions, whereas in 2019 it obtained more than 34% of the vote in the European elections. It has been losing many regional and local elections while maintaining strong support in the north of the country among the working class, tradesmen, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, as well as in small and medium-sized towns. Matteo Salvini’s popularity is declining: he is paying the price for his incoherencies and inconsistencies, notably during the pandemic (initially he minimized it,  opposing vaccines and asking for the lifting of protective measures while the threat was still great), as well as for his behavior concerning the war in Ukraine unleashed by his great friend Putin (it took a while for him to condemn the invasion in Ukraine; he has condemned the sanctions and has refused to send weapons to Ukraine, while his ministers are aligned with the position of the head of the government).

Lega is now down to just over 15% of the vote as we approach next year’s parliamentary elections. It has thus been overtaken by the two leading parties, the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and Brothers of Italy. Brothers of Italy is a party with an undeniable fascist background and is on the rise, with about 22% of the potential vote. The orientation of the party is nationalist, anti-migrant, anti-Islam, Eurosceptic, and traditionalist. It benefits from several favorable conditions. It is the only party that has chosen not to support the government, allowing it to garner support from all the angry Italians who are suffering from the social situation and are not yet seeing the concrete effects of the considerable sums of money expended on the recovery plan about which the government is always talking. It therefore appears to be an alternative to the form of national unity that has been established.

Moreover, Giorgia Meloni is a woman who stands out in Italian politics. She portrays herself as an outsider even though she has been in politics since she was a young girl and even served as a minister in a Silvio Berlusconi government. She has led her party through a complex transformation process. A self-proclaimed Catholic, she wants it to be conservative, even reactionary in some respects. She is currently chairing the Conservative and Reformist European Party and is close to the U.S. Republican Party. She praised NATO’s response to the war in Ukraine, yet she has not really repudiated fascism.

While Giorgia Meloni tries to attract right-wing personalities who have nothing to do with fascism, she remains surrounded by those nostalgic for the most extreme right, and her party newspaper, Il secolo d’Italia, contains daily articles belonging to this tradition. This hampers her progress. Fratelli d’Italia is mainly active in Rome and southern Italy, but it is having difficulty making inroads in the center of the country, which remains a bastion of the PD, and in the north, where the Lega is still well consolidated. It is therefore a developing party, without any clear idea of its future.

While Giorgia Meloni tries to attract right-wing personalities who have nothing to do with fascism, she remains surrounded by those nostalgic for the most extreme right, and her party newspaper, Il secolo d’Italia, contains daily articles belonging to this tradition.

The Lega and Fratelli d’Italia are in open competition and have considerable disagreements, which they express loudly and clearly. Should next year’s parliamentary elections be held under the same electoral system, they will be forced to unite. Currently, they collectively represent almost 40% of total voting intentions. If this holds up, then they could win the next elections and come to power—with major consequences for Italy, the European Union, and even the world.

Marc Lazar is professor and director of the Center for History at Sciences Po. He manages a research group on contemporary Italy with CERI (Centre d’Etudes et de recherches Internationales, CNRS-Sciences po).

After a Ph-D in History he has been Jean Monnet fellow at the European University Institute as member of the department of History and of the department of Political science. He has been researcher at the CNRS, in Political science at the CACSP (Centre d’Analyse Comparative des Systèmes Politiques), University of Paris I (1987-1989), « Maître de conférences » in political science at the University of Paris I (1989-1993), « Maître de conférences » at Sciences Po (1990-1999), Associate Professor at Stanford University, Program Stanford in Paris (1994-2005).

After his « HDR », he has been Professor of Political sociology (1993-1999) at University Paris X then Professor of Political History and Sociology at Sciences Po since 1999. He has been visiting professor at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome (2007-2014). He is President of the School of government of this Italian university.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.