Populism in Europe: time to heed the signs?


En Europe, les partis populistes comme le Front National en France, UKIP en Grande-Bretagne ou le PVV aux Pays-Bas ont de plus en plus de succès dans un contexte de croissance économique atone et de discrédit politique des gouvernements en place. Ces partis se nourrissent d’un fort ressentiment éprouvé par les gens qui s’estiment exclus de la répartition de la valeur économique.  


Populism is a political doctrine that seeks to satisfy the demands of the people. The word populism comes from populus, Latin for people. Paradoxically, however, populism is usually seen as bad for democracy. Populism arises from growing anxiety among people who feel ignored, betrayed or cheated by the powerful elites. It pits ‘us’ (the people) against ‘them’ (the classes who garner the wealth and are probably corrupt). It is simplistic and promotes irrational feelings of hatred, envy and prejudice, undermining the existing social order and national cohesion without offering feasible and sustainable solutions to the problems it wants to fight. To retreat from the EU, for instance, would be economically counterproductive for Britain and France: it would durably destroy jobs and leave their economies dwindling behind the ever-growing emerging markets.

In the past, populist leaders have made emotional speeches in memorial sites to show they carry the heritage or national identity of the past. Today, political dissent is fuelled by the digital revolution. European populists like UKIP and the French National Front are trying to be less extreme and more “reassuring” so as to attract more mainstream votes. The UKIP claims to be “non racist” and “libertarian.”  It has refused an Anti-EU alliance with Ms Le Pen, who claims she is not against Islam, but only against the so-called “Islamification” of France, but has already made an alliance with Dutch anti-Islamic party leader Geert Wilder.

These alliances would be a way for those parties to weigh in on the EU’s uncertain future. In the forthcoming European elections, far right parties from the 28 member states are expected to gain up to 20% of the seats in the European parliament. More frightening is the way some far right parties are pulling the strings of Great Britain’s policies to claw back powers from Brussels. Indeed, as Great Britain is getting more likely to organize a referendum on Great Britain’s EU membership and the UKIP is gathering momentum, traditional leaders are losing leverage. Even in Germany, allegedly the most pro-European nation, whose chancellor enjoys record popularity ratings, small parties such as “Alternative für Deutschland” were not far from entering the Bundestag and made themselves heard.

Rising populism is a warning sign that something is wrong.  José Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, warns that “we should not forget that not too long ago, we had very worrying developments of xenophobia and racism and intolerance”. The British Council’s ‘reports and pamphlets‘  say that populism is like the “canary in the coalmine:” if dangerous gases leak into the mine, the canary dies, thus warning the workers to evacuate the mine. History shows that, in the long run, populism can contribute to strengthening democracy. At the last Davos meeting, the financial elite admitted for the first time that there is a problem in the distribution process of the gains of globalization. Mainstream politicians must react as quickly as possible in the most pragmatic way, and establish a more bottom up dialogue with constituents. “Rebuilding trust in the political system and doing a good job of managing the economy in the interests of all.  The most effective therapy of the underdog mentality is hope and economic security.”

Jules BRUNIER & Samuel MATA


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