Interview #4 – Aurelien Mondon on French Populism: between resistance and revolutions

aurelien-mondon-28740-0029Aurelien Mondon’s primary research currently focuses on neo-racism, Islamophobia and right-wing populism, and their impact on liberal democracies. More detail can be found here and here. He is Lecturer in French and comparative politics working on racism, populism, the far right and the crisis of democracy at the University of Bath. I asked him some general questions about populism, democracy, resistance and revolutions.

  • Let’s start by placing populism in its historical context. Is it still possible to claim that populism means ‘giving power to the people’, or nowadays even those who vote for populist parties know that they are actually delegating their power to (more or less) charismatic leaders and parties?

Travail, Famille, Patrie

The relationship between populism, the ‘people’ and democracy is key to understanding modern politics and possibilities, and yet it is one that is mostly overlooked. In my recent work on populism, I have tried to explore some leads and understand the role played by ‘populism’ in reshaping our understanding of democracy. I see populism as a style, rather than an ideology, where the populist creates their own version of the people. The aim is not necessarily to give power to the people, but to legitimize a political project and give it a democratic semblance. This can lead to grassroots and direct democracy or more plebiscitary and authoritarian movements, depending on the ideology espoused by the populist.

  • What can voters do, in the 21st century, apart from being spectators of top-down decisions? Is there an alternative to the conundrum ‘voting or starting a revolution’?

There are alternatives but they would require us to rethink our relationship to politics and more generally the ‘end of history’. While Francis Fukuyama’s theories have been widely criticized and discredited, they retain a strong hold on our political imaginary. This is demonstrated in the ways in which resistance and opposition to the system organize. Organizing a resistance outside the hegemonic borders, in other words a real alternative to the status quo, would require rethinking our political dogmas. A first step would be to rethink our relationship to democracy. More in detail, to consider  the democratic potential once it is separated from that of the electoral process.

  • 11605616065_cb47a0a000_nDo you believe that populism in Europe may play a redemptive role, functioning as a sort of corrective for democracy, or does it rather create the preconditions for a proto-totalitarian scenario? Are we witnessing what Colin Crouch called Post-Democracy?

Crouch’s diagnosis was no doubt correct, although his prescriptions are debatable. More often than not, I feel that populism has helped reinforce the status quo, and yet I would not say that it functions as a corrective element for democracy. In fact, it could be argued that populism is but a decoy away from real disappointment, anger and discontent as it funnels popular demands for democracy back into the system from which this discontent first arose. In fact, the very act of voting for a populist party demonstrates that the voter retains a certain faith in the system as they believe that change can occur or that their vote matters, something which a growing number of people have given up on altogether – although they may not have given up on politics.

  • Is it possible to link the success of right-wing populism to the weakening of collective memory linked to the events of World War II? Or is it rather due to a contingent socio-economic situation?

I would say this is mostly a result of the political state of things, which of course is impacted upon by socio-economic factors. I do not think history will repeat itself, but that does not mean that certain developments are not worrying. I doubt we will witness the return of Fascism harboring jackboots and swastikas; yet ideologies evolve with their time and the possibility to see new forms of fascistic politics develop should not be discarded carelessly.

  • 7421299054_a98f73c73c_hIn the French case – which role plays the media system in analyzing the populist phenomenon and the crisis of mainstream traditional parties. In particular, how does the narrative proposed by the media have an impact on the voters?

The media have had a major impact on the success of populist parties, and in particular right-wing populist parties. There has been a disproportionate coverage of the campaigns ran by parties such as UKIP or the FN in recent years, and the image the media has created of them as outsiders and rebels has certainly appealed to some of 80% of the population who no longer trust their politicians. Beyond legitimizing certain ideas and discourse, the more problematic impact the media has had has been in its portrayal of the ‘successes of such parties. In recent elections, only 1/10 registered voters turn to both of these parties, meaning that they do not represent the ‘people’ or the ‘working class’. This has led to two very distinct consequences. First, it has legitimized these parties as the ‘voice of the people’. Second, it has delegitimized concepts such as ‘the people’, the ‘working class’ etc who have been demonized through their vote for monstrous irrational figures and the risk they are made to represent to ‘Us’ rational voters. This has led in turn to the displacement of politics away from real socio-economic and ideological issues best represented on by the left/right dichotomy towards a serious yet peripheral issue of populism vs pragmatism.

  • 2459169731_66644ef3f4_mIn conclusion, I would like you to comment a very symbolic event in French politics. Indeed, last August Jean-Marie Le Pen (JMLP) has been expelled from the FN. Does it mean that the FN is finally a normalized and respectable party, or do you expect it to become weaker because it is losing its radical component?

Of course: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s recent eviction from the party is a strong symbolic signal sent by Marine Le Pen, making clear, at least on the surface, that the process of normalisation comes even before family and the party’s founder. While JMLP is unlikely to leave quietly, I doubt he will have much of a power of nuisance, except with the more radical fringe of the party supporters who were already opposed to the ‘new face’ of the FN. The danger for the party will come from elsewhere in my opinion. CAM03082As the party’s image continues to ‘normalise’, it will be difficult for Marine Le Pen to keep the balance between what has made the party popular in recent years (being anti-system, radical etc) and what has made the other parties so unpopular (being so ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’). As has been brilliantly shown by Cécile Alduy and Stéphane Wahnich in their recent book, the discourse of the FN may have evolved towards normalisation, but the broad ideological traits remain, making the future rather unstable.

Perhaps more importantly, the process of normalisation is not limited to the party itself. In the long term, ideas are what matter, and for the FN’s ideas to become mainstream or hegemonic, the role and response of other parties and political forces will be crucial. If they continue to accept and even borrow a certain discourse based on neo-racism and ethno-exclusivism as was the case under Sarkozy in particular, the FN could well win the battle of ideas before the electoral battle itself.

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