Ideology, strategy, political style… The elusive essence of populism

By Marion Dupont

Posted on March 25, 2022 at 7:45 a.m., updated at 4:47 p.m.

Would Emmanuel Macron be a populist? The question resurfaced in the public debate following the small sentence pronounced by the Head of State, on January 4, about unvaccinated people – “I really want to piss them off” – in an interview given to the readers of Parisian. The unusual combination of the first person singular and a “straight talk” bordering on insulting, in a newspaper with a reputedly popular readership and in the middle of an election campaign, had caused a lot of ink to flow. The incident has not remained isolated: since then, numerous measures (actual or announced) by the candidate for his re-election and his government, such as the reduction in the price of petrol, the suspension of the vaccination pass or the abolition of audiovisual license fees, have been described as “populist”.

If the question holds the attention of some commentators and the general public, it is perhaps because, formulated in this way, it invites us to reconsider a pejorative political label frequently used today; and perhaps even, more generally, the reading grid most commonly used to “categorize” politicians.

While the adjective “populist” is readily attributed to personalities located at the extremes of the political spectrum, from Marine Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, attributing it to the Head of State seems to be an oxymoron. Especially since, during the European elections of 2019, this opposition had been staged by Emmanuel Macron, by his close collaborators and by the members of his political movement: “A number of populist forces are rising in Europe and we are going to fight them. We want to be a progressive, determined, central force”declared Nathalie Loiseau in particular when presenting the list of La République en Marche.

However, this is not the first time that populist overtones have been detected in Emmanuel Macron. Already, during the previous presidential campaign of 2017, his political strategy had sometimes been described as “central populism”or even“extreme center”, according to the expression of the historian Pierre Serna. His staging of an opposition between civil society, which the candidate claimed, and the establishment could make one think of it; just like his stated desire to appear “anti-party”, “anti-system”. He had also accepted the label, during an interview at the Sunday newspaperstating at the time: “If being a populist means talking to the people in an understandable way without going through devices, I’m willing to be a populist. »

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