Columbia University

Populism is Dead, Long Live Populism? Macron’s Innovative Populism by Imane @ Columbia University

Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017 appeared as the defeat of Marine Le Pen’s populism. Yet, the president embodied as a candidate an innovative populism that imposes upon us to rethink the catch-all term, perhaps to ban it from our political vocabulary.

Theories of populism inevitably recalls Macron’s candidacy. But the singularity of the latter lies in innovative rhetorics that surpassed the traditional conception of populism.

Candidate Macron refused intermediary structures. With his movement En Marche launched in 2016, he rejected the party system and its newly implemented primaries. He led a hyper-centralized campaign, without any supervisor. That allowed him to present himself as a candidate that, alone, spoke to the people. Macron exploited the 5th Republic’s tradition of “Republican monarchy” and tried to follow De Gaulle’s footsteps in building an image of a man above the political system. Even more consistent with populist theories, he claimed openly that verticality.

Macron presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate primarily because he did not emerge from one of the two traditional parties, which is surprising by both his academic and professional background. It is a typical speech of populist figures, especially when the anti-establishment is more constructed than accurate. And it worked. His innovation lies here. By fracturing the idea of the elite, he managed to draw a new populist dichotomy of the us vs the them. With Macron, the problem isn’t the whole system but the old elite in power. Macron’s rhetorics condemned the traditional bipartisanism and the inefficient bureaucracy that slow the country. To this them — the immobile elephants of politics and their administration —, Macron built an us, in movement. He defined the people as a homogeneous active mass that must be put at the center of French politics, as indicated on En Marche‘s website. Macron’s mass-clientelism characterized the French people as a large middle-class that wants to progress in society. With this dynamic true people, he erased political horizontal cleavages by pointing their superficiality and incoherence, recalling extreme parties’ discourse of a global approach of parties. He thrown in the same pot all moderate political sensibilities — mainly the traditional Les Républicains and the Socialist Party — and excluded extremes — Marine Le Pen’s far right but also Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left party — from the democratic life. That construction of a people is unprecedented, as it doesn’t follow class or ethnic lines. This novelty eventually allowed Macron to refuse pluralism. Being more a voluntary posture than an ideological absolutism, Macron’s definition of the people is flexible. It is plural but potentially united. Macron embodies people’s diversity and therefore doesn’t have to share the political power with others. He surpassed the common populist anti-pluralism with an efficient ambivalence. Again, he claimed openly the “populist character” of his relationship to the French people

Macron’s candidacy also carried another component of populism: the oversimplifying language. He delayed the publication of his program until last minute and built his discourse on the reform idea. Its traditional use in French politics made its emptiness if let alone obvious after the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. In Macron’s campaign, it remained efficient because he managed to associate it with optimism. He doubled the populist simplistic terms with a strong positivity. It is a rupture with the common angry posture on which populism constructs itself. Another central term in his campaign was pragmatism, which is what the French people should aspire to. He used the idea of disruption to both engage advocates of change and conservatives. To those who accused him of demagogy, the candidate opposed “his pedagogy”. That emphasis on explaining to the French people what must be done was constitutive of his campaign. Such examples show how Macron built a populist discourse, based on an compromise, efficiency and optimism.

Yet, is it ok to qualify Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Macron in the same way? Some French journalists did. For them, Macron invented the populism of extreme-center, or the populism of the CAC-40, the French stock-market index.

Whether he saw it as a necessity or a fruitful strategy, Emmanuel Macron aligned with populist practices that his adversaries overused. Populism does not carry any ideological premise, as the term is used to characterize radically different political realities. It is a language, that Macron smartly associated with the rhetoric of the dynamic youth. This innovation raises concern on the accuracy of the concept, as it often associated with accusing postures. 

Macron’s presidency will tell if this 20th century political category still holds. 

Populist governance features defined by the politologue Jan-Werner Müller in What Is Populism?  slightly echoes the first months of Macron’s mandate. His hyper-presidential governance and his dominance over the Parliament recalls a hijack of the state apparatus. The constitutionalization of the state of emergency is an attempt to democracy, that has been condemned so far by the Constitutional Council, the guardian of the French Constitution. The use of ordonnances —  ability for the executive to legislate— on the sensitive Labor law prevented any political debate. Such news raise the question of the extent to which Macron embraces the populist strategy of using a democratic language to implement undemocratic politics. Yet, less than a year after his election, we owe him the benefit of the doubt.

Macron claimed a « Jupiterian » presidency. The synthesis between a liberal dynamism and a social justice that he embodied is an opportunity for true change, if it is not merely a posture. Between a strong president and a little despot, it is a small step. Between a Jupiter and an Icarus too. The fortune of Macron’s innovative populism will depend on his actions. 


  1. Lei Guo

    February 17, 2018 at 4:52 am

    As a person who used to be happy about the victory of Emmanuel Macron in 2017 France election and views the fact that Macron was elected to be French President as a defeat of the rising nationalist ideologies among many democratic counties, I found this blog pretty interesting and mind refreshing. The article indicated Macron showed the sign of being a populist during his candidacy for he refused to use intermediary agents, acted as he was anti-establishment and used over simplifying language. All these three actions fit Jan-Werner Müller’s definitions of what populists will behavior. However, I considered Macron’s embodiment of people’s diversity and thus argued that people didn’t have to agree on others’ political powers that mentioned in this blog a little bit self-contradictory to his populism. Such embodiment could indeed help him to justify his anti-establishment action. But, via embodiment everyone had different thoughts and thus didn’t have to share political power with other, would Macron also implicate some level of individualism unintentionally? The turn diversity, could also imply there would not be one solution that can make all people best off. Then, how could he, as an individual being able to speak on behalf of all the citizens that contain huge diversity and even claiming that he knew what was the best for all French people since there would not be such thing as “best of all”? Why should people accept his political viewpoints and endorse his political power? With the embodiment of people’s diversity, I think Macron diminished his ability to represent the French populations’ views, identified their common needs, and made he seems less populist, since Müller mentioned in his book, populists would say they, by themselves are the people and perfect representative of common people. However, such embodiment of diversity, was also a sign of anti-pluralism. Thus, I though, depending on the level of so call “embodies diversity” Macron could execute his populism to different levels.

  2. Sam Sharman

    April 5, 2018 at 10:18 pm

    I agree with the notion that Macron, in his candidacy for the French presidency displayed several elements of populism. The author cited examples such as Macron’s portraying himself as an outsider, despite having a decidedly insider background, and railing against the establishment that he was once a member of. For these and other reasons, the author argues that Macron can be categorized alongside his election rival Marine Le Pen as a populist. However, I disagree with the idea that one can fully understand Macron as a populist because he lacks what I consider to be the dividing line between populist and politician: anti-pluralism. The author argues that Macron’s rhetoric constructed an us versus them paradigm where the people were the us and old, establishment politicians the them. While Macron did frame much of his imagery in terms of being against an unresponsive or incompetent old guard, campaign rhetoric universally and almost inherently feeds off these themes. After all, a candidate has scant ground to run on if their message is that they should replace successful and virtuous office holders, and few voters respond passionately to such a political brand (see Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Richard Nixon in 1960). Still, I understand the author’s point and myself had similar ponderings about Bernie Sanders, especially as he related to Trump’s candidacy during the primaries. Ultimately, I reached similar conclusions for both Macron and Bernie: though not quite populist in the Jan-Werner Muller understanding, they are more populist than the usual politician. They do not participate in the same anti-pluralist attitudes or tactics of delegitimization despite having a higher degree of similarity to the traditional populist. How dangerous or worrisome these quasi-populists are I don’t know, but I presume them less dangerous than the genuine populists and, consequently, find it unfair to fully categorize Macron as such.

  3. Jacob Farris

    May 2, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    Discussing the concept of populism, since it typically is used to create an “us vs them,” I am unsure what you mean by Macron “managed to draw a new populist dichotomy of the us vs the them.” He may have condemned traditional political workings, but I fail to see how this creates a new dichotomy because most populist leaders do the same thing, regardless of those put into the “us” or the “them” categories. The categorical definitions are flexible, which, as you note, also aligns with “Macron’s definition of the people [being] flexible.” Populism is mainly concerned with vox populi, the “voice of the people,” so being flexible on what that “voice” encapsulates and who it applies to is the sign of a populist leader.

    Macron used this vox populi to his advantage when gaining traction for En Marche and his presidential campaign. It meant he could tailor his presentations to the crowd in front of him while not fully formulating a working platform for En Marche. He could base the discourse on reformation ideologies and against the traditional, inefficient bureaucracy. One major issue with this type of campaign, and why it should be worrisome to democratic foundations, is that it leaves Macron untethered to a historically established political party. By not being beholden to a traditional party, Macron now has room to more easily maneuver the system. He can be more flexible in his populistic characteristics, both politically and social and continue to be the populist leader he has come to be.

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