Euroscepticism: an overhauled notion?

Cécile Leconte

In late August 2015 the French economist Jacques Sapir called for the creation of a “national liberation front” against the Euro that would unite the radical, right-wing Front national, the nationalist movement Debout la France (whose leader broke away from the Gaullist party) and the radical, left-wing Front de Gauche. Opposition to the Euro, according to Sapir, implied the building-up of ‘transversal alliances’ transcending the Left/Right cleavage. To be sure, this attempt at creating a union sacrée against the Euro, despite being unsuccessful (at least for the time being), confirms the plausibility of a scenario long envisaged by some political scientists: namely, that the pro-/anti-integration cleavage might re-configure the dimensions of domestic political spaces, to the point that it would eventually supersede the Left/Right cleavage. Moreover, this call for the building up of a “transversal” alliance illustrates two important things related to the phenomenon of Euroscepticism. First, it points at the “empty heart” of Euroscepticism (to borrow an expression initially applied by Paul Taggart to populism) as a phenomenon that escapes any substantial definition in terms of a specific ideological positioning. Second, it shows that Euroscepticism has long ceased to be constrained to the margins of domestic party systems and is now present at their core; indeed, altogether the three parties that Sapir called on to coalesce against the Euro received 35% of the domestic vote at the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Euroscepticism: long considered a marginal phenomenon, a proxy for domestic politics

In fact, for almost two decades, hostility towards European integration has been analyzed as a peripheral phenomenon: mainly located at the ideological margins of party systems. It was also considered as the privilege of a minority of parochial, backward-oriented voters, to be found predominantly in countries seen as “peripheral” to the core of founding countries (such as the UK and the Nordic states). Moreover, to the extent that it was taken into account, Euroscepticism was largely understood as a proxy, through which voters mainly expressed their views on domestic politics, especially their dissatisfaction with incumbent governments’ perceived performance. Certainly, this understanding of Euroscepticism reflected reality, to some extent. However, it was also a by-product of the predominance of specific academic fields or schools of thought in the study of European integration. While the focus on political elites and on the so-called “founding fathers” of the European Communities seemed to confirm the validity of neo-functionalist accounts of European integration, the predominance of an International Relations perspective (both in Political Science and History) long obscured sources of dissent or opposition to integration, be it within specific civil society segments, segments of state institutions, etc.

Euroscepticism as a mainstream phenomenon: towards conceptual overstretching

This situation started to change in the early twenty first century – most pronouncedly with the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands that brought the EU constitutional process to a halt. Referendum campaigns in both countries not only highlighted the strength of internal divisions on EU issues within mainstream political parties (most notably in France) but also the significance of the No vote within segments of the electorate deemed to be pro-European (young voters for instance). This only confirmed the results of a vast number of studies showing that hostility towards the EU was not limited to ultra-nationalist, xenophobic voters but was underlain by a complex set of attitudes, where distrust of mainstream politicians and of domestic elected institutions played a crucial role. In the same vein, works on the territorial logics underpinning Euroscepticism broke with previous accounts of British or Nordic “exceptionalism” , by pointing to the changing mood towards the EU in countries hitherto considered as Europhile (like Italy), by focusing on “hidden” forms of Euroscepticism (like indifference or apathy towards the EU) and by refining our understanding of the “geography” of Euroscepticism (that is, by bringing to the fore the relevance of local and regional factors in shaping citizens’ views on the EU).

Recasting the debate on Euroscepticism

However, the ensuing conceptual overstretching of the term ‘Euroscepticism’ led a number of scholars, to question its very relevance. Not only was the non-scientific, polemical nature of the term judged to be inappropriate for academic use; it was deemed as over-simplistic in order to analyze the vast array of possible attitudes towards the EU beyond a mere pro-/anti-integration cleavage.

This questioning of the term went hand in hand with two broader trends in the study of the EU. First, EU studies have witnessed the emergence of a sociological turn leading scholars to move beyond the study of party and political elites’ positions towards the EU and to investigate how civil society actors at the local level and ‘ordinary’ citizens (that is, actors long neglected in mainstream research on the EU) perceive the EU and position themselves on specific EU issues. At the same time, researchers have given up on the idea of giving precise ideological content to Euroscepticism and have started paying attention, rather, to the different uses that actors can make of a Eurosceptic position in the domestic arena – for instance, within specific socio-political power relations. Second, the constructivist turn in the study of the EU led to the development of discursive approaches that investigate, in particular, the de-politicized nature of elite-level discourses on the EU and their impact on domestic public debates on EU integration.

This is where latest research on ‘Euroscepticism’ meets a pre-existing research agenda on populism. Indeed, both notions share a number of similarities: their non-scientific origin and their polemical use, their compatibility with any ideological positioning on the Left/Right cleavage (the ‘empty heart image) etc. Instead of considering populism as an ideology, scholars now focus on the nature of populism as a specific mode of mobilization or as a type of political discourse. Similarly, Euroscepticism can be conceptualized as a specific type of (populist) discourse, disparaging EU integration as an elite-led project and chastising the EU for not relying on a ‘people’ (be it defined in ethnic or in socio-political terms). Moreover, the vast literature analyzing populism as a reaction to de-politicized democracy can be very helpful in order to improve our understanding of the democratic deficit of the EU. Like populism, Euroscepticism can be seen, indeed, as a reaction to de-politicized governance, to the perceived lack of alternatives and to the prevalence of consensual politics – features that deeply characterize the political system of the EU. Finally, placing the study of Euroscepticism within the broader literature on populism paves the way for future, comparative research on other forms of resistance or contestation against regional or international forms of governance, thus breaking with the sui generis and EU-centric perspective that has long characterized much of EU-related research.

Cécile Leconte is senior lecturer in political science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, CERAPS/CNRS). This contribution is based on an article initially published in the International Political Science Review.

Crisis Averted? France’s 2015 regional elections

Ben Margulies

The Front National can keep growing, even if it’s unlikely to reach the Elysee

The French Fifth Republic managed to pull itself, punch-drunk, off the ropes to deny the right-populist Front National a victory in the second round of regional elections. Despite fears that the party would take control of two of France’s 13 European regions (France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian oceans have their own regional authorities; the figure of 13 regions includes Corsica, where a nationalist list won in an overlooked development), the Front was locked out in all of them. It took extreme measures – the left withdrew its lists in the two most-threatened regions, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, creating a front républicain against the Front – but in the end, the far right failed to top the polls in any region. The electoral rules for the regional councils assured their mainstream opponents a majority so long as they came in first.

Still, the Front’s performance can only be described as alarming. The party took more than 6 million votes in the first round on December 6th, 27.73% of the total. On December 13th, it took 6.8 million; only a higher turnout kept its vote share from rising (it fell to 27.1%). One could argue that this is simply the FN’s base – after all, Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader since early 2011, won about 6.4 million votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. That was a bit less than 18% of the total, since the turnout was of course higher.

But the recent regional elections were second-order elections, where the crucial socio-economic, social and foreign-policy issues of general elections are absent. (As Kevin Lees points out, regional councils in France have very limited powers.) Turnout is lower in such elections, so the total number of voters for the Front – even with protest votes – should be lower than in a presidential poll. Take last year’s European Parliament elections, which the Front won for the first time with about a quarter of the vote. Even then, the party took only 4.7 million votes, implying that, when the presidential elections came around and the party reached its maximum mobilisation capacity, it would be unable to do much better than Marine Le Pen achieved in 2012. The Front seemed to have an absolute ceiling of 6-7 million votes, and that would never exceed 20% of the vote for the presidency.

Except now the Front not only won a record share of the vote (27-28%), but managed to mobilise that 6-7 million in an off-year election to a not particularly important tier of government. The Front’s trend in recent second-order elections has been relentlessly buoyant – from 4.7 million and 24.85% at the June 2014 European polls, to 5.14 million and 25.24% at the March 2015 departmental elections, to the 6.8 million it scored on December 13th. Marine Le Pen won more than 40% in both rounds in her base, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, and apparently did not even run the most vigorous campaign there.

Almost certainly, this growth is partly due to the various security- and immigration-related crises of the past year: the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the mass exodus of Syrian and other refugees into Europe, and the November 2015 Paris massacres. But the Front’s unsettling rise long precedes these events, and the decay of France’s establishment and mainstream parties was clear to observers as far back as the end of the last century. Peter Mair’s thesis on the decay of mainstream parties, starved by the dissolution of mass memberships and organisational linkages and choked by a stifling neoliberal consensus, applies to France with particular acuteness, with its elitist political culture and decades of poor economic performance and strained social cohesion.

So how far can the Front go? This question is of special import in France, because of its almost uniquely strong presidency, and the two-round ballotage system used to elect it. To become President, Marine Le Pen needs an absolute majority of votes, a barrier almost uniquely high in Western democracies. Can the Front win that majority?

One way to consider the question is to examine who votes for the Front and similar parties. Typically, right-wing populist parties appeal to certain kinds of voters. One key group, according to current theory, are “modernization losers” from the industrial working classes who have lost their jobs with globalization – as Loch and Norocel (2014) put it: ‘The ideal-typical voter of such parties is a first-time voting young male, belonging to the petty bourgeoisie and the working class, with a relatively weak formal education qualifications and a rather low level of religious practice.’ Goodliffe (2013) adds in the petits indépendants of the middle-class: artisanal workers and small-business owners side-lined by globalization. Betz (1993) describes these as the ‘one-third’ of society that has not benefited from the post-industrial and globalized economy (‘an increasingly marginalized sector of unskilled and semiskilled workers, young people without complete formal education and training, and the growing mass of the long-term unemployed’). To this we can add social conservatives and authoritarians, and some specifically French groups, including traditionalist Catholics and the pieds noirs, the former French settler populations in North Africa.

If Betz’s thesis is correct, than the Front should have a natural ceiling; not everyone can be a modernization loser, and only a minority of voters vote for ‘post-materialist’ reasons. And the Front won’t capture all of these groups; France’s banlieues are full of ethnic-minority modernization losers, who certainly aren’t voting Le Pen (or at all, it would seem). As major parties decline in a fragmenting society, we can expect the number of parties to grow, and that too would tend to put a ceiling on the Front’s capacity to expand its support, and that ceiling is well below 50%. One of Le Pen’s former advisers suggested as much: ‘They have gathered as many votes as they can among French people who are suffering, who are dissatisfied with the government and hate the “system”. But they need to get from 30-50% of the vote, and that is going to be the hardest part by far. I don’t think they have the means, currently, to do it.’

In established Western European states, it is fairly rare for far-right parties like the Front National to get 30% of the vote, much less an absolute majority. The Freedom Party of Austria, one of Europe’s most successful far-right parties, which has been in federal and state governments several times, has never done better than 26.9% in a general election (2009). The Swiss National Party, that country’s leading purveyor of anti-immigrant sentiment, topped out at 29.6% in October 2015’s legislative polls.

All this suggests that the Front has a larger core base now than it did, say, even five years ago, and that Marine Le Pen could exceed her 2012 score quite easily in the next presidential election, due in the spring of 2017. The opinion polls suggest much the same, rarely giving Le Pen more than 30% of the vote in the first round. In the forced choice of the run-off, Marine Le Pen loses, just as she did in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie on December 13th. The National Front’s strength does seem to mobilize leftist, or just anti-Front, voters: turnout jumped from 50 to 58% between the two rounds of the regional election, while the Front’s vote share remained little changed.

However, it may not be impossible. Remember, one of the factors in Mair’s thesis about party breakdown is the fragmentation of society in general; the decline of mass working- or middle-class organizations and identities, and of collective identities in general. In general, this seems to be causing fragmentation, making large pluralities more difficult. But this decline of class and other historical internal cleavages also means that Western Europe is converging, somewhat, with post-Communist Eastern Europe, where class identities and other natural cleavages were obliterated under Communism. With fewer hard class barriers, it may be possible for a populist party to someday cast a much wider net. And Marine Le Pen herself has worked very hard to broaden her party’s appeal, abandoning the less popular extremist stances her father embraced, such as his barely concealed anti-Semitism, and to adopt a bastardized form of France’s mainstream liberal, republican discourse (which she claims to be able to defend better than the incumbent elites). The Front is showing signs that it is appealing to new groups of voters, including new elements of the middle classes; it took a fifth of the vote of the professional classes in the 2014 European polls, not too far off the 24.85% it won overall.

We can look at the comparative performance of other right-populist parties. Take Poland’s Law and Justice, an organic-nationalist party which also represents ‘modernisation losers’ and has deep roots in a Catholic-inflected right. Law and Justice narrowly won an absolute majority in the October 2015 general elections in Poland. A parliamentary system affords a lower hurdle than a two-round presidential election: Law and Justice only won 37.6% of the vote. But in Hungary, Fidesz really did win an absolute majority in a general election, in 2010 – on a low turnout, but it won. In both cases, the combination of a discredited elite, weaker party loyalty and civil societies and a large concentration of ‘modernization losers’ created populist pluralities or majorities. Fidesz’s subsequent turn in government – its emasculation of checks and balances, politicization of public services, legislative gerrymandering and ethnic and religious chauvinism – may provide a foretaste of what Front National France would look like.

So are we likely to see a President Le Pen? On the balance of probabilities, we are not, or at least not we are not anytime soon. The French system of government introduces an unusually high barrier to executive power which few parties can surmount, and provides unusually strong incentives to anti-Front alliances. Tellingly, Michel Houllebecq’s succès de scandale from earlier this year, Soumission (Submission), suggested it was more likely that a version of the Muslim Brotherhood would win the presidency than Marine Le Pen. But in a world where old certainties and identities are being swept away, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Marine Le Pen or another National Front figure could someday win power. The changes to European party politics are unprecedented; we have never had a mass politics without the old mass parties, or in the context of a European Union and such high rates of immigration. If right-populists like Le Pen are the spectre haunting Europe now, uncertainty is the white sheet cloaking its ghostly form.

Ben Margulies completed his doctorate at the University of Essex on the electoral behaviour of liberal parties. Previously he has worked as a policy researcher and his research focuses mainly on party systems, new political parties and populism. Ben is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick, currently working on the ERC-funded Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty Project.