Right Wing Populism in Europe: The New Normal – Ideas on Europe

On 19th November 2021 our Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi took part in an interview with EU!Radio – as part of a UACES initiative called “Ideas of Europe” – in which he discussed the idea of populism as a “new normal” in European politics. A transcript of the interview can be read below, whilst the recording can be accessed here.

Interviewer: Daniele, you say that right-wing populism in Europe is “the new normal”. Can I ask you why you have picked such a provocative title?

Prof. Albertazzi: Mainly because the world has changed around us. Many media outlets – and some academics – keep defining European right wing populist parties as ‘challengers’ or ‘outsiders’. They appear to have taken no notice of what has happened in the last two decades in Europe – well before one Donald Trump even started campaigning ….

Interviewer: However, if we consider the language that populists use to communicate with voters, you will agree that they do not sound necessarily ‘mainstream’…

Prof. Albertazzi: Let’s leave aside for a moment whether you and I are convinced by their proposals and their communication.

Let’s rather start with the facts: right wing populists have been very successful in electoral terms in many contexts, and it is now common for them to be invited to join government coalitions (see the Swiss, Italian, Austrian, Dutch, Norwegian and Finnish cases, to cite just a few). Not only that, but they are increasingly managing to capture the government on their own, like in Hungary and Poland.

And if this were not enough, in many countries they have had a substantial media presence for some time now and very much influence the public agenda. This has contributed to triggering processes of co-optation of their ideas by their non-populist competitors (just think of the current primaries in France!).

In other words, it is apparent that many right-wing populist parties should now be considered part of the mainstream, too. They are indeed “the new normal”.

Interviewer: Isn’t it risky, though, to “normalise” parties that many people see as racist, or incompatible with liberal democracy, and certainly contributing to the increasing polarisation of politics?

Prof. Albertazzi: We are not advocating this or that outcome, we are simply taking stock of what has happened in the last two decades. And, of course, as I have argued in a book co-edited with Davide Vampa, Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europeright-wing populists are still evolving at great speed, and it is important to recognise the many differences that there are between them, too.

This is also true when we think of the “normalisation” of these parties.

The Swiss People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Italian Lega were already ‘established populists’ taking part in government coalitions before the financial crisis of 2007.

The Finns party moved from the status of ‘challenger’ to that of ‘established’ by entering governments after the crisis.

The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Danish People’s party moved towards being ‘established’, thanks to their backing of minority governments

At the same time, UKIP, the German AfD, Flemish Interest in Belgium and the RN in France have all gone on being ostracised by other parties at the national level. So, I am not saying that right wing populists are the ‘new normal’ everywhere, in this sense the title was a little provocative. But this is the direction of travel, and it is important to analyse what is happening, like it or not.

Interviewer: Perhaps the most important aspect of all this is the extent to which the public debate co-opts their proposals, and even their language, as you mentioned earlier on?

Prof. Albertazzi: You have hit the nail on the head. How do we assess the impact of a political party?

In some contexts, electoral success may be paramount, but we can also simply focus on their policies.

In this sense, one could argue that UKIP has been the most successful right wing populist party in Western Europe, since it contributed to getting the UK out of the EU.

Equally, we see policies on immigration and asylum being tightened across the continent, not just by the populist right but also by the so-called “mainstream” parties, left and right, that are trying to prevent their populist competitors from accessing government. I always mention the case of the supposedly centre-left Italian Democratic Party, whose minister Minniti was the first to sign agreements with the Libyan authorities to stop potential asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean sea. It led to thousands of them being incarcerated and tortured in Libyan prisons after being “captured”, thanks to Italian money and support.

Right-wing populists may not be the “new normal” everywhere, but their impact on others changes what is perceived as “normal”.

Interviewer: Thank you very much, Daniele, for sharing with us the big picture produced by your research. We hope to hear you soon again with other “Ideas on Europe”.







Populism in Action Special Issue of Politics and Governance Published

Featuring articles analysing populist radical right party organisation in 12 European countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland), the Populism in Action Project’s Special Issue of Politics and Governance has been published.

You can read it here (Open Access).

Edited by Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi and its Co-Investigator Dr. Stijn van Kessel.

Watch Daniele Albertazzi and Davide Vampa Present Their Book “Populism in Europe: Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League”

On 20th October 2021 Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi (University of Surrey) and Dr. Davide Vampa (Aston University) presented their new book Populism in Europe: Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (Manchester University Press, 2021).

This launch event was held online and hosted between the Centre for Britain and Europe at the University of Surrey, Aston University and the Populism in Action Project.

Watch the presentation here. 

Here to stay? The Alternative for Germany partway between establishment and normalisation

by Dr. Anna-Sophie Heinze (University of Trier)

September 2021’s Federal General Election was not a success story for the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). However, the party has clearly established itself organisationally and is unlikely to disappear in the coming years. The question now is what influence it will exert in the future.

First election losses at the federal and state level

After this year’s federal election on 26 September, the AfD had little apparent reason to celebrate. With 10.3% of the vote, it had lost not only 2.3% of its national support compared to 2017, but also its status as the largest opposition party (which had given it some privileges in the Bundestag during the last legislative period). The result, however, came as little surprise: firstly, opinion polls had been indicating relatively stable support for the AfD at between 10-12% for months (whilst fluctuating more widely for the CDU, SPD and Greens). Secondly, the AfD had lost votes in all the state level elections held earlier in 2021 (Baden-Württemberg -5.4%; Rhineland-Palatinate -4.3%; and Saxony-Anhalt -3.5%).

Much has been written about the reasons for this defeat. On the one hand, this year’s Federal General Election was very much about the succession of the chancellorship after 16 years of Angela Merkel at the top, allowing fewer opportunities to focus on “typical” populist radical right issues. Additionally, the AfD’s image was undermined by internal party disputes and donation scandals, including one concerning a top candidate, Alice Weidel. At the same time, the party had to tackle the question of how to deal with the threat of surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, all whilst the new anti-COVID restrictions party dieBasis (the base) won 1.5% of the vote. These votes may otherwise have gone to the AfD.

Stable party organisation and stronghold in “the east”

Taking a close look at the AfD’s organisation and mobilisation reveals why the party is unlikely to disappear in the medium term. Unlike previous far-right parties (e.g. the NPD, DVU or Die Republikaner), the AfD quickly built up a complex, relatively stable organisation with strong branches in all 16 of Germany’s federal states. In our forthcoming article in the Populism in Action Special Issue of Politics & Governance edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Stijn van Kessel, Manès Weisskircher and I show how the AfD’s organisation has always been characterised by: dual leadership, relatively high participation by its members and strong cooperation with far-right social movements (for instance PEGIDA, and, more recently, also the anti-COVID Querdenken movement, which mobilises against anti-COVID restrictions and vaccines). The AfD has developed positions on all major issues in recent years and is increasingly trying to present itself as a “normal” party, even adopting the election slogan “Germany. But normal”.

The AfD has had its electoral “strongholds” in eastern Germany for some time. At the federal election, it even became the largest party in Saxony and Thuringia, by receiving 24.6% and 24% of the votes, respectively. Moreover, it is only in eastern Germany that it also won direct mandates (on the basis of votes given to specific candidates, rather than party lists). It gained 10 of these in Saxony, 4 in Thuringia and 2 in Saxony-Anhalt. The reasons for this strong showing are manifold, including the feeling of most eastern Germans that they are treated as “second-class citizens” (for a more in-depth analysis see Manès Weisskircher’s article in The Political Quarterly). The AfD also seems to be gaining support where the CDU has lost its formerly dominant position. Crucially, the AfD mobilises across the entire electorate and is often the preferred party amongst younger age cohorts – which again speaks for the party’s established status, at least in eastern Germany. This raises the question of how other parties should react to it.

Long-term success largely depends on the behaviour of the other parties

Now that the AfD has established itself, the million-dollar question is what influence it will gain in the long term. As I argued in my West European Politics article back in 2018, the behaviour of the other parties plays a crucial role here. Once established parties engage with a “pariah”, this step towards “normalisation” cannot be reversed (for more on this, see recent work by Léonie de Jonge, who will also contribute to the Special Issue mentioned above). Although other German parties have largely excluded the AfD so far, there have been exceptions at the subnational level, like the contentious election of Thomas Kemmerich as Prime Minister of Thuringia with votes from the FDP, CDU and AfD in February 2020.

While direct cooperation with the AfD remains taboo, the mainstreaming of AfD positions is having much indirect impact. This can be observed particularly among actors from the CDU and the CSU. One of the most prominent examples is Hans-Georg Maaßen, who was selected by the CDU as a local constituency candidate (Direktkandidat) for the Federal General Election, eventually losing to the SPD. In the near future, the election of the CDU’s new party chair next January will most probably be decisive to settle the extent to which the party will distance itself from the AfD. The empirical evidence suggests that many potential AfD voters cannot be “won back”, with recent research by Viola Neu indicating that 50% of them would rather vote for no party at all than for the CDU/CSU, if the AfD was not an option anymore.

The AfD’s future will also be shaped by its new party executive, which will be elected at the party’s conference on 11-12th December 2021. Party co-leader Jörg Meuthen (one of the last prominent representatives of the “rather moderate” camp) has announced he will not run again, increasing speculation about a further rightward turn for the party. As mentioned above, the party will probably be cautious about this, for at least two reasons: the threat of state surveillance and its efforts to establish itself (e.g. by possibly attracting state funding for its own political foundation). More generally, these developments highlight, once again, why we should not focus too much on individual elections or events, but keep our eyes open for the entire ideological, strategic and organisational panoply underlying the establishment of the far right, so as to understand why the AfD is here to stay.

Dr Anna-Sophie Heinze is a political scientist at the Trier Institute for Democracy and Party Research (TIDUP), University of Trier, Germany. In 2019, she defended her PhD thesis on party responses towards the AfD at the Friedrich Schiller University, Jena. Her research focuses on political parties, democracy, populism, and the far right. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Populism in Action Research Presented at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre

Dr. Stijn van Kessel, Populism in Action’s Queen Mary University of London based Co-Investigator, gave an online presentation at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre on the 8th November 2021.

Speaking as part of the Centre’s Transformations of Democracy (TD) Unit seminar series, his presentation covered some of the key findings from the Thematic Issue ‘Right-Wing Populist Party Organisation across Europe: The Survival of the Mass-Party?’, which is due to come out with Politics and Governance in November 2021.

The Finns Party is yet to close the door on contention over Covid-19

by Dr. Niko Hatakka (University of Birmingham)

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Finns Party (PS) appeared an outlier amongst European populist radical right parties. The PS’s initial response to the Finnish government’s actions to contain the virus were unitary, consensual and moderate.

As the pandemic persisted, however, the party seemed to be finding it more difficult to avoid becoming an organisational vehicle for the contestation of mainstream views on COVID-19.

Whereas the PS initially only focused on the pandemic’s economic impact, arguing in favour of welfare nationalism, budget discipline and what it saw as the protection of Finnish national sovereignty, now the party has started to express resistance towards the measures the government has adopted to curb the rate of infection, too.

Hence the party opposed the introduction of Digital COVID Certificates by arguing that their use would closely equate to “mandatory vaccinations”. The arguments used in parliament were similar to those advanced by party leadership candidate Ossi Tiihonen, who gained the support of an unexpectedly high 14 percent of the vote in the recent party leadership election by running a COVID-focused campaign.

COVID-19: a catch-22 for the Finns Party leadership

The perception that the Finns Party is at odds with the scientific consensus or opposed to vaccination could put the party’s regained legitimacy at risk and cause discontent among many of its members. On the other hand, as in early 2021 only about half of PS supporters were willing to get vaccinated, alienating vaccine-sceptical voters could also harm the party’s polling.

Perhaps in response to these limitations, the party’s leadership has adopted an ambivalent stance towards tackling the pandemic. Hence they have stressed that “the Finns Party is not a corona party, and the party does not follow a specific corona line”. Ex- party leader Jussi Halla-aho also stated in the party’s paper that “people do not agree [on COVID-19]…, meaning it is impossible for the party to fulfil conflicting hopes and demands.”

To be clear, the party’s leadership has not sponsored vaccine-scepticism nor has the party officially supported non-compliance with government guidelines. Indeed, the party leadership has gently encouraged party activists to trust experts and science and has implicitly supported the government’s strategy of obtaining herd immunity via vaccination. Also, as a way of putting clear water between the PS and the emerging anti-vaccine movement, the party executive has expelled one of the party’s MPs, Ano Turtiainen. Turtianinen had – amongst other things – defied the party’s leadership by refusing to wear a mask in parliament.

Still, apart from the most extreme and conspicuous cases, the Finns Party’s leadership has allowed its politicians and members to discuss the pandemic as they see fit.

Perceived as an ally of controversial online movements – again

The Finns Party’s online presence comprises mainly de-centralised communications by individual politicians, members and supporters. Despite the party lacking in online message control, the PS’s engagement and perceived affiliation with COVID-19-related conspiracy theories or vaccine scepticism remained initially tenuous.

During the first wave of infections in Finland, there were no large demonstrations against public health authorities’ restrictions and recommendations. Unlike in Germany for instance, there was simply no pre-existing public discourse, movements, or platforms for the Finnish radical right to co-opt and to engage in protest with.

This – combined with the party’s initially pro-consensus stance – largely discouraged Finns Party activists and supporters from participating in or sympathising with COVID-related protest actions.

During later waves, however, this has changed. Individual PS politicians and activists appear to have contradicted the party’s consensual line on social media by, for example, questioning the motivations behind the vaccination campaign and by sharing disinformation about the pandemic. Also, as the party’s heightened oppositional rhetoric in parliament has shown some similarities with the claims made by Finland’s emerging online anti-vaccination movement, this has led other parliamentary parties to accuse the PS of flirting with COVID-denialism,

This situation is reminiscent of the late 2000s, when the Finns Party first became scrutinised and critiqued for providing a platform to nativist online activists and movements. Later on, nativism mainstreamed as a core element in the party’s ideology.

Waiting it out may backfire

Due to the significant formal and informal power of the party executive, and the party’s regular top-down communications with members, the Finns Party’s leadership could attempt to pre-empt or at least slow down a hardening of the rank and files’ views on COVID-19. However, enacting disciplinary measures or demanding stringent message discipline on the topic would cause undoubted bad blood within this fast-growing party and cause some members to seek new political homes elsewhere – for instance in the emergent Power Belongs to the People movement.

It cannot be foreseen for how long COVID-19 will remain a political signifier and point of division in Finnish and world politics. The Finns Party seems settled upon a strategy of waiting whilst leaving their door ajar to individuals for whom contesting the government over Covid-19 is a stimulating and worthy political pursuit.
However, the longer this persists, the more difficult it will be for the Finns Party to avoid becoming – in former leader Jussi Halla-aho’s words – “a corona party”.

Dr. Niko Hatakka is the Populism in Action Project’s Finland focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here.



The Vlaams Belang: Bucking Expectations of Populist Pandemic Responses

by Dr. Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham)

This blog draws on findings from a chapter co-written with Dr Steven Van Hauwaert and soon to be published in ‘Populists and the Pandemic’ (eds. Nils Ringe and Lucio Renno).

When Cas Mudde wrote ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’ in 2004, as he says in a recently published speech, the title and topic were so catchy it felt bound to gain traction. The article became especially popular after 2016’s double whammy of Donald Trump’s election and Brexit. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it was reasonable to expect the twin forces of a global pandemic and the ‘populist zeitgeist’ to combine and intensify populist politics. Scholars of populism such as Stavrakakis et al. and Moffitt have previously explored the ways crises (both real and constructed through discourse) are used to demonise establishment elites and defend the interests of ‘the pure people.’

In my initial analysis of the Vlaams Belang’s (Flemish Interest) response to the Coronavirus, I claimed that the crisis was being used by the party to critique the government and establish its credentials as a potential member of a future ruling coalition.

Eighteen months on, I would argue that after linking Coronavirus to their fundamental policies—Flemish independence and anti-migration—the Vlaams Belang somewhat bucked expectations of populist responses to the pandemic, by neither seeking to amplify the sense of alarm generated by the Coronavirus crisis, nor encouraging scepticism about experts as a political strategy.

Closing the Window of Opportunity?

Eighteen months ago, in the initial days of the first lockdown, the Vlaams Belang used the Coronavirus crisis as a ‘window of opportunity’ to criticise the Belgian government. Refusing to support a newly formed government, created to pass Coronavirus regulations, unlike most other opposition parties, the party engaged in regular attacks on government policies. This approach continued for several months. As I noted in my last blog, there was an air of ‘I Told You So’ around their approach. The party leader Tom van Grieken argued in a June 2020 column in the party’s magazine:

You might wish to forget it, but Belgium was a country in crisis before the Coronacrisis. With the highest taxes and debts, borders that leak like a sieve and politicians who cannot look beyond their own interests. A country in which the population – quite rightly – no longer has any confidence in the traditional parties. The total mismanagement of the corona crisis has confirmed that mistrust of the people.

The party levelled a series of critiques against the Belgian government concerning the supply of masks, the extent of testing undertaken, levels of financial support for small businesses, and travel policies. In addition to this, Vlaams Belang published a Coronavirus ‘Blunderbook’ in July 2020, which listed the government’s supposed missteps in handling the crisis.

This blanket opposition and mobilisation against the government’s Coronavirus response did not last, or at least not to the extent apparent in the early days of March 2020. Though populist scholars like Ben Moffitt have suggested populist parties would typically seek to prolong crises, the Vlaams Belang’s attention to the issue dropped considerably after July 2020. Nor did the Vlaams Belang turn towards Coronavirus scepticism as some other populist parties and leaders- like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – did. Van Grieken’s single flirtation with a more sceptical position occurred in October 2020, when he refused to download the Belgian government’s track and trace app because he had ‘no confidence in the Belgian state’. He then performed a swift about-turn, by admitting early in November that ultimately his ‘concerns about privacy were unfounded.’

Like many other opposition parties in Belgium and elsewhere, the Vlaams Belang focused its criticism of the government’s Coronavirus policies squarely on the latter’s alleged economic impact. The defence of Flemish small businesses became the main point of attack towards the end of 2020 and throughout early 2021. In this sense, the Vlaams Belang’s response to the Coronavirus crisis did not match pre-existing expectations, with the party displaying the characteristics of anti-establishment parties more generally, rather than an explicitly populist response. Whereas populist parties are anti-establishment by definition, not all anti-establishment politics embody the key characteristics of populism, which emphasizes a rejection of a demonised elite and a promotion of a ‘pure’ people. This latter element was largely missing in the Vlaams Belang’s response. The party focused instead on negating the government’s proposed Coronavirus response at each turn, with populist (either anti-elite or pro-people) rhetoric taking second place.

Closing One Door, Opening Another?

This turn away from the Coronavirus as a focus of the party’s work may be explained by the difference, teased out in Moffitt’s and Stavrakakis et al.’s work, between external crises and those ‘created’ or constructed by populist actors themselves. Perhaps because the Coronavirus crisis is ‘external’ and cannot be ‘controlled’ by the VB, the party sought to pin it onto narratives closer to the party’s core issues, like Flemish independence. The party’s approach is exemplified by their call in June 2020 for an ‘exit plan’ from Coronavirus and an ‘exit plan’ from Belgium. The shift from vociferous opposition to the government to the party’s core messages can be explained by Van Grieken’s focus, over the last two years, on becoming a party of government and policy rather than only an opposition party with a reputation for ‘rebelliousness’ in its rhetoric and ‘street politics.’

In Belgium, the populist radical right walks a careful tightrope: on the one hand shifting attention from COVID to its longstanding claim of a crisis of representation, and on the other hand, emphasising simple anti-establishment politics rather than populist arguments.

Dr. Judith Sijstermans is the Populism in Action Project’s Belgium (Flanders) focused Research Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter here.


COVID-19 and the Swiss People’s Party: Walking a Fine Line Between Government and Opposition

by Dr. Adrian Favero (University of Birmingham)

Switzerland’s first COVID-19 case was reported on 25th of February 2020 in the Italian-Swiss canton of Ticino. Soon after, the country started recording large numbers of positive cases. On the 16th of March 2020, the Swiss government (Federal Council) declared an “extraordinary situation” under the Epidemics Act. This declaration allowed the government to implement restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus without needing any immediate approvals from parliament. However, invoking extensive powers created the potential for much controversy amongst regional and national parties.

The populist radical right wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – which operates nationwide – found itself in a difficult place. Holding two out of seven seats in government, the SVP joined other, non-populist, parties in declaring that they would stand united behind the Federal Council’s position and did not immediately seize the opportunity to hold the Federal Council accountable for its decisions.

However, moving towards a more typical populist standpoint by starting to criticise the “elite”, the SVP changed tack two weeks later and advocated the limitation of state intervention, so as to avoid massive damages to the national economy. Over the coming months, the party increasingly opposed the government’s interventions and promoted its own strategy to contain the pandemic, based on its core ideological co-ordinates. These included: strict border controls, the principle of self-reliance, and the protection of the Swiss economy. The party also used the Covid-19 crisis to push its initiative to reduce the number of new migrants from the EU, which was ultimately rejected by Swiss voters in autumn 2020.

After a relatively calm summer characterised by a drop in the number of cases, Switzerland experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the autumn of 2020. The SVP continued to criticise the Federal government’s measures on the grounds of their alleged negative effect on the national economy and on the well-being of Swiss citizens. The party also repeatedly demanded an immediate end to the “lockdown” during early 2021. Despite having two representatives in government, as mentioned, the SVP singled out the Federal Minister of Health – a Social Democrat –  as the target of harsh criticism of the executive’s measures, going so far as accusing the government of becoming a dictatorship.

On the 13th of June 2021,the Swiss electorate approved the COVID-19 Act via a national referendum (the “Yes” vote reaching 60.2%). The Act grants the Federal Council additional powers to combat the pandemic and mitigate its negative effects on society and the economy. In contrast to all other parties represented in government, the SVP did not take an official position on the vote. This reflected the party’s divisions, as it was split between those welcoming the financial help provided by the government and those particularly critical of its handling of the pandemic.

During the summer of 2021, the SVP advocated “return to normalcy”. With lower case numbers and the vaccine available to all, the party opposed the extension of “COVID-19 passes” to everyday activities, and making vaccination compulsory. In this fashion, the SVP still walks a very fine line between being in government and performing the role of an opposition — despite the consociational logic of the Swiss system requiring collaboration between main parties that share government responsibilities.

Dr. Adrian Favero is the Populism in Action Project’s Switzerland focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here. 

Daniele Albertazzi Quoted in Italy’s Domani

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi was quoted in Italy’s Domani newspaper on 22/10/21 in a news feature written by Davide Maria de Luca.

In the article entitled “Theatre of Quarrels on the Centre-Right” Prof. Albertazzi explains that:

…with highly compatible electorates and ideologies- the Italian right will reunite when it matters at the polls. Not least because every right-wing government led by Berlusconi in the past, was characterised by constant in-fighting between the parties making up the coalition, but this never stopped them from coming back together before the subsequent election.

Read the full article (in Italian) here.


How do populists respond to growing insecurities?

by Donatella Bonansinga (University of Birmingham)

Academic and media debates usually portray right-wing populists as distinctively relying on narratives of insecurity and the construction of popular fear. We tend to hear about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions as one of manipulation. For many, populists (but what is meant here is usually: ‘right-wing populists’) ‘distort’ reality by representing ‘outsiders’ as existential threats to the people, hence fuelling fears and hostility against them.

In my recent research, I argue that thinking about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions in this one-dimensional way is not sufficient to understand the complex socio-political phenomena underlying the appeal of populism. Indeed, this line of reasoning often relies on incorrect assumptions.

Firstly, we tend to equate populists ‘speaking security’ with discourses around crime or law and order, however this is arguably an oversimplification. The risk is that — despite acknowledging that insecurities and grievances play a role in the success of different populisms – we end up overlooking how the populist left also engages in this kind of discourse, while not necessarily focusing on law and order per se. Secondly, we tend to think of populism as a negative phenomenon, ‘exploiting’ people’s deepest fears and clouding ‘rational thinking’. On the contrary – and just like any other political phenomenon – populism can elicit an array of emotional reactions, including positive ones.

To analyse this topic, I examined speeches by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the last French presidential election campaign in 2017. Marine Le Pen is the leader of Rassemblement National (formerly, Front National), a prototypical example of a European populist radical right party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, by contrast, is the founder and leader of La France Insoumise, a prototypical example of a populist radical left party. France represents an insightful laboratory for populism research because of these two competing populisms.

What is insecurity?

Le Pen and Mélenchon both conceive of insecurity in numerous ways linked to notions of danger, uncertainty, anxiety and the need to ‘protect the people’ from various harms. Crucially however, their ideology informs their identification of insecurity sources. For Marine Le Pen, ideas of physical violence (like crime and terrorism) or cultural threats (like multiculturalism and immigration) are the most salient. However, for Mélenchon it is climate change, international security and neoliberalism that matter as ‘threats’. Both actors overlap in identifying the EU as an ‘accelerator’, or the actor, ‘ultimately responsible’ for this ‘exploding insecurity’.

Insecurity beyond fear

In my work I captured the latent emotional fabric of contemporary French populism’s insecurity discourse by mapping implicit emotional appeals. This means capturing the extent to which a political message taps into the ‘cues’ that research has shown can arouse specific emotional reactions. These are also known as core relational themes. I have found that both Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s insecurity narratives weave a ‘story of insecurity’ centred on the fact that some threats should be feared, some enemies deserve getting angry at, in-groups should make us proud and there are solutions we can hope for.

Populist emotional governance

Through appeals to fear, anger, pride and hope, Le Pen and Mélenchon arguably perform ‘emotional governance’, meaning that they help guide and regulate public emotions on a number of issues.

Fear appeals appeared right at the start of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s narratives, setting the stage for what should be understood as a source of insecurity. Contemporary insecurity is a complex and blurry phenomenon, hence fear appeals constitute important interpretative cues guiding what citizens come to see as threats and dangers.

After introducing the source of insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon immediately shift attention to a key element of the insecurity story: the unfair character of this danger and the dismissive, negligent or even irresponsible behaviour of the elites in power, causing insecurities. These themes are central elicitors of anger and provide an interpretation of insecurity as the product of intentional and malevolent elites’ behaviour.

The narration of an unfair insecure existence is then juxtaposed to positive, celebratory remarks praising ‘the people’. Acknowledging positive qualities, strengths and achievements lies at the core of pride arousal. By highlighting the people’s positive traits and worth, both Le Pen and Mélenchon are likely to elicit pride in their audiences, re-energising them, in a call to avoid resignation.

Finally, these actors seize the ‘insecure present’ by proposing actions to address insecurity in the ‘future’. In emotional terms, this means grounding insecurity narratives in appeals to hope. After telling their audience what is wrong with society and who is responsible for generating pervasive insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon offer a positive outlook towards the future grounded in the reassurance of security attainment (for Mélenchon) and restoration (for Le Pen).

Where do we go from here?

Contemporary insecurity is a complex phenomenon that is not necessarily immediately intelligible. As I argue in my research, identifying the emotional content of populist insecurity communication is vital. It helps us understand how populists can shape people’s understanding of this complexity, by focusing on specific interpretative cues. It also allows us to explore how populists address and respond to the wide range of insecurities usually linked to their appeal.

Donatella Bonansinga is the Populism in Action Project’s Research Assistant and a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter here.