Anne-Elisabeth Moutet explains why the old ideological distinction is no more
French analyst Anne-Elisabeth Moutet believes that the old Left-Right distinction is now dead in France. In an UnHerd panel discussion on whether Putin has killed populism, Moutet argued that the French are becoming more — not less — populist, as evidenced by the ‘windshield wiper’ vote from Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Round One to Marine Le Pen in Round Two. The French commentator added that even the vote for Macron was to some extent a populist vote, but this was truer in 2017 than 2022:
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet: France is a society that is very risk-averse. So when we pick our populists, we want these populists to give us guarantees that are much more the guarantees that an actuary would like, than the guarantees you have of sort of fire and brimstone. And to a large extent the vote for Emmanuel Macron is a populist vote. Five years ago, it definitely was. That was the whole thing: ‘get the incumbents out, let’s get rid of these people’. And Macron was the safe opportunity to do that. He was different from these people. He was younger, they didn’t like him. He was neither Left nor Right. But he was also a technocrat. He spoke the same language. And so there was this promise of competence. So if you’ve got someone who annoys everyone, and promises to be competent, you vote for that person. And that’s what happened five years ago.
Freddie Sayers: Does the fact that young people two days ago, overwhelmingly chose Le Pen over Macron. What does that say about the future for populism in places like France?
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet: It’s very interesting that people went windshield wiper, from Mélenchon to Marine Le Pen because it shows that it was a protest vote. And the thing that was really striking was in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthélemy, and the French West Indies because Marine Le Pen has been painted as a horrible fascist and racist, which her father was, but she’s not. She’s a classic populist. And she went to all those places. And she said, ‘I understand that your life is difficult, that things are expensive, that there aren’t enough jobs and that Paris is not doing things for you.’ And Mélenchon was more focused on the Left-wing vote. But they voted 60-70% for her in the islands.
And that in itself, is a good illustration that the horseshoe there meets essentially, because we write about politics and the people who sort of are in politics, they see a great difference. But the voters don’t think ideologically so much. I’m old enough to remember what it was like when the Communist Party in France was polling over 1/4 of the vote. That was unbelievably ideological, but there was a cultivation of that ideology in everyday life; you entered kind of a sect. That’s completely over now.
But in terms of a populist vote, if somebody cleverer than Marine Le Pen had had the same attraction and name that she had, she could have won. But really, it boils down to personalities as well as, what do you offer? And I mean, take Boris Johnson, who’s got louder elements of the populist; there’s something that one half of the country doesn’t like about him, but which made other people vote for him. And it’s the personality. Orban is very clever. He connects with the Hungarians, they recognise themselves in him. There was a massive coalition in Hungary from Jobbik, which a year ago was a truly fascist party and then said, ‘we’re going to join with a former socialist and everything because we need to fight the monster’, and they lost.
Look at Zelensky in Ukraine. Zelensky had approval ratings of 23% before the war. In Ukraine — and I have friends in Ukraine — journalists all said ‘no, the war is not going to happen. We’re sitting here in Kyiv on 23rd of February, and we’re having a nice, in a mokka bar and nothing is going to happen to us’. And of course, it did overnight that night. The personality of Zelensky, who was offered by the Americans to be exfiltrated and he famously said, ‘I don’t need a taxi. I need ammunition.’ That was really impressive. So personalities come back and either you’ve got gifted politicians, and the gifted politician sort of gives a shape to populism, but I’m not Marxist enough even though I was a very long time ago to think that it’s only the sort of the large trends of the economy the market and social forces.