The rise of populism in Europe: cases of Italy and France

Essays | Turana Aliyeva | 28-09-2019, 19:22

The rise of populism in Europe: cases of Italy and France

European Populism: Italy vs France


The rise of populism and split of Europe into two camps, namely liberals and right-wing populists created doubt about the existing political systems and liberalism’s ability to address contemporary issues. Many scholars claim that the acute problems raised by financial and fiscal crisis, migration, identity crisis and fear of further unemployment as a result of digital revolution are the key factors contributing to the rise of populism. To emphasize the qualitatively different character of these new political movements, a term “alt-right” was coined and got common usage. While some consider this phenomenon a threat to democracy, others see it as a challenge that could sanitizeexisting political systems. In order to see the full picture, one has to define and analyze fundamental differences and similarities of the most prominent populist parties across Europe. Although the issues seem to be similar from country to country, each society has its own specific features and hence different political configurations form in accordance with those issues. In order to comply with the societal demands, each populist party has its own program and as soon as the key features and differences of those programs are revealed and outlined, the reasons leading to the confrontation of liberals and populists become obvious.

In this piece two well-known populist parties in Europe will be presented and compared. One of them is the French National Front, the patriarch among the “alt-right”, and another party to be discussed here is the Italian Five Star Movement. 


Key message

National Front (Front Nationale – FN) is a right-wing populist and nationalist political party which was founded in France in 1972. Although during the 1970’s the party’s record in the national elections was not successful, since  the 1980’s FN has been experiencing  a political rise. The 1990’s were characterized with a significant consolidation of the party’s electorate. During this period the party used to garner around 10-15% of the vote, however, in 1998 it experienced internal divisions due to the departure of the adherents of Bruno Megret. In 2000’s the party’s popularity kept growing, and in the 2012 presidential elections FN, represented by Marine Le Pen, gained the highest share of votes in its electoral history by then (17.9%). 5 years later, in April 2017, Ms Le Pen came second in the first round of elections with the highest number of votes after Macron and captured about 34% of votes in the second round. However, FN won only 8 seats in the National Assembly, mainly due to the majoritarian electoral system in France.  

Despite its limited representation in public office, the party has been quite influential and shown a sign of successful presence recently. The survival of the French national identity endangered by the rampant globalization is the cornerstone of the FN’s programme, which is mainly focused on three areas. The first is the restoration of France’s socio-economic “grandeur” through protectionist policies, combating unfair competition and relocations. Calls for the restoration of the state authority and the state apparatus that, accoding to the FN ideology, forms the basis for the French sovereignty, is the second focus area. The state is considered the authority that can adopt legislation on immigration to reverse the flows of immigrants. Promotion of a pro-birth policy that would ensure the country’s future is another area.

Currently, FN appears as the defender of social rights and in the context of the economic crisis the party accentuates on protectionism, particularly the state protection of domestic producers and workers.

The Five Star Movement (Movimiento Cinque Stelle, M5S) is a populist party which was founded in 2009 and has become the largest fraction in the Italian Parliament at the latest election. Although M5S is younger than FN, its success has been far more spectacular. At the regional elections in 2010, M5S candidates ran for Presidency in 5 regions and the results of voting were quite impressive. At the local elections in 2012, M5S garnered 10 to20% of votes in several Northern cities. Good results were achieved at the 2013 general elections. Finally, at the 2018 general elections the young party enjoyed a tremendous success. The party obtained 32.7% of the vote and turned into the largest individual party with 227 seats in the Chamber.

The key focus areas of M5S’s programme are sustainable development, environmentalism, web-based direct democracy, promotion of anti-immigration policy, improvement of quality of life and greater social justice mainly through creation of green jobs. Although M5S is Eurosceptic, just as FN, during the election campaign it focused mainly on domestic issues and anti-European sentiment was absent, while FN did vise-versa. 

Comparing the key messages of FN and M5S, the obvious similarities are anti-immigration policy, a promise of reconstruction of current political system, focus on domestic issues, particularly touching upon handling economic stagnation and protection of social rights. Although these 2 parties have a lot in common, there are still some significant differences. FN is mainly interested in the restoration of the state authority, while M5S advocates more radical changes such as a switch to direct democracy using the opportunities presented by the internet and new technologies. When it comes to economic crisis, although the both parties focus on the existing government’s inability to overcome it, each party has its own approach. FN promotes protectionism as an adequate tool for counter-cyclical action, while M5S calls for revision of domestic fiscal and monetary policies, as well as Europe’s economic governance.


Proposed policies and their prospects

FN remains a protectionist and populist party attempting to reduce immigration, boost the country’s international prestige and renegotiate EU treaties to gain back national sovereignty. FN’s desire to leave the Schengen zone and CAP (common agricultural policy), to launch a national French agricultural policy, take full control of the country’s frontiers and establish the primacy of national laws over the EU legislation has ambivalent prospects. On one hand, France is one of the EU founders and locomotives, has done a lot to build the current supranational structure and system of free trade; its economy is highly integrated with Europe and leaving the union would negatively affect the French economy. On the other hand, despite the negative consequences that Frexit might entail, low and middle-income population cite the existing economic problems to the globalization and uncontrolled free trade. So, it is quite likely that in case of referendum people would vote for Frexit.  

The party suggests to make huge investments into re-industrialization, leave the Euro zone and apply several taxation policies to protect French businesses and manufacturers. Under current circumstances, and the fact that the protectionist policies advocated by Ms. Le Pen are contrary to the EU’s free trade principles, the prospect of policies suggested by the party are not too big. When it comes to foreign policy, FN stands for the creation of a trilateral alliance with Russia and Germany. Strengthening of France’s nuclear capability and the re-negotiation of economic relationships with ex-colonies in order to reduce the flow of immigrants from these colonies are included into the FN’s foreign policy program. Obviously, the entire programme suggested by Ms. Le Pen contradicts the fundamental principles of liberal democracy and the prospects of the proposed policies seem to be too little in such a democratic country, however, more and more people are getting distressed by the economic issues and the “losers of globalization” are up for any reform (even undemocratic ones) that carry a promise of improving  their living  conditions.

Although the policies suggested by M5S have some common points with the FN’s programme, there are quite a lot of differences as well. Just like FN, the party proposes to speed up deportation of illegal immigrants. Although M5S is also Eurosceptic, the party does not plan to leave the Union but to implement certain measures to reign in the EU, reorganize the bloc’s economic governance and renegotiate EU treaties. The M5S’s policies towards the EU seem to be softer than the ones proposed by FN, thus have more perspectives. M5S plans to lift sanctions against Russia and views Russia an economic and commercial partner rather than a threat. Among the key policies suggested by the party are the institutional reforms:  it proposes to reduce the number of parliamentarians from 630 to 400 MPs, increase the use of popular referenda in law-making process and grant more power to the regions, which is quite promising considering the opportunities brought by e-democracy, strongly advocated by the M5S party.

Promises of reduction of income tax, basic income guarantee and a pension reform proposed by the party have inspired a significant chunk of the population, however under current circumstances and Italy’s huge public debt the affordability of the above-mentioned measures falls under question. Italy’s current economic situation leaves no space for mistakes to be made by the party and each step should be filtered many times before being implemented.



If to analyze the recent election results in Italy, it will be clear that M5S gained support mainly in the islands and Southern regions, where the average income is lower than in other regions. According to the graphic prepared by the Italian National Institute of Statistics, in the areas with high proportions of university graduates the percentage of supporters was less than in other regions, while in areas with high percentages of population under 30’s the Five Star movement got quite big support. It should be noted that a significant majority of M5S supporters (55%) think that immigrants pose a heightened risk of terrorism in Italy. The majority of M5S backers believe that the government is responsible for ensuring a decent standard of living for all.

According to a global attitudes survey, support for the FN is stronger among Catholics, less educated people and is concentrated mainly among men. FN supporters express negative attitudes towards immigrants, particularly Muslims, believing that these groups exert a negative impact on their country.


Reasons of support

Supporters of each party have different backgrounds and have their own reasons. FN is supported mainly by young people who feel concerned about immigration. Since the party cares about its image among young people and formulates some of its proposals in a way to instill hopes about the bright future for the new generation, the growing support from youth is not surprising. It is mostly the young who are suffering from poor employment prospects and hence,  the most interested in Le Pen’s proposals to create new job places. The government’s failure to address the persistent economic ills has made the youth turn its attention to FN. The declared desire to protect France’s interests in the face of multiculturalism and globalization is another factor influencing FN supporters’ choice.

When it comes to M5S, it is worth noting that the movement gathers swing voters, post-ideological supporters, people dissatisfied with leftists and rightists. So merely, the key reason behind the M5S’s success is the lack of alternatives and people’s dissatisfaction with previous parties. The new concept of direct democracy suggested by M5S seems to be quite attractive, serving as another reason of popular support. An internet-driven anti-corruption M5S party which tries to be an example of transparency and direct democracy, is popular among youth, just as the French FN. Most of the young people in Italy believe that traditional parties mostly speak to older generation and fail to provide concrete solutions to the existing problems. The movement’s ability to organize online gives an opportunity to its supporters to speak up about their grievances, provide a forum for like-minded people dissatisfied with the previous parties to speak directly to the party they support, namely M5S, about the issues they care about. So, these unique features of the movement serve as solid reasons for supporters to vote for M5S.

Comparing the factors affecting FN’s and M5S’s supporters’ choice, it is obvious that the economic crisis, unemployment and the existing government’s failure to effectively address these issues are the key reasons behind the youth’s choice to support the above-mentioned parties. Supporters of both parties are frustrated by traditional parties’ failure to meet the demands of modern society and inability to build a credible perspective for their future.





FN and M5S have different backgrounds and programmes, however there are certain similarities explained mainly by the common problems faced by the modern European society. Both of the observed parties focus on the issues of immigration and represent it as a potential threat to the national identity and welfare state. The ineffectiveness of traditional parties in France and Italy and their inability to overcome the nonconventional issues caused by the economic crisis are among the key factors of growing support for the both populist parties. The desire for change and for something better and new contributes to the swinging of the youth’ support towards populist parties. It should be said that the socio-economic composition of supporters of the both parties is similar. The majority of voters are lower-income class representatives and youth affected by the growing unemployment and economic crisis.

Obviously, the rise of populism in European countries is a reflection of current problems requiring urgent solution rather than a threat to liberal democracy. Thus, the traditional parties losing their credibility should reconsider their programmes and approaches, trying to be more responsive towards the needs of the modern society.











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Turana Aliyeva

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