France Primed for Populist Wave Ahead of Election

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The FINANCIAL — With the first round of voting in France’s presidential election only a few days away, as they have for the past several years, more than four in 10 French adults in 2016 lacked confidence in their national government and were no more hopeful about their future lives than their present situations.

This is up considerably from the 28% of French who fit this description at the time of their last presidential election in 2012.

The heightened, stable percentage of “disaffected” and “discouraged” French citizens is useful in understanding how support for populist candidates such as Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon has been able to take root and grow.

Breaking down these two metrics individually, 70% of French in 2016 said they do not have confidence in their national government (or disaffected), while 64% of the population rated their future lives on the same footing or worse in relation to their current lives (or discouraged). Altogether, 43% of French were both disaffected with the government and discouraged about their personal future, the fourth-highest percentage among all EU countries, according to Gallup.

Roots of Disconnect Not Necessarily Economic

French who are disaffected and discouraged are more likely than others to be out of the workforce and less likely to have received a four-year college degree. This is not surprising, considering people who are both disaffected and discouraged tend to be older. These results are also similar to a Gallup analysis conducted earlier this month on the Netherlands.

However, discouraged and disaffected people do not necessarily struggle more for basic needs than those who are not disaffected and discouraged. Similar percentages in both groups reported not having enough money to buy the food that they or their family needed (12% vs. 10%) or to provide an adequate shelter for them or their family (16% vs. 12%). Additionally, those who are disaffected and discouraged are no more likely to fall into different income groups.

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Still, 26% of French who are disaffected and discouraged are dissatisfied with their standard of living, compared with 17% of French who are not disaffected and discouraged. This illustrates that there is more of a difference in economic perceptions between the two groups, rather than concrete socio-economic differences.

Disaffected and Discouraged French Hold Anti-Establishment Sentiment

The greater discontent in France mostly stems from the 21-percentage-point increase in the number of French who feel disaffected with their government, which rose from 49% in 2012 to 70% in 2016. French distrust in the government signals anti-establishment sentiment more broadly, since those who are disaffected and discouraged are also less likely to have confidence in their judicial system, electoral system and financial institutions. They are also less likely to approve of the EU, a recurring theme within populist messaging in Europe. All of these elements are key platforms of Le Pen’s National Front and Melenchon’s Unsubmissive France parties.

Discouraged, Disaffected French Are More Disconnected

French who are both discouraged and disaffected are also less connected to their communities and less accepting of diversity within those communities. Discouraged and disaffected French post lower scores on Gallup’s Community Attachment Index, which measures satisfaction with the city or area where they live and their likelihood to move away or recommend that city or area to a friend. This group also scores lower on Gallup’s Diversity Index, which is designed to measure a community’s acceptance of people from different racial, ethnic or cultural groups. This last dimension is central in Le Pen’s platform, which considers French population and culture threatened by immigration and would like, for instance, to suspend legal immigration.

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These anti-social tendencies likely reflect a broader disinvestment in community. Populism, in its definition, often opposes tolerance in society, social connectedness and therefore pluralism, which “value compromise, different viewpoints, and the need to listen to dissenting voices.”

Bottom Line

Populism is often described as a movement of people raising their voice against a system that does not serve their interest. In France, while there is no concrete difference in household income between people who feel discouraged and disaffected and those who do not, and while discouraged and disconnected people do not report struggling more in their lives, their perceptions about their living standards are different. These data underscore the idea that populism can also flourish in wealthy contexts when individuals perceive their expectations are unmet, giving rise to discontent.


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