Not a day goes by without the risks of populism being denounced on all sides. But it is not so easy to grasp what the word denotes. What is a populist? Despite various fluctuations of meaning, the dominant discourse seems to characterize it in terms of three essential features: a style of speech addressed directly to the people, bypassing representatives and dignitaries; the assertion that governments and ruling elites are more concerned with feathering their own nest than with the public interest; a rhetoric of identity that expresses fear and rejection of foreigners.
It is clear however that there is no necessary connection between these features. The republican and socialist spokesmen of former days were certainly convinced that there was an entity known as ‘the people’ that was the course of power and the prime interlocutor of political discourse. This does not involve any kind of racist or xenophobic sentiment. No demagogue is needed to announce that our politicians think more of their career than of the future of their fellow citizens, or that those who govern us live in symbiosis with the representatives of big financial interests. The same press that denounces ‘populist’ tendencies provides us day after day with the most detailed evidence of this. On their part, heads of state or government who are called ‘populist’, such as Silvio Berlusconi or Nicolas Sarkozy, steer well clear of propagating the ‘populist’ idea that elites are corrupt. The term is not used to characterize any well-defined political force. It denotes neither an ideology nor even a coherent political style. It serves simply to draw the image of a certain people.
For ‘the people’ as such does not exist. What exists are diverse and even antagonistic images of the people, figures constructed by privileging certain modes of assembly, certain distinctive features, certain capacities or incapacities. The notion of populism constructs a people characterized by the fearsome combination of a certain capacity – the raw power of a large number – and a certain incapacity – the ignorance ascribed to the same large number. For this purpose, racism, the third feature, is essential. It is a matter of showing those democrats always suspect of ‘idealism’ who the underlying people truly are: a mob inspired by a primary drive of rejection, which targets at the same time those in power, whom it denounces as traitors out of a failure to understand the complexity of political mechanisms, and the foreigners that it fears from an atavistic attachment to a context of life threatened by demographic, economic and social development. The notion of populism presents an image of the people elaborated in the late nineteenth century by thinkers such as Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Le Bon, frightened by the Paris Commune and the rise of the workers’ movement: that of ignorant crowds impressed by the sonorous words of ‘agitators’ and led to extreme violence by the circulation of unchecked rumours and contagious fears.
Is this epidemic unleashing of blind crowds led by charismatic leaders really a contemporary phenomenon in countries such as ours? Whatever the complaints voiced daily about immigrants, and particularly ‘young people from the estates’, they do not find expression in mass popular demonstrations. What is called racism today in our country is essentially the conjunction of two things. On the one hand, forms of discrimination in employment and housing that are practiced to perfection in aseptic offices. On the other, government policies that are in no case the consequence of a mass movement: restrictions on immigration, refusal to provide residence papers to people who have worked and paid taxes in France for years, undermining of nationality by birth, double penalty, laws against the Islamic scarf and the burka, official targets for expulsions from the country and the dismantling of travellers’ camps. The aim of these measures is essentially to render the rights of a section of the population precarious in terms of both work and citizenship, to constitute a population of workers who can at any time be sent back where they came from, and of French nationals who are not assured of keeping their status.