Populism Beyond Fear? France’s right-wing Marine Le Pen and left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Debates in media and academia usually portray right-wing populists relying on narratives of insecurity and the construction of popular fear, manipulating emotions. For many observers, populists distort reality by representing “outsiders” as existential threats to the people, seeking to fuel hostility.

But thinking about the relationship between populism, insecurity, and emotions in this one-dimensional way is insufficient. This line of reasoning often relies on incorrect assumptions.

We tend to equate populist commentary on “security”, with discourses around crime or law and order. This is arguably an oversimplification. The risk is that — despite acknowledging that insecurities and grievances play a role in the success of different right-wing populisms – we overlook how the populist left also engages in this kind of discourse.

We also 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 reaction which including positive ones.

I examined speeches by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the last French Presidential election campaign in 2017. Le Pen is the leader of Rassemblement National (formerly Front National), a prototypical example of a European populist radical right party. Mélenchon is the founder and leader of La France Insoumise, a prototypical example of a populist radical left party.

Insecurity Beyond Fear

Le Pen and Mélenchon both conceive of insecurity through notions of danger, uncertainty, anxiety, and the need to “protect the people” from various harms. Crucially, however, their ideology informs their identification of sources of insecurity. For Le Pen, ideas of physical violence such as crime and terrorism, or cultural threats such as multiculturalism and immigration are most salient. For Mélenchon it is climate change, international securit,y and neoliberalism that are the threats. The two leaders overlap in identifying the European Union as an accelerator, or the actor, ultimately responsible for this “exploding insecurity”.

The latent emotional fabric of contemporary French populism’s insecurity discourse can be mapped through implicit emotional appeals. Both Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s insecurity narratives weave a story of insecurity, centered on the necessity that some threats should be feared and some enemies deserve anger and hostility while some in-groups should make us proud as we hope for solutions.

Through appeals to fear, anger, pride, and hope, Le Pen and Mélenchon perform “emotional governance” to guide and regulate public emotions on issues. Fear appeals appear at the start of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s narratives, setting the stage for a source of insecurity. The two then immediately shift attention to the unfair character of this danger and the dismissive, negligent, or even irresponsible behavior of the elites in power. These themes elicit anger and provide an interpretation of insecurity as the intentional product of the malevolent elites.

The narration of an unfair insecure existence is juxtaposed with positive, celebratory remarks praising “the people”. By highlighting the people’s positive traits and worth, both Le Pen and Mélenchon try to elicit pride in their audiences, re-energizing 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 grounds 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 through reassurance of security attainment (for Mélenchon) and restoration (for Le Pen).

Contemporary insecurity is a complex phenomenon that is not always immediately intelligible. Identifying the emotional content of populist insecurity communication is vital. It helps us understand how populists can shape people’s understanding by focusing on specific interpretative cues. It also allows us to explore how populists address and respond to the wide range of insecurities linked to that appeal.