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    Look to the mainstream to explain the rise of the far right

    Javier Milei in Argentina. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. These are the two latest “populist shocks” – the tip of the “populist wave” that comes crashing against the weakened defences of liberal democracies.

    At the same time, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage benefits from the same “funwashing” on I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here! as Pauline Hanson, leader of the most successful extreme right party in Australia in recent years, did when she was invited on Dancing with the Stars just a moment after her political career plummeted.

    The contradiction in addressing the rise of far-right politics in public discourse could not be starker. And yet, it goes far deeper.

    It should be obvious to anyone concerned about these politics and the threat they pose to democracy and certain communities, that humanising their leaders through fun reality TV shows or coverage of their hobbies rather than politics only serves to normalise them.

    What is less obvious and yet just as damaging is the hyped coverage of the threat. Milei and Wilders are not “shocks”. The resurgence of reactionary politics is entirely predictable and has been traced for a long time. Yet every victory or rise is analysed as new and unexpected rather than part of a longer, wider process in which we are all implicated.

    The same goes for “populism”. All serious research on the matter points to the populist nature of these parties being secondary at best, compared to their far-right qualities. Yet, whether in the media or academia, populism is generally used carelessly as a key defining feature.

    Using “populist” instead of more accurate but also stigmatising terms such as “far-right” or “racist” acts as a key legitimiser of far-right politics. It lends these parties and politicians a veneer of democratic support through the etymological link to the people and erases their deeply elitist nature – what my co-author Aaron Winter and I have termed “reactionary democracy”.

    What this points to is that the processes of mainstreaming and normalisation of far-right politics have much to do with the mainstream itself, if not more than with the far right. Indeed, there can be no mainstreaming without the mainstream accepting such ideas in its fold.

    In this case, the mainstreaming process has involved platforming, hyping and legitimising far-right ideas while seemingly opposing them and denying responsibility in the process.

    While it would be naive to believe that the mainstream media tell us what to think, it is equally naive to ignore that it plays a key role regarding what we think about. As I argued in a recent article on the issue of “immigration as a major concern”, this concern only exists when respondents think of their country as a whole. It disappears when they think about their own day-to-day lives.

    This points to the mediated nature of our understanding of wider society which is essential if we are to think of the world beyond our immediate surrounding. Yet while essential, it relies on the need for trusted sources of information who decide what is worth priming and how to frame it.

    Javier Milei, president-elect of Argentina.

    It is this very responsibility that much of our media has currently given up on or pretend they do not hold, as if their editorial choices were random occurrences.

    This could not have been clearer than when the Guardian launched a lengthy series on “the new populism” in 2018, headlining its opening editorial with: “Why is populism suddenly all the rage? In 1998, about 300 Guardian articles mentioned populism. In 2016, 2,000 did. What happened?”. At no point did any of the articles in the series reflect upon the simple fact that the decisions of Guardian editors may have played a role in the increased use of the term.

    A top-down process

    Meanwhile, blame is diverted onto conveniently “silent majorities” of “left-behind” or a fantasised “white working class”.

    We too often view the far right as an outsider – something separate from ourselves and distinct from our norms and mainstream. This ignores deeply entrenched structural inequalities and forms of oppression core to our societies. This is something I noted in a recent article, that the absence of race and whiteness in academic discussion of such politics is striking.

    My analysis of the titles and abstracts of over 2,500 academic articles in the field over the past five years showed that academics choose to frame their research away from such issues. Instead, we witness either a euphemisation or exceptionalisation of far-right politics, through a focus on topics such as elections and immigration rather than the wider structures at play.

    This therefore leaves us with the need to reckon with the crucial role the mainstream plays in mainstreaming. Elite actors with privileged access to shaping public discourse through the media, politics and academia are not sitting within the ramparts of a mainstream fortress of good and justice besieged by growing waves of populism.

    They are participating in an arena where power is deeply unevenly distributed, where the structural inequalities the far right wants to strengthen are also often core to our systems and where the rights of minoritised communities are precarious and unfulfilled. They have therefore a particular responsibility towards democracy and cannot blame the situation we all find ourselves in on others – whether it be the far right, fantasised silent majorities or minoritised communities.

    Sitting on the fence is not an option for anyone who plays a role in shaping public discourse. This means self-reflection and self-criticism must be central to our ethos.

    We cannot pretend to stand against the far right while referring to its politics as “legitimate concerns”. We must stand unequivocally by and be in service of every one of the communities at the sharp end of oppression. More

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    Nostalgia in politics: pan-European study sheds light on how (and why) parties appeal to the past in their election campaigns

    Have you ever felt nostalgic when thinking about the past? Then you are not alone. According to survey research, around two-thirds of the European public feel nostalgic.

    Nostalgia is defined as a predominantly positive emotion associated with recalling memories of important events, usually experienced with people who are close to us. And these feelings may not be limited to personal experiences: in politics, nostalgia may refer to a longing for a more prosperous past or lost cultural traditions.

    Take the Italian far-right party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), which currently leads the country’s coalition government. The party’s 2022 manifesto contained numerous nostalgic references.

    One standout claim was that the “natural resources and artistic heritage of the nation are an inheritance to be guarded and enhanced”. Another was that “the elderly represent our history: a heritage of experiences, skills, talents that have helped to the birth and growth of our nation”.

    Such statements draw upon a shared pride in the nation’s past to knit together a compelling narrative.

    Increasingly, there is evidence that nostalgic feelings can affect our political views. Recent studies on the Netherlands and Turkey support these findings.

    Nostalgic citizens are less satisfied with the government and more likely to vote for radical right parties. In a new publication, we examined the extent to which political parties capitalise on nostalgic rhetoric in their campaigns by analysing 1,650 election manifestos published by parties across 24 European democracies between 1946 and 2018.

    Election manifestos, by definition, mostly contain promises for the future. They are a list of pledges a party promises to implement should it be part of a future government. But we also discovered that on average, about 10% of a party manifesto is dedicated to discussing the past.

    Central and Eastern Europe: nostalgia reigns

    We found that parties in central and eastern Europe and southern Europe are more nostalgic than those in northern and western Europe. The average manifesto in central and eastern Europe included 44 nostalgic sentences per 1,000 sentences, while in western and northern Europe, the average manifesto contains fewer than half that.

    The graph considers parties with parliamentary representation after at least two elections between 1990 and 2018. Red vertical lines show the average level of nostalgic rhetoric in each geographical region. The coding of party families relies on the Manifesto Project.
    Stefan Müller and Sven-Oliver Proksch

    It’s also notable that many of the most nostalgic parties across the continent are classified as nationalist by researchers at the Manifesto Project. Examples of highly nostalgic nationalist parties include All for Latvia, the Estonian People’s Union, Golden Dawn in Greece, Sweden Democrats and the French National Rally (formerly the National Front).

    That said, although nationalists are most prone to nostalgia, nostalgic rhetoric is evident across the political spectrum and was found in eight out of ten manifestos in some form or another.

    Read more:
    Contested memory in Giorgia Meloni’s Italy: how her far-right party is waging a subtle campaign to commemorate fascist figures

    It also appears to be cultural conservatism rather than economic conservatism that makes a party more likely to use nostalgia. Nostalgic rhetoric addresses cultural issues much more frequently than economic topics.

    This is revealing about nostalgia as a device. Parties seem to strategically employ nostalgic references and choose to focus on either the past, present or future when talking about a given topic depending on the wider political context.

    Other research shows that parties tend to frame education, economic and environmental policy with a future-related focus, while security, immigration and defence policy are more often referred to with an emphasis on the past.

    Why it matters

    There is nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia, but the use of nostalgia in political campaigning is, by definition, strategic. And its prevalence in the documents we examined suggests parties clearly see it as a useful tool.

    Meloni at the 206th anniversary of the Foundation of the Penitentiary Police Corps in Rome.

    But a focus on the past should not replace a critical evaluation of a party’s plans for the future. A nostalgic sentiment, such as “our historic market towns, cathedral cities, and unspoiled countryside are the envy of the world”, is not an electoral pledge.

    Its use could therefore be seen as a device to obfuscate when a party lacks concrete solutions or proposals for the future of the nation they seek to govern. Given our propensity towards nostalgia, it could also be used as a narrative device that might provide cover for parties seeking to introduce potentially controversial policies.

    Research on policies such as gun control, immigration and social justice show voters can be swayed in directions they might not normally take if they are presented with nostalgic messaging at the same time.

    If socially conservative parties have identified it as a powerful rhetorical device, perhaps socially progressive parties could find a way to use it for more positive reasons as well. Since a significant portion of society has nostalgic feelings, such messages are unlikely to disappear from political discourse anytime soon. More

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    Debate: Why France needs the Fifth Republic

    France’s current constitution is its fifth, and it’s built for stability – literally. Established in 1958 after the government collapsed in the throes of the Algerian War, the new constitution featured a president with considerable powers. That made the country’s governments more stable – a welcome change from the Third and Fourth Republics – but it’s also left opposition parties consistently frustrated.

    There have long been calls for greater proportionality in the National Assembly – then-President Francois Mitterrand heeded them in 1986, albeit in an attempt to prevent defeat in the legislative elections. In the last decade they’ve grown louder, however, with parties on the left and right insisting that the composition of the assembly should more closely mirror the results of presidential elections.

    In 2022, both the far right (Rassemblement National) and the far left (La France Insoumise) successfully sent a staggering number of representatives to the assembly. However unprecedented, this result only confirmed that any political party needs local anchorage and time to climb the constitutional ladder. But for La France Insoumise, the Fifth Republic – regardless of the stability it has brought to the country – should be abolished and replaced by a new constitution that, to put it in a nutshell, strangely resembles that of the Third Republic.

    Taming executive power, ensuring political stablity

    In a lecture titled “France: Politics, Power, and Protest” given at University College Dublin, I strove to explain to undergraduate students that the successive régimes stemmed from both a willingness to tame the executive power and a quest to ensure political stability. The Third Republic (1870–1940) modernised the country and implemented state laws that schooled multiple generations into becoming citizens. It was not without flaws: between 1876 and 1940, 101 cabinets came and went, essentially due to parliamentary instability and a total absence of authority within the executive power.

    France’s defeat in 1940 finished off the Third Republic and eventually led to the Vichy Régime. The Fourth Republic only lasted from 1946 to 1958, yet paved the way for European integration. The war in Algeria convinced the authorities of the time, in particular Charles de Gaulle, that a new system of governance was needed, and the Fifth Republic was born.

    Out of self-respect perhaps, the French Revolution has always been taught to secondary and high-school pupils as an ethnocentric turning point, completely disconnected from foreign experiences. Before and in the aftermath of the revolution, however, an entire generation of would-be revolutionaries looked toward the United States. Concepts such as checks and balances, bicameral system, and the centralisation of the decision-making process in the hands of the legislative power intrigued minds in Europe. Prominent French intellectuals regularly met with the thinkers behind these concepts. Thomas Jefferson, who served as minister plenipotentiary for France (1785–1789), was befriended by Condorcet and Mirabeau. In this way, acquaintances and networks between American and French élites fed the revolution.

    Later, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835, confirmed in French political thought the image of the United States as an appropriate governmental system where the separation of powers – an idea heavily influenced by the thinking of political philosopher Montesquieu – to ensure personal liberties to American citizens.

    Looking to Germany and the UK

    Today, when finding fault with France’s institutions, the systems of neighbouring countries such as Germany and Britain are often brought up. The comparison is not apt, however, for British and German parliamentary systems do not meet France’s standards for process and governance. And while such systems succeed in Britain and Germany, France’s history has shown that it is a nation that regards political compromise as a sign of institutional weakness.

    Further, it would be inconceivable for French taxpayers to accept the existence of a shadow president and watch a prime minister elected by indirect universal suffrage touring the capitals of Europe and negotiating bills and policies. Nothing today, save for unpopular reforms presented to parliament and Emmanuel Macron’s general unpopularity can justify overthrowing France’s constitution. On that point, Macron’s repeated use of the article 49.3 to ram the government’s retirement reform has comforted advocates of a “Sixth Republic”, who feel that the current constitution gives too much power to a single individual.

    France’s current constitution consolidates the state, secures constitutional representations, and permits a coalition between the government and the president in times of crisis. It permits the executive power to react quickly, summon the National Assembly, and implement political responses when needed. Most importantly, it guarantees to the president the constitutional ability to act in the domestic sphere while leading the foreign policy of the country. All the mechanisms consolidate the three branches of power while permitting the president to participate both in domestic politics and represent France on the international scene.

    But is this too much power? In 1964, then-député François Mitterrand published an essay declaring his opposition to the Fifth Republic, arguing that the institutions had been framed for a single leader, Charles de Gaulle. The title of Mitterrand’s book spoke for itself: The Permanent Coup d’État. When he was elected president in 1981, however, he accepted the role of presidential monarch after having so vehemently criticised it.

    The flip side of power

    Power is a precious gift, to be used with caution. While the Fifth Republic certainly confers great power to its presidents, and so draws political hatred and violence against them (rather than against the assembly), this system guarantees political stability. Calling for the establishment of new institutions at a time of social crisis and spreading populism is not productive. The optics also aren’t good: the image projected is that of modern revolutionaries, handsomely paid by the very institutions they wish to overthrow, cheering the idea that Emmanuel Macron could precipitate the fall of the Fifth Republic.

    The strength of the Fifth Republic is that presidents can articulate a vision for the country. They can guide, define priorities, and pave the way for big projects. That was the case in 1975 when President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing and Minister for Health Simone Veil furthered women’s rights by legalising abortion. So too was Mitterrand’s abolition of the death penalty in 1981 and Francois Holland’s legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013.

    Any French president is entitled to follow their political conscience. It is then up to parliament to debate the vision and initiatives and to the Constitutional Council to validate the final text.

    Citizens across France certainly distrust Emmanuel Macron, but this need not entail an automatic rejection of the nation’s institutions. What France needs now is political stability and time to address issues that other European countries also face. And the present constitution positions the nation’s leadership for precisely that. France has tried many régimes in the past, and the Fifth Republic is effective – it is appropriate for the times in which we live and for democracy, and allows broad political representation and legitimacy. While it certainly places significant power into the hands of a single person, the constitution ensures that it is still up to the people to decide who shall govern their lives. More

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    A political mountain to climb: why the Alps are such a commonly used metaphor in European thought

    È qui, su queste montagne, in queste valli … che la Repubblica celebra oggi le sue radici con la festa della Liberazione.

    It is here on these mountains, in these valleys, that the Republic today celebrates the day of its Liberation.

    With these words and evocative references, Italian president Sergio Mattarella recently marked the 78th anniversary of the end of the fascist dictatorship in Italy. He was speaking during a visit to Cuneo, in the north of the country.

    This was the first time Italy has celebrated the date under the leadership of prime minister Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia, a party that finds its roots in Mussolini’s fascism and often flirts with its ideas today. Mattarella used his status as a unity figure to elevate anti-fascism above party politics and to uphold it as a constitutive element of a democratic state.

    He quoted eminent Italian legal expert and a founding father of the Italian constitution, Piero Calamandrei:

    If you want to go on pilgrimage to the place where our constitution was born, go to the mountains where partisans fell.

    The location of Mattarella’s speech was evidently significant even before he uttered these words. As early as 1947, the Piedmontese province of Cuneo was recognised as one of the most symbolic sites of the Italian resistance against the Italian fascist and the German Nazi regimes.

    And Mattarella’s decision to specifically mention mountains is no coincidence. He was following a long tradition of using such imagery to make a political point. During my research for an academic monograph on this topic, I found that communists, Catholics and fascists alike have deployed images of mountains – and particularly the Alps – in their rhetoric, each ascribing them with their own meaning.

    In Italy, for instance, communist workers’ groups such as the Club Alpino Operaio and the Unione Operaia Escursionisti Italiani organised mountain stays for workers they wished to keep away from drinking and other vices. In an alpine setting, they thought it would be easier to instil solidarity among proletarians across borders.

    Fascists used the Alps as grounds on which to improve the health of the nation. Like the Nazis in Germany, they opened summer camps and colonies for children to increase their physical strength and to boost their fascist education.

    Catholics also organised hiking trips and camping stays for young people, stressing that class differences could be erased and moral and religious values be upheld more easily in an alpine environment.

    Literary trope

    From the 19th century, books such as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi depicted mountains as healthy and conducive to friendship. But after the first world war, the Alps came to represent the violent fighting that took place on them. Indeed, as global warming melts the ice, some relics of the carnage that unfolded there continue to emerge.

    More than other geographical features such as seas or lakes, mountains came to represent higher political ideals. As famously noted by German critic Sigfried Kracauer, Bergfilm (or “mountain films”) by directors such as Arnold Fanck and his mentee Leni Riefenstahl pitted individuals against nature and immortalised the Alps as the embodiment of national “purity”. That aesthetic would go on to be appropriated by the Nazi regime.

    For other movements, the Alps expressed the imperative of avoiding another conflict after the first world war and ensuring permanent peace. The “Alpinist” Pope Achille Ratti (1857–1939), who reigned as Pope Pius XI from 1922 to 1939, in 1923 proclaimed Bernard of Menthon the patron saint of the mountains, and wrote about the Alps as a preferred place for peaceful interaction among people.

    Sergio Mattarella marks liberation day.

    The League of Nations, whose main site was in Geneva, often emphasised its proximity to the mountains. In its publicity, it often used alpine imagery to present itself as strong, clean and noble.

    Political metaphor

    Such references and associations are not simply decorative. Indeed, as my research shows, historically they proved quite powerful. The League’s choice of alpine imagery and overall “emotional style” proved long-lasting, though in the late 1930s it backfired as it allowed the institution to be stereotyped as distant and ill-equipped to deal with a gritty, real world.

    In modern times, localist movements like the Italian political party the Lega Nord, or Northern League, have appropriated mountain foods such as polenta as a means to question both national and European institutions. In their rhetoric, this quintessentially alpine dish serves as a marker of local identity and the embodiment of natural and artisan production. It is the opposite of the artificial, industrial, cosmopolitan goods coming in via global trade.

    Meloni’s own Fratelli d’Italia organised a large gathering in the Alps in 2020, a kind of general assembly aimed at developing specific measures to protect and support the mountain regions, including their “traditions” and “identity”.

    The party later campaigned against closing Italy’s ski resorts during the pandemic, arguing:

    La montagna è parte fondamentale dell’identità italiana e non può essere umiliata.

    Mountains are a fundamental part of Italian identity and cannot be humiliated.

    The use of the term “humiliated” is reminiscent of fascist rhetoric and slogans that often equated compromise with humiliation and often glorified pride – or “living a day as a lion” – as a marker of moral fortitude and strength. “Italian identity” refers to the fascist use of mountains as natural borders, as well as to the policies of forced Italianisation of the populations living within them.

    Seen against this backdrop, Mattarella’s choice to point out the symbolic value of mountains and to reclaim their significance in the history of Italian anti-fascism thus acquire new significance. By adopting a strong emotional style, the Italian president put forth an alternative version of pride and a bold response to growing far-right movements.

    As in the writings by Beppe Fenoglio, one of Cuneo’s landmark resistance fighters and writers, mountains in Mattarella’s narrative serve as a space to uphold the country’s moral fabric and a vantage point from which to ponder how to save the world in trouble down below. More

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    Eurovision 2023: why the stage itself is the silent star of the contest

    This week, Liverpool stages one of the world’s largest live televised events, the Eurovision Song Contest. I grew up watching it as an annual family get-together.

    Now, as a lecturer in theatre and scenography – the study and practice of how set, sound, light and costume work together in an event – I have come to appreciate the immense logistical effort this entertainment behemoth requires.

    More fascinatingly though, it is an extraordinary example of media and performance history, providing a yearly snapshot of pan-European national identities and politics.

    While the contest’s rules state that it is a non-political event, it undeniably puts international relations on display. But while looking at different countries’ acts and voting patterns offers interesting insights, there is a silent star of the event that often goes unnoticed – the stage.

    Staging a nation

    Since the contest’s inception in 1956, there has been no serious discussion about the way Eurovision is an exercise in staging nation, nationality and nationalism in the literal sense – namely how these ideas inform the scenography.

    2023 marks the first time Eurovision will be hosted in the runner-up’s country due to war, with the UK hosting on behalf of Ukraine.

    The host’s stage set-up must be everything and nothing at the same time. It needs to provide a flexible, adaptable canvas for the wide-ranging individual acts of up to 44 countries. At the same time, it must offer a memorable and distinct experience to measure up to previous iterations of the competition.

    The stage also needs to embody that year’s chosen theme, while meeting the extensive requirements of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises the event, in order to allow the competition to run efficiently.

    Inside Liverpool Arena as the Eurovision 2023 build got underway.

    2023’s theme is “united by music”. After the UK’s difficult departure from the EU, it now faces the challenge of staging itself as part of a united European community. Meanwhile, it also needs to give space to Ukraine to do the same.

    The Liverpool stage’s designer, Julio Himede, has repeatedly offered the image of a hug – of open arms welcoming Ukraine and the world – as central to the stage’s spatial configuration.

    The early days of Eurovision were a much smaller affair than nowadays. When the UK first hosted in 1960 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, it seated just 2,500 people. That’s less than a quarter of this year’s 11,000 at the Liverpool arena.

    And if you have been watching the semi-finals, you’ll already have a good sense of the sheer scale of this year’s stage. At 450m², it is almost as big as a basketball court. With an integrated lighting design through video-capable floor and ceiling tiling and huge LED screens, the only apt descriptor is “spectacular”.

    For Eurovision, the concepts, symbols and metaphors underpinning the design have to work in tandem with the creative vision of each delegation, as well as the 45 second turnover between acts in the live show.

    The design concept also has to be one that acknowledges the particular situation of this year’s contest and simultaneously unites the identities of Ukraine and the UK.

    Ultimately, the image of the hug that underpins the sweeping curve of the main stage space aims to offer a more universal theme, rather than one which is culturally specific. Viewers will notice the “open arms” of the stage are echoed in the arrangement of the “green room”, where the national delegations are located during the show.

    In this sense, Eurovision is a prime example of a “soft power” approach to international relations, which works by persuasion or influence, rather than the “hard power” of economic sanctions or military intervention.

    The UK after Brexit

    This year, it will be fascinating to see how much space the UK will give to Ukraine, not only last year’s winner but a nation in need of international recognition and support. And to what extent the UK will use this event, post-Brexit, to stage itself as a welcoming part of Europe.

    The UK does have a history of highly successful agit-prop events, which have engaged audiences emotionally to shape public opinion. Think back to the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which strove to inspire a sense of national identity.

    In 2023, the UK sees itself in the middle of global instability and national tension over mounting authoritarianism and widening social divisions. Once again, it has the chance to use an international stage to put forward an idealised narrative.

    In any such example, the stage underpins the entire event. It is essential to the atmosphere for the live audience and fundamental to its appearance on television.

    There is no doubt that Eurovision 2023 is a staging extravaganza and will test the UK’s capability to shake off its “sick man of Europe” image. It is a stage which offers the UK the opportunity to adjust its global image in line with the contest’s welcoming theme.

    It will be interesting to see whether the image of open arms for the world is sincere or cynical. More

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    French governments’ long record of bypassing parliament: a brief history of article 49.3

    Emboldened by united trade unions, the tug of war between the street and the government over Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform had mostly taken on the form of strikes and demonstrations since mid-January.

    However, the government’s decision to bypass the lower chamber by invoking article 49.3 of the French constitution on Thursday 16 March has now sharply pitted Macron’s relative majority against opposition parties. On Monday 20 March, it survived a critical no-confidence vote by a mere 9 votes, precipitating the adoption of the bill and prompting thousands to pour into the streets in spontaneous protests.

    Meanwhile, an ever-growing majority of French people and protesters reject legislation, which would increase the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

    Far from constituting an exception, 16 March marks the 100th time under France’s Fifth Republic that executive chose to draw on special powers to force through an unpopular measure. President Macron used the article once in his first term (2017-2022), and 11 times since the start of his second term, in June 2022. Introduced in the Fifth Republic’s Constitution in 1958 authored by Michel Debré, article 19 paragraph 3 of France’s Constitution – known widely as “49.3” – was intended to “rationalise” the parliamentary system and resolve crises and deadlocks by handing over the reins to the executive.

    Regardless of their affiliation, successive French governments over the last 20 years have almost systematically resorted to it to pass projects that profoundly modify the country’s welfare system or labour regulations – even if it means backing down afterwards under pressure from the street.

    An occupied square in Toulouse during the May 1968 movement.
    André Cros/Wikimedia

    May 68 was also a parliamentary crisis

    A key reference in the history of protest movements over the past 50 years, the crisis of May 68 did not just take place in the lecture halls and in the streets. It also inspired opposition to Gaullism, the political thought spawned by the leader of French resistance during World War II and former president Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969).

    Worn out by 10 years in office, de Gaulle hung to power by a threadbare majority, be it in public opinion or the national assembly. On 24 April 1968, a vote of no-confidence on public broadcasting reforms failed to succeed for lack of 8 votes. As the executive grappled with how it ought to respond to the demands of students and employees, the opposition issued a new no-confidence vote, which was discussed in a climate of extreme tension on 21 and 22 May.

    Then the leader of the non-communist left, François Mitterrand (who went on to become president from 1981 to 1995), spoke of a regime crisis which undermined the “system” in power and called for a political “alternative” that he was ready to embody. Although critical of the government’s management of the crisis, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (president from 1974 to 1981) and his Independent Republican group stood by the executive. The no-confidence vote failed, with 233 deputies voting in favour – 11 short of the 244 required.

    Above: Michel Debré, prime minister from 1959 to 1962, was the author of the constitution of France’s Fifth Republic. Below: then-president Charles de Gaulle.
    Wikipedia, CC BY

    The parliamentary win didn’t suffice to restore the legitimacy of the government, however, amid unrelenting student and workers’ protests. On 30 May, de Gaulle therefore followed the advice of his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, by triggering new parliamentary elections after having toyed for a time with the idea of a referendum over the reform.

    Tapping into fears of revolutionary disorder, the Gaullists secured an unprecedented majority in the legislative elections of 23 and 30 June 1968. But the victory was then, once again, precarious, and all too tied to that particular context. In reality, the civil unrest of 1968 dealt a severe blow to the government, prompting de Gaulle to resign 10 months later following the failure of the April 1969 constitutional referendum on government decentralisation.

    Mass protests

    Mass demonstrations rocked the executive again in 1984. Led by Pierre Mauroy (prime minister under François Mitterand from 1981 to 1984), the predominantly socialist government faced virulent opposition over the Savary bill, which aimed to create a unified and secular national-education system.

    The government had the majority needed to adopt the text, which was part of 110 proposals put forward by Mitterrand in 1981. However, it succumbed to the use of article 49.3 on 23 May 1984 to push the bill after a first reading in the National Assembly.

    Pressure on the street and in public opinion was such that Mitterrand eventually announced the withdrawal of the bill on 12 July 1984, resulting in the resignations of Education Minister Alain Savary and Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy.

    Two years later, Jacques Chirac took the same decision amid large-scale protests against the Devaquet bill, which sought to allow universities to select students and introduce competition within higher education.

    1995: The mother of all protests against French pension reform

    Between 1988 and 1993, socialist governments only enjoyed relative majorities in the national assembly. But when they resorted to article 49.3 or faced no-confidence votes that sometimes nearly toppled them, it was never in a context of mass or radical protests over reforms.

    This changed in November-December 1995 with opposition to an austerity package known by the name of the then prime minister, Alain Juppé. Intended to tighten to public finances ahead of France’s adoption of the euro currency, the reforms would have – among others – raised employees’ contribution to retirement funds and aligned specialised retirement regimes with that of the general public.

    The bill provoked unrest on a scale unseen since 1968, even though the government held a large majority in the two assemblies. As in 1986, the government ended up withdrawing its bill on 15 December 1995 without consulting the national assembly.

    Demonstrators wave banners and a puppet at the effigy of Prime Minister Alain Juppé, on December 12, 1995.
    Derrick Ceyrac/AFP

    Socialist president François Hollande (2012-2017), too, made copious use of the article. To his great displeasure, the then Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron saw his framework bill deregulating work – including plans to extend night and Sunday work – shoehorned into law without a vote. Likewise, the labour law put forward by the Myriam El Khomri was forced through on the first reading (on 10 May 2016) and upon final adoption (on 21 July).

    Passing a law is not the end of the story

    Under Macron’s first mandate (2017-2022), Prime Minister Édouard Philippe resorted to article 49.3 once on 29 February 2020 to push through the pension bill which, at the time, intended to replace France’s special retirement regimes with a universal system. The government enjoyed the necessary majority to pass the text, but it wanted to bring a swift close to protests which, one year after the “gilets jaunes” movement, undermined its political and electoral base.

    On 16 March 2020, Macron nevertheless justified pausing deliberations over the reform on the grounds of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since taking up office, his uncompromising stance toward social demands has provoked the uproar of trade unions and undoubtedly contributed to the evolution of his electorate toward the moderate right.

    Elisabeth Borne’s government is not the first to use its authority in parliament to pass controversial reform and to try to put an end to a turmoil which, if it were to continue, would hurt the government’s reputation.

    However, a parliamentary victory acquired through Article 49.3 or the rejection of a no-confidence vote is not enough to regain legitimacy – Charles de Gaulle himself experienced this in May 1968. Several laws adopted in this way were not promulgated. Thus, in no way does the vote on Monday 20 March bring an end to a particularly delicate episode for the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. More

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    Giorgia Meloni's win in Italy proves even a seemingly successful government can fall victim to populism

    In a historic win, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy took 26% of the national vote in Italy’s latest election – the first time a far-right party will take the lead in government since the second world war. Meloni will become prime minister at the head of a coalition – although the make up of that government is yet to be decided.

    While this outcome was expected, it is still astonishing. In the 2018 elections, Meloni’s party took a mere 4.3% of the vote. But her fortunes rapidly changed. By February 2021, when former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi was forming a national unity government, 16.5% of the voting public was already saying they intended to vote for Brothers of Italy – the only major political party not supporting Draghi. Although respected internationally, Draghi’s government was perceived by many Italians as being the ultimate expression of the power held by the world’s financial elites. Meloni voiced this populist concern on many occasions, and her strategy has paid off.

    When the Draghi government fell apart in July 2022, after barely a year and half in office, Brothers of Italy had reached 25% while the League was down from 25% to 12.4%.

    By staying outside of the coalition, Meloni gave herself the opportunity to freely criticise the government and present her party as the only true opposition. More than a nostalgic vote for a distant fascist past, the Italian electorate’s support for Meloni reflects a discontent with the current economic and social situation.

    Salvini, Berlusconi and Meloni appeared together at a rally just ahead of the vote.
    EPA/ Giuseppe Lami

    Distance from the Draghi government also paid off for the Five Star Movement. The populist party currently led by Giuseppe Conte was floundering on 10% in July 2022 (having polled as high as 33% in 2018) but has rebuilt to somewhere more like 15%. During the electoral campaign, the Five Star Movement revived some popular policy measures, such as a guaranteed “citizen’s income”, which Draghi had criticised. They made a particularly strong showing in the south, thanks to policies of this kind.

    Parties that explicitly or implicitly (in the League’s case) opposed the Draghi government together took more than 50% of the vote while parties running on the “Draghi agenda” (Azione) or pledging their support to the Draghi government (the Democratic Party and More Europe) reached less than 30%.

    The revolt against Draghi’s government is all the more interesting since he was not pushing for austerity measures but rather drafting reforms and investment measures financed by the EU. The populist narrative of protecting the ordinary people from the financial elite still proved a successful tactic.

    What a Meloni government will look like

    Meloni is Italy’s first female prime minister. With the exception of Scandinavia, most other female prime ministers in Europe have also come from right-wing parties. This is somewhat ironic, given how it is often parties of the left who pride themselves on advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. Ironically, the Brothers of Italy’s victory led to the replacement of a 75-year-old man belonging the establishment (Draghi) with a 45-year-old woman (Meloni).

    Nevertheless, forming a government will not be easy for Meloni. While the electoral results established her as the clear head of the coalition, a lack of expertise and experience will make populating ministerial posts a challenge. The highest level expert advisers in Italy are more commonly associated with moderate political parties, so finding people will be less easy for an insurgent party like Brothers of Italy. Who to put in charge of foreign affairs and economics are particularly pressing questions. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has already offered his support.

    A woman casts her ballot in Sicily.
    Orietta Scardino

    Meloni will have a chance to take a hardline approach on domestic policy and will certainly endeavour to be tougher on migration and on social rights, as her electorate appears to be demanding. But she will struggle to do much by way of radical economic change. The Draghi government already drafted a detailed plan of reforms and investments that will have to be carried out in order to secure EU financing. Although the Brothers of Italy is a statist, corporatist and nationalist party which tends to mistrust globalisation, Meloni can’t afford to put too much distance between herself and the European Union.

    She may follow the style of many Italian politicians before her by double dealing. There’s an old saying that Italian politicians hold two press conferences in Brussels: one on the top floor for business and EU partners, and another in the basement, for the public who blames Brussels for any reform measure.

    And given the complex international landscape, Meloni will find foreign policy just as difficult to manage.

    On campaign posters, Meloni asked Italians “Pronti?” (ready?) – the same question Draghi posed to members of the Italian parliament about his reform plans before it all fell apart. While her election has been received as a radical shift, the new prime minister would be wise to not overestimate how ready people are for change. More

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    Swedish election: triumph for the nationalist right leaves establishment parties in a quandary

    The nationalist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are the major gainers of the 2022 Swedish national elections.

    Votes are still being counted but preliminary results show the party has gained 3.1%. This makes it the second largest party in Sweden, trailing only the the left-wing Social Democrats (albeit only by about 1.5% of the vote). And while the Social Democrats may be the largest individual party, the broader results currently make a right-wing coalition a more likely prospect.

    Importantly, the Sweden Democrats have become the largest party of the right, which will leave other, more established parties on that side of the political spectrum in a difficult position when negotiations over forming a government begin.

    The coalition game

    In Sweden, the parties stand individual candidates but, knowing that coalitions are the norm, they generally make pre-electoral alliances. Smaller parties inform the voters of their post-election plans during the campaign, including which other parties they see as their potential governing partners. They also make it clear which parties they would not consider acceptable partners.

    Sweden Democrats have historically been left out of such alliances. That, however, may have to change.

    Since the 1970s, Sweden has been ruled by minority governments (with a few notable exceptions, such as during 2006-2010). The coalition in power needs the support of other parties in the parliament to pass through legislation, in exchange for concessions on core issues to these parties.

    When looking at the election results, the most important element is the viability of the coalition and the willingness of non-coalition members to support the new cabinet when laws are passed in the parliament.

    A place for the nationalist right in government?

    With votes still being tallied, the race between the conservative alliance Moderaterna and the centre-left alliance Social Democrats is incredibly tight. There are fewer than 50,000 votes between them. It does, however, look likely that the right-wing coalition will secure the majority of seats in the Riksdag (parliament) once postal votes and votes coming in from Swedish nationals living abroad have been counted.

    Votes are still being counted in this exceptionally tight race.

    The question, now, is whether the Moderaterna bloc will create a minority government excluding the Sweden Democrats (as they implied they would during the campaign) or whether they will be forced by the results of the popular vote to award the right-wingers a ministerial post. If they do, they risk losing the support of the Liberal party, which agreed to join a governing coalition only if the Sweden Democrats remain outside the cabinet.

    Moderaterna is under extra pressure here since it performed less well in 2022 than it did in the election held in 2018 and has been overtaken by the Sweden Democrats. In fact, all the parties belonging to the conservative alliance have lost votes since 2018. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, performed better this year than in 2018, making them the only right-wing party to have made gains. This makes it all the harder to justify excluding them from a coalition.

    It is too early to call these elections, as negotiations will likely continue to weeks or even months. In 2018, it took until December to swear in a government and this year’s result may deliver similarly protracted negotiations.

    What we do know is that the left-wing Social Democrats did not receive clear support from Swedish voters. The recent prevalence of violent crime and gang activity were top concerns in this election, and Moderaterna has made law and order a core campaign issue for decades.

    And even though the message has not been explicitly framed as such, many voters make an association between crime and the question of migrant integration. This, of course, has been encouraged by the Sweden Democrats, the very people who have come out on top in the vote. More