Today politicians have many new ways to engage with their voters. As we have already seen, Twitter has taken its place as one of the most significant tools in political communication. Newly elected US president Donald Trump is perhaps the most well-known representative of modern-day Twitter politics.
European politicians too have caught up with the vast opportunities provided by social media. The Front National leader, and strong candidate for presidency, Marine Le Pen, is definitely one of the active Twitter users. During the first 34 days of 2017 (till Feb 3rd), Le Pen tweeted 229 times, making it almost 7 tweets a day. For political leaders Twitter, and social media in general, provides a unique tool to communicate directly to their supporters without any extended bureaucratic measures – a feature very attractive especially for populist leaders whose rhetoric is strongly based around attacking the faceless and non-responsive political system. Social media platforms let politicians come down to the people; without the need to take the streets.
In a recent interview for Le Parisien, Le Pen stated that, if elected president, her first foreign trip would be to Brussels where immediate negotiations for the restoration of French sovereignty would be started. The clash between French sovereignty and the role of Brussels is the most dominant theme also on her Twitter. And the rhetoric is strong.
For Le Pen it all comes down to Brussels. In her tweets Brussels is portrayed as a haven for the elite, a place where bad forces of financial domination meet corrupt politics and together deprive the peoples and democracy all over Europe. The word ‘Brussels’ does not even need to mentioned in a context. It is all there. One word, a place, is the reason for all misery, and the one factor holding back French greatness.
Brussels is the face of ‘the system’, a notion very close to Donald Trump’s idea of ‘the establishment’. On January 3rd she tweeted that “the [current] System is a form of oligarchy that despises the people and even governs against it and against its opinion”. A week later, on January 10th, Le Pen tweeted that it indeed is the banking industry that “decides who can, or who cannot run for presidency”. All tweets in French, obviously.
In the race for presidency Le Pen has accused other candidates of being mere puppets of Brussels, which is, for her, probably the worst insult there is. These claims sound harmless but actually contain a powerful notion. With relating her opponents with Brussels, Le Pen points out that they are not representatives of the French people, but of a foreign elite dominance which should have no influence in their national elections. By doing so Le Pen delegitimises all her competitors. This kind of rhetoric makes her opponents seem not only anti-patriotic but also anti-democratic. She wrote that “[presidential candidate Emmanuel] Macron is the candidate of Brussels, of ultra-liberalism, of globalisation, of austerity, and of the media”, attacking several enemies of the ‘will of the people’ at once. Macron had even gone to Berlin and held a lecture in English! “Pauvre France”, poor France, she tweeted on January 10th.
On January 20th she tweeted that also François Fillon, the Conservative candidate who has later been put under corruption investigation due to money-transfers to her wife’s bank account, is going to apply his “destructive plan” at the request of Brussels. On February 1st she continued the attack on her opponents, blaming Macron of being the candidate of ‘the system’ and of working for the interests of “great financial power”, and taking Fillon’s austerity politics beyond evil: to a point that “even the European Union could not have dreamed of”. Both candidates represent someone else’s interests and are betraying the French people. But Marine Le Pen herself? “Je ne me sens ni de droite, ni de gauche : je me sens de France ! Je défends l’intérêt des Français.” Not from the right nor from the left but from France, protecting the interests of the French.
Marine Le Pen also took advantage of the terrorist attack at a Christmas market in Berlin to prove her point. On January 3rd Le Pen called the Schengen area a strainer through which the terrorist had been able to move freely. Shortly after she tweeted: “The real question is, what is François Fillon’s relation to Islamic fundamentalism?” This kind of construction of antagonisms is crucial to Le Pen’s rhetoric. There is no in between; you are either for or against, so, if Fillon supports the Schengen agreement, he is for Islamic fundamentalism. Referring to the fact that 1.7 million people cross-border commuted to work every single day in 2014 would not answer the question. Marine Le Pen also claims that the majority of the French people wants to re-establish the control of their own borders. And that she is the only one supporting this wish.
One of the interesting points clearly present in Le Pen’s tweets is the concept of economic patriotism. Surely, with the spirit of encouragement coming from the other side of the Atlantic, Le Pen is loud about protecting the French people from the “savage globalisation”, which is, in her words, a “killing” economic model. Criticising the current trend of delocalisation, Le Pen would replace the current model with “economic patriotism and intelligent protectionism”. At the moment, as she reminds, this is impossible because of the European Union. For Le Pen, “Made in France” is not only a label, but an expression of the economic patriotism that the EU forbids. It is precisely this impossibility of implementing economic patriotism that is apparent in her Tweets as one of the main reasons why the EU must be questioned – and now.
The presidency of Donald Trump without a doubt strengthens the demands of putting the nation first. Free trade in the form we know it has proven to not be the only way of economic structuring. Once forbid protectionism seems to be doing a comeback at least in some liberal democracies. What the fate in Europe will be, is something we will see sooner or later.
Marine Le Pen herself is optimistic. The recent meetings with other anti-EU leaders, and perhaps even her visit to Trump Tower surely have not lessened this. A day after Trump’s inauguration, when Le Pen was meeting her counterparts from other countries in the German city of Koblenz, she tweeted: “2017, I am sure, will be the year of the awakening of the peoples of continental Europe.” This statement has at least three preconditions: that now we have our eyes closed and are not seeing well, that there indeed are several ‘peoples’ in Europe, and, that the awakening has already happened outside continental Europe, that is, in the United Kingdom.
What is very crucial to populist rhetoric in general, is, that it assumes ‘the people’ to be one coherent entity. But it was not the ‘British people’ as such, that decided to opt for Brexit. It was 51.9% of the Brits who voted. And it was definitely not the ‘American people’ that decided to vote for Trump. It was less than half. What will be the case in France and elsewhere, remains to be seen. But what is clear, is, that we will not see ‘a united people’ in any European election. And rhetoric based on adversaries will definitely not help it.