The anti-elitist elite: a French paradox

The results of the presidential election led many observers to believe that France would be divided into three poles: a governing center, a right-wing grouping its conservative and extremist currents, and a left-wing mostly rallying to its radical pole.

William Genieys, Sciences Po and Mohammad-Saïd Darviche, University of Montpellier

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The variables of electoral sociology, abstentionism, the generation or lifestyle divide explain that this is not a simple repetition of the 2017 scenario. Indeed, the "yellow vests" crisis and the Covid-19 crisis have accentuated the feeling of "detestation" of the politicians representing the governing parties. Emmanuel Macron embodies this detestation particularly well.

Towards an alignment of rhetoric against the "elites"?

Few of these analysts, however, highlighted the unprecedented victory of candidates claiming to be anti-elitist.

The term "elite" comes from the verb eligere ("to choose"), a Latin term in use in France as early as the 12th century. In modern times, "elite" and "elitism" refer to a certain number of "chosen" people in the human community who are destined to lead the non-"chosen", associating them with the notion of merit. In contrast to aristocracy, elitism has a positive social and political connotation. Anti-elitism is a radical critique of this concept. Today, when applied to political life, it calls into question the "meritocratic" nature of competence, and hence the legitimacy of the elites of representative democracy.

This is how we describe the candidates who mobilized anti-elitist rhetoric during the campaign. The far right, Éric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, the sovereignist right, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Jean Lassalle, as well as radical left-wing candidates Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Artaud, vilified the power of the "oligarchy", the "powerful", "finance", the "caste", "those at the top" and so on.

Candidates who mobilized this rhetoric in the first round of presidential elections between 2012 and 2022 obtained a steadily rising number of votes: 33% in 2012; 49.8%: 2017; 61.1% in 2022. While we can't really make a causal link between this rhetoric and these scores, we can assume that this rhetoric hasn't shocked voters to the point of dissuading them from casting their votes for these candidates.

Rhetoric against representative democracy

This anti-elitist rhetoric - relayed by populist leaders for over a decade - transcends the right-left divide.

As Jacques Julliard points out, the social movement of 1995 was the historic moment that made anti-elitist rhetoric "one of the obligatory topos of political discourse". Since then, it has continued to become central to the most radical discursive styles on the right, but also increasingly on the left, in particular of La France insoumise. Gérald Bronner reminds us that even more moderate political professionals are not averse to using this figure of "cognitive demagogy". We all remember François Hollande' s "My adversary is the world of finance" during the 2012 election campaign. In this context, rational arguments lose their place, since even those who should be making them do away with them in the name of electoral profitability.

From this perspective, the oligarchy "of the rich, the caste of politicians" and the technocrats of the "deep state (French or Brussels)" must go. This call to get rid of the elite is consubstantial with the division of the world between the (good) people and the (evil) elite. Shouldn't good naturally drive out evil? Usually part of the conceptual baggage of the extreme right, this reduction of the political struggle to religious categories has also been theorized by the so-called "radical" left.

Philosopher Chantal Mouffe calls for the repudiation of reason, the foundation of liberal democracy, in favor of"libidinal energy". She proposes to "mobilize" this "malleable" energy against oligarchy in order to "build" the "people". In this perspective, emotions and affects will have to translate into the "physical and visceral" rejection of the elite, as MP François Ruffin suggests.

Moreover, anti-elitism is presented as a political discourse that can "save" democracy. For its promoters, contemporary elitism counteracts the egalitarian imaginary and overshadows the great projects of emancipation in favor of neoliberal globalization.

Mobilizing the decline of "grand narratives

This anti-elitism draws its strength from a context of declining "grand narratives" (liberalism, socialism, etc.) and is today easily recuperated by proponents of a critique of representative democracy. This ideological fuel for stunned social movements, such as the "yellow vests", enables an ever-wider electorate to be mobilized around an alleged divide between "elite bloc" and "popular bloc".

The reasoning of these critics of the "oligarchy" is based on a "terrible simplification": the myth of the existence of a "Conscious, Coherent and Conspiring" elite(the "3 Cs" model ) criticized by James Meisel for distorting the theory of the ruling class by Gaetano Mosca. Indeed, this shortcut facilitates the association of any type of elite mediation with conspiracy theories.

In the populist discursive strategy, the idea of a unified elite maximizing its interests strongly competes with that - more consistent with democratic pluralism - of a multiplicity of elite groups competing for political, religious, social and economic power.

In the United States, since the administration of George Bush Jr. there have been reports of the role of a "shadow elite " in promoting the second Gulf War. However, the demonstration of the interpenetration of neoconservative networks and the foreign affairs administration is based on work of questionable scientific quality. Empirically more solid research has shown that, in the case of health insurance reform, interest groups(big pharma, insurance companies, etc.) played no such role with the Obama administration. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, the myth of an omnipotent elite influencing all democratic decisions persists. At a time of crisis of confidence in government, it reinforces the belief in anti-elitism.

The anti-elitist elite: another oligarchy?

Taking this sociological line of reasoning a step further, we could establish that certain leaders who mobilize anti-elitist rhetoric also form an elite. British diplomat and former Conservative minister George Walden has described the emergence of an " upper-caste elite of anti-elitists", made up of individuals from very privileged social backgrounds, such as Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Both are products of the elitist Eton-Oxford curriculum.

In France, the anti-elite elite is characterized by its profile of political professionals. Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are emblematic examples, as their careers and partisan leadership demonstrate. The former is a "political heiress" who began her career at the age of 18, rising through the ranks of the Front National before running for president in 2012. The second is a "product of French meritocracy", obtaining his CAPES in modern literature and joining the Socialist Party in 1976.

In the course of his long political career, he has held a number of elected positions, including Member of Parliament, Senator, Member of the European Parliament, and the executive post of Minister for Vocational Education (2000-2002). Since founding his own party (Le Parti de Gauche in 2008, which became La France Insoumise in 2016), he has also stood three times in presidential elections. What's more, both have imposed uncontested leadership on their political parties, as evidenced by their continual re-election to the leadership. This iron grip on the organization illustrates the iron law of oligarchy dear to Roberto Michels.

The criteria of elite sociology - social origin, education, career path, length of political career, number and type of mandates - show, unsurprisingly, how little distance separates them from those they denounce.The Conversation

William Genieys, CNRS Research Director at CEE, Sciences Po and Mohammad-Saïd Darviche, Senior Lecturer, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.