Why Is Populism So Popular?

A group of international journalists is hunting for answers surrounding the events of the French election: why is the concept of a united Europe in such peril right now? The first event of the Bosch Alumni Network is proof that different perspectives inform your own opinion - and that the networking of the alumni opens up new possibilities.

Eva Wolfangel | May 2017
Internationale Journalisten in Frankreich machen sich Notizen
Photo: Eva Wolfangel

Ivan Fischer has seen the divesture of his homeland, nationalism, war, hate, anger, and the suffering of his own family. After all of that, the 37-year-old journalist from Croatia is convinced that the experience of his home country, part of the former Yugoslavia, is exactly what Europe needs the least at the moment. "Balkanization means slicing a region up into many smaller units," he says, sighing softly. Shortly thereafter, a young candidate from the Front National summarizes in an interview: "The EU was a mistake." As a journalist, Fischer deals a lot with the "European issue," as he calls it. Now he has come to France with colleagues from around the world to get to the bottom of what is behind the current growth in nationalism and populism.

Bosch Alumni Network Kickoff

The presidential election in France is a fitting occasion to go fact-finding and, at the same time, a decisive election with regard to the future of the European Union. These considerations led to this study trip for journalists, the first event of the new Bosch Alumni Network, which aims to network alumni of all programs of the Foundation. Of the 50 journalists who applied, 20 were selected. In France, they will speak with representatives of the police, foundations, confidants of Macron, and with candidates from the Front National party.

From France to the Netherlands and Back

So what motivates these people? During a break, Ivan Fischer has a chat with Miriam Pepper - an experienced American journalist - over a cup of coffee. "Growing populism is a problem in most developed countries around the globe," says Pepper. "People feel like their voices are no longer being heard. Our job is to better inform these people and to win back their trust." But how? She has also come to investigate what supporters of Trump and Le Pen have in common. Every participant brings their own perspective with them. Fischer, for his part - especially in consideration of his country’s history - hopes to convey the message that balkanization is not the answer for Europe. Maksim Melnyk from Ukraine has come to the same conclusion as Fischer, despite having a completely different background: "We believe in the concept of a united Europe," he says. "It’s painful for me to see that this idea is becoming less and less cherished in the heart of Europe."

The different views once again make it clear to the participants what is special about Europe - for example in conversation with a high-ranking representative from the police about security and terrorism. "I still can’t really believe it," says Tunisian journalist Karim Ben Said. "I traveled from France to the Netherlands and back to France - and I wasn’t stopped a single time. Isn’t that dangerous?" "No, open borders within the European Union actually should not be risky," responds the representative. "Open borders are completely normal for us." He does ultimately admit that more border control would make the work of the police somewhat easier, "but that would contradict the concept of Europe that we advocate for."

Talking about Europe’s Positives

This concept of Europe - why is it in such peril right now? This question forms the through line of the entire study trip. "Some politicians take advantage of their constituents’ fear," observed Karim Ben Said. "I’ve noticed that European politicians rarely talk about the positive sides of the EU for the people. All they ever say is, ‘Without the EU there’d be no more economic crisis.’" That might be a mistake - perhaps they should consider talking about the good things again.

Like Marine Le Pen. Just the other way around and not entirely accurate. "She tells the farmers: ‘If we leave the EU, you will receive more support,’" explains Arnaud Rousseau, president of the French agricultural union and mayor of Seine et Marne, a small village of some 300 people. A mere 70 kilometers from Paris, and already the majority of the population supports Le Pen. The journalists ask Rousseau why the rural population so often supports populism. "It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get by purely on agriculture," he explains. The processing industry and discount stores lower prices. "Twenty percent of farmers in difficult economic situations no longer see the relevance of the EU." There needs to be more done for that than a mere comparison of the numbers - more than simply how much France receives and pays in euros.

"There Is No Reason to Rest on Our Laurels"

"If your party one day manages to bring about France’s withdrawal from the EU, how will you explain to your students that they can no longer travel freely or conduct their business across borders?" Ukrainian Melnyk asks of a Front National candidate a few towns away. The candidate responds that withdrawal from the EU would not limit travel, and - by the way - he is very optimistic that his party will come to power by the next election at the latest. "The young people are with us - we will continue to grow."

Can there be a return to the status quo after the election? "There is no reason to rest on our laurels," warns a close confidant of France’s newly elected president Emmanuel Macron in an off-the-record conversation with the journalists. "We still have elections in Italy. We have to show the people that Europe is safe." The journalists nod, all deep in thought. "That is the most important question," Ivan Fischer says finally. "Can the rise of populism be stopped before it does significant damage?" It turned out OK this time. But there is still plenty of work to be done to convince the people of the advantages of Europe.