Laïcité, Populism, and the Future of the French Left – an interview of Professor Marlière

Prof Marlière is a Professor in French and European Politics at UCL. He was previously a Research Fellow at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and at the European University Institute. His recent papers include “La laïcité, garante du pluralisme culturel et religieux”, “The ‘Islamo-gauchiste threat’ as political nudge”, and “Jean-Luc Mélenchon and France Insoumise: The Manufacturing of Populism”. 

This article captures an insightful and thought-provoking discussion the author had with Prof. Philippe Marlière on the complex landscape of contemporary French Politics.

The rise of confusionnisme in French Politics 

We began the interview by considering the increasingly complex and confusing political landscape in Europe, including in France. Prof. Marlière, drawing on the work of political scientist Philippe Corcuff, points to a current process of “confusionnisme” occurring between the radical left and the far-right. This concept, Marlière explains, refers to the blending of political narratives and ideologies that makes it progressively more challenging to differentiate between the left and the right on various issues. At the same time, he notes that extremist forces are increasingly being perceived as mainstream, with a rise in populism further contributing to the state of confusionnisme regarding the meaning of political ideologies. These opening remarks struck me as particularly interesting. Being able to put a name on a process that so many of us have noticed in some shape or form during the last years, without ever being able to truly identify it, can make us realise the extent of this pan-European transformation. Indeed, many have noticed these changes at a micro-level, whilst following the politics of a specific European country. Noticing the larger pattern, however, gives us a completely new perspective. 

Populism and the Left 

Asked to elaborate on the topic of populism, Marlière explains that populists tend to use ‘floating signifiers,’ which are ambiguous notions that people strongly relate to but interpret differently. In the case of France, this includes concepts such as republicanism, laïcité, or even democracy.  For him, the French left’s embrace of populism ultimately contributes to the rise of the far-right, as it is they who benefit from confusionnisme through their capture of floating signifiers. He notes that the French Left today is historically weak and fragmented, with a combined score of less than 30%. When asked about potential solutions, Marlière argued that the continued presence of Mélenchon at the head of France’s left makes any reconstruction impossible. While he recognises Mélenchon’s charisma and popular appeal to his supporters, Marlière notes that most of the population rejects his raw and confrontational style. In short, Marliere’s position is that for the French left to move forward, it must renew its leadership, show greater unity, and come across as politically competent–and, according to Marlière, none of that is possible with the continued presence of Mélenchon. I do not necessarily agree. The danger of the prevailing idea that “il faut sacrifier Mélenchon pour sauver la gauche” (we must sacrifice Mélenchon to save the left) is that it frames the solution to one of the country’s most complex political problems in exceedingly simplistic terms. At a moment when the French left has finally been quasi-united under the NUPES umbrella, getting rid of the sole figure that manages to command a semblance of leadership within the left-wing political family is to risk a level of in-fighting that might lock the French left out of power for at least another decade. It is therefore no surprise that some of the biggest advocates of getting rid of Mélenchon in French public discourse are centre-right and right-wing political pundits. 


Our discussion then moved on to the highly controversial topic of laïcité. The French concept of laïcité (secularism) initially referred to the separation of church and state (1905 in the case of France), although it is now more commonly seen as a strict separation between religion and the public realm with discretion about your own religion perceived by many as integral to ‘Frenchness’. Religious symbols, such as the veil or the Kippah, are banned in public schools and prohibited for employees of public hospitals, the French civil service, the police, and all other public bodies. Marlière traces the origins of this debate to the 1980s when people began scrutinising the children of migrants from former French colonies for their religious practices. Laïcité is a perfect example of a floating signifier in French politics; most of the population supports the concept, but it means radically different things depending on whom you ask. He asserts that the debate about laïcité is toxic, as it has become a tool for affirming national identity against minority groups, particularly when it comes to issues such as the hijab and dress codes. Invited to expand on this, he also asserts that many French public figures are not genuinely concerned about laïcité and merely use it as a vehicle for their dislike of migrants and individuals from the Maghreb region. He believes such an approach, based on cracking down on religion, is a false and authoritarian interpretation of laïcité, which was initially meant to guarantee, not suppress, freedom of religion. On potential solutions, Marlière says France needs respected political figures and intellectuals to advocate for a more liberal approach to laïcité. Why isn’t this already happening? For Marliere, whilst many French politicians share liberal views on laïcité, they shy away from sharing or acting upon them due to fear of political backlash and jeopardising their careers. Such is the extent of the toxicity of this debate. 

What the future holds

To conclude our conversation, I probed Marlière on his assessment of what the future holds for France. Ultimately, Marlière thinks that France may be sleepwalking towards the election of a far-right government in 2027. This would be a situation similar to Italy’s with the success of Fratelli d’Italia and a radicalised right in government. Nevertheless, he is convinced that courageous leaders, a change in public discourse, and a stronger commitment to liberal values can lead to a more cohesive and tolerant France. I hope he is correct. 

Yanis Fekar studies Politics and International Relations at UCL. He is Vice President of the UCL United Nations Association and a Student Ambassador of the UCL European Institute. 

Image credit: Photo by Rodrigo Kugnharski on Unsplash

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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