Toni Mikec, Foreign Policy Contributor
Opinion -- Although the victory of Moon Jae-in in South Korea and the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France seem to be two very different political events, they have many complaints in common against the political and economic system of their country. These links, in fact, are so strong that political analysts have labeled both politicians “populists.”
After the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges, the way was clear for the election of the left-leaning Moon Jae-in to the presidency of South Korea. However, while President Moon appealed directly to the South Korean people, he did so in a very different way than Le Pen did in France. Moon voiced his support for South Korean governmental institutions, has pushed for greater social solidarity and more equitable distribution of national income, and has advocated for talks with North Korea.
These policy proposals have been mirrored in the way that the South Korean people have addressed the problem of growing corruption in their national government. For instance, during their anti-corruption protests, South Koreans would cite their constitution by saying, “The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people.” Although they manifested the same anger as voters in Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale (FN) at being cut out of the social fabric by an unresponsive state, the anger of the South Koreans was directed more against the central government and its ties to historically corrupt corporations than against other institutions such as the courts or law enforcement or even a shadowy “other” that seeks to destroy the values of the nation. In a sense, the election of Moon Jae-in represented the victory of all the people against a few opponents.
On the other hand, the FN in France had a message that was very similar to Moon’s on the surface but defined some common terms like “the people” differently. For instance, the FN is also very socially liberal in its economic platform, but the question of who would benefit from these policies is very different than Moon’s policies. In short, the key difference between the two is that the FN defines “the French people” in an exclusionary way while Moon’s policies embrace all South Koreans. Although it is true that France is much more ethnically diverse (for historical reasons) than South Korea, it is interesting to note how two parties with the same political label define the nation differently. While one is intentionally exclusionary, the other one is inclusionary.
The way that these parties approached the question of national (and in the case of the Front National, international) institutions also makes them quite different. In South Korea, the grievances, albeit motivated by the same sense of political exclusion that was shared by the FN voters, was directed against the former president herself. There was no indication that any other part of the government was to blame for her improprieties. However, the FN has aired multiple grievances not only with the French government but with the European Union itself. In fact, the FN has threatened many times to have France leave the European Union and to put France back on the French franc many times. In addition, it is important to note that the roots of the FN lie with an anti-government and anti-elitist movement in the 1950s called Poujadism. Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was an early adherent of this movement, and its influence remains in the FN today.
In recent years, the word “populist” has been thrown around a great deal by the media. The positive connotation has come from the fact that these parties have claimed to be responsive to the will of the people, which is the point of having democratically elected governments. The negative aspect has been linked to the bellicosity of these leaders and has often involved these leaders invoking long-buried national grievances against their historic foes and violating established democratic norms such as by provoking constitutional crises with their nation’s constitutional courts.
Regardless of the connotation of the word populist, is important to note that the ordinary people of France and South Korea were angry enough to push back against the elites in both countries. In South Korea, they successfully pushed for the ouster of an unpopular president, while in France they successfully defeated both of the strongest political parties for the first time since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. Clearly, the rest of the world’s established parties should take care to spend less time bickering with each other and attempt to correct their nation’s problems instead. If not, they could find themselves denied power.
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