Opinion

Glorious history, dangerous present and a utopian future: a comparative discourse analysis of the Front National and AKP

“There is a revolution going on, a revolution of nations, actually, it is the great return of nations, and the great return of the people and democracy.”1 

This astonishing statement by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party Front National (FN), pointedly sums up the political doctrine of those parties that have combined populism (the pure people vs. elite) and nationalism (the native people vs. others) for their absolute success, and the extremity of this phenomenon that is gaining ground across various political systems, particularly those in Europe. The convergence of nationalism in the populist discourse established a new strain of ethno-cultural nationalism, an exclusionary conception of ‘national identity’ and an anti-European Union (EU)/anti-globalisation agenda that envisages the contemporary nation under danger and proposes to return the nation to its past glory. On that note, the adaptation of a populist nationalist nexus in the far-right political parties has rather become an inherently reactionary movement challenging the established norms of liberalism, democracy, equality and freedom.  

This article takes issue with the political discourse of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP). Both parties have achieved substantial political power in the recent years and have become powerful figures of far-right politics. While Le Pen’s populist and nationalist stand has shown the way to other far-right political parties across Europe, Erdogan’s discourse has also received much appreciation from Middle Eastern countries and opposition from Europe. The success of Le Pen and Erdogan has become a growing concern across European institutions and governments. Hence, both parties have individually become much analysed prominent subjects in the studies of far-right populism. This article will compare and contrast the two groups on the basis of their common characteristics of anti-elitism, nationalism/nativism and anti-multiculturalism (Kaya et al, 2020).  

The development of Populism in Turkey under the AKP  

During the Kemalist authoritarianism, being a legitimate member of the political community depended on accepting the cultural and political meanings of Turkishness introduced by Ataturk (Ozpek and Yasar, 2017), which thoroughly followed the Western European doctrine of secularism. The age of Kemalism saw Turkish socio-political and public clearing of any religious identity and ideology, whether this would be some clothing, such as a hijab, or reading a religious book within the public space. As Keyman writes, Kemalism formulated an aggressive French style of secularism, aimed to reduce Islam as a personal faith (2008). This exclusionary agenda against a sub-section of the population resulted in the suppression of the religious Turks, whom had been the ‘losers’ of the Kemalist regime.  

Consequently, within the first years of AKP, Erdogan successfully capitalised on the anti-establishment feelings of the religious population and openly accused the longitudinal Kemalist regime of failing to represent the interests of the religious masses and for being oppressive, despotic, homogenising and top-down (Akdogan, 2004). By effectively tapping into the feelings of the religious Turks, AKP gradually gained popular vote and replaced the once Kemalist political and legal institutions, media and journalism as well as academia with a Turkish-Islamic synthesis (Ozpek and Yasar, 2017). Inevitably, the antagonistic relationship within the population was re-defined. The polarisation that once was between privileged Turks and the ordinary people, shifted into a polarisation between those that support Ottomanism, Islamic revival and conservative national values and those that reject this identity and advocate Western institutions and secularism (Yabanci, 2016). Thus, Erdogan’s AKP displays its populist rhetoric through a historical nostalgia of the Ottomans, a new identity that is created along the lines of Ottoman traditions, and a discontent and opposition towards internal ‘enemies’ that support Western ideologies, and external enemies in the West, such as the EU institutions.    

French Populism: The case of Front National  

For over forty years, the FN advocated a simplistic ‘master frame’ (Benford and Snow, 2000) that capitalised on anti-immigration, anti-establishment, anti-Semitism, anti-Europeanism and carried a Christian interpretation of the French society and identity. In 2011, Le Pen announced that her first task was to break the FN from its radical ideology and to de-demonise the party as a mainstream that welcomes all ideas and peoples (Symons, 2017). While Le Pen has managed to soften the party’s image by abolishing racism and anti-Semitic discourse, the party still remains exclusionary and ethnocentric. As Symons writes, they remain faithful to the values of Jean Marie Le Pen (ibid). Albeit, by demonstrating nationalist ideologies in a populist framework, Le Pen successfully shifted the empty-hearted elements of anti-Europeanism, anti-establishment and anti-immigration into powerful agendas by visualising Europe, globalisation, immigrants and the corrupt establishment as constituting significant threats to the sovereignty and identity of the French people, the homogenous and pure community inside the nation.  

The most visible distinction, however, has been the replacement of racism and anti-Semitic claims to an ethnocentric worldview that rather excludes on the basis of culture, religion, tradition and lifestyle. Through the nostalgia of a mythical French history, Le Pen’s discourse reincarnates the French identity on the basis of liberty, secularism and freedom. On the opposite end of these values, she places the ‘alienated Muslim’ (Mondon, 2014) whose religion, culture and identity endangers these French values. As a result, Le Pen’s discourse manifests ‘Muslims’ living on French soil as causing a French identity split, reducing the Frenchness of the imagined national community (Seitz, 2020). The EU and globalisation on the other hand, is blamed for its technocratic nature, incompetency against terrorism, its multiculturalism and immigration laws that causes the spread of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’. 

The historical nostalgia  

Historical nostalgia has become a fundamental element of the AKP and FN discourse, as it generates the very need to cure the feeling of loss resulting from the disappearance of established notions of nation, identity and culture (Gest et al, 2017). A very explicit construction in Erdogan’s discourse has been the historical nostalgia of the Ottoman Empire and its Islamic heritage. The AKP has been the first party in the history of the Turkish Republic that embraced the Ottomans and even identified itself as carrying the heritage of the Ottoman Empire:  

           AKP is Malazgird, the one that takes after Sultan Alp Arslan. AKP is the Seljuk Empire. AKP is the Ottoman, the follower of our great ancestors, the inheritor of Faith Sultan Mehmet. AKP is the defender of Abdul Hamid II, who tried to protect and develop our nation at a time when the world was unsettled and chaotic. (Erdogan, 2018) 

In the excerpt above, Erdogan compares the AKP to the past Muslim Turkic empires, the Seljuks, the Ottomans and their leaders. The composition of the AKP as the ‘Battle of Malazgird’, the victory of the Seljuks against the large Greek-Christian Byzantine army, underlines the historical opposition between the Muslim and the Christian world and positions the AKP as the continuation of this fight for Islam. Erdogan’s discourse draws a dualistic conception of the Ottomans, while he discusses them as powerful, using Fatih Sultan Mehmet, conqueror of Constantinople, he also frames the Ottomans as victims of external crisis, as their collapse is designated to an ‘unsettled’ and ‘chaotic’ world, instead of their bankruptcy and the rapid loss of political power. Thus, Erdogan compares the present AKP to a mythical history of the Ottomans, by doing so, he draws a connection between his struggles in upholding the nation and the people against the enemies, to the similar struggles and enemies of the Ottoman Sultans.  

Le Pen’s discourse also embraces the power of the French Empire, in comparison to the weaknesses of the contemporary France: 

                  When the French forgot their own worth, we have to see the vitality of Quebec cinema, of the French-speaking literature in Africa. I believe that France can once again become bigger. (Le Pen, 2016) 

The excerpt above constitutes the very traditional discourse of national populist parties, the mythical past, the problematic present and a utopian future of the nation. Le Pen frames the French Empire as powerful, particularly in the aspect of the spread of French language in the colonies. The contemporary France, however, is framed as forgetting its identity and its history. This construction of the French Empire as glorious, and contemporary France as miserable, places the French Empire and France as an EU member in oppositional categories and by doing so, it also pits the native French who wishes to return the nation to its past power, to the ‘other’ who associates itself with the European identity upon the French national identity.  

The case of Identity  

The building of the exclusionary national identity takes on important values and attributes highlighted through the historical nostalgia of the nation. Erdogan’s framework of the Turkish identity encompasses the Islamic belief of the Ottoman Empire as the defining national belonging of contemporary Turkey:  

               You will not be able to divide our country, you will not be able to destroy our state, you will not be able silence our azan, because we are Turkey, we are the Turkish people, we are Muslims. (Erdogan, 2018)  

The excerpt above is an impeccable example of the antagonism between the Turkish people and the elite, and the extended layer nationalism adds to this antagonism, Turkish people as Muslims vs others. Erdogan’s binary use of the ‘we’ against ‘‘you’ pronouns places two entities in oppositional categories vis-à-vis one another (Aydin-Duzgit, 2016). He firstly constructs Turkey under attack by an external enemy that is ‘dividing’ the ‘country’, this statement places Turkey in a hostile opposition to Europe and recognises Turkey’s ideological differentiation from the West. Secondly, the national identity is defined on an up-down axis as in the studies of populism, the ‘Turkish people’ are against a corrupt ‘devlet’ (state). Thirdly, the identity of the ‘Turkish people’ is explained by nativism and nationalism, and Turkishness becomes an exclusionary identity that composes the ‘Muslim’ identification.  

The construction of identity in Le Pen’s discourse also has a strong emphasis on the French values that have been contrived through the mythical past of the nation:  

                    We the French people are deeply attached to our secularism, to our sovereignty, to our independence, to our values, to our way of life. (Le Pen, 2015) 

In the excerpt above, Le Pen proposes the characteristics of the French national identity. The utilisation of ‘we’ and ‘our’ generates the typical populist discourse, the characteristics attributed to this pronoun, however, proposes the convergence of nationalism in the populist discourse. Le Pen constructs ‘we’ and ‘our’ as the in-group of the population, who constitutes the fundamental values of Frenchness defined by secularism, cultural values and a certain way of living. As the French psychologist Marc Lipiansky writes, a national character is not simply a sum of individual characters, but it is a general way of feeling, thinking and wanting (1991). Hence, Le Pen’s construction of the exclusionary French identity is very vague and narrow, it demands one to fully integrate themselves into the French social and cultural life, replacing all ethnic and cultural authenticity.  This initiates that those who perceive a different lifestyle, clothing, food and faith are inherently antagonistic to the French national identity. The French people are also manifested as having an attachment to sovereignty and independency, this constructs the conflicting relationship between the French people versus the establishment that follow EU regulations, as well as the EU that for long has been for blamed for reducing national power.  

This article aimed to shed light on how the far-right populist leaders have framed and created historical nostalgia and an exclusionary national identity through the convergence of nationalism in their populist discourses. This article found that the narrative of the pure ‘people’ as defined in populism, became exceptionally stronger when the leaders, Le Pen and Erdogan combined nationalism into their discourse, constructing ‘the people’ as both an opposition to the establishment and the elite, but also opposing the ‘people’ as a national community against the ethnoculturally and ideologically ‘other’. The construction of a historical nostalgia in the discourse of Le Pen and Erdogan focuses on a mythical conceptualisation of the past Ottoman and French Empires, solely focusing on the identity and values these Empires possessed. By doing so, this article showed that both parties reincarnate a national identity that carries the heritage of the mythical past, which acts as a shield to protect the nation against growing multiculturalist identities and ideologies of the global economy. On that note, the AKP and FN construct a glorious past of the nation, a crisis-driven present which allows them to detect and frame imaginary enemies of the nation, and an imaginary future of the national community.  


  

Akdogan, Y. (2004). AK Parti ve Muhafazakar Demokrasi [AKP and Conservative Democracy]. Istanbul: Alfa Yayincilik.   

Aydin-Duzgit, S. (2016). ‘De-Europeanisation through Discourse: A Critical Discourse Analysis of AKP’s Election Speeches’ in South European Society and Politics, 21:1, pp. 45-48. 

Gest, J., Reny, T., Mayer, J. (2017). ‘Roots of the Radical Right: Nostalgic Deprivation in the United States and Britain’ in Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 51, pp. 1694-1719. 

Kaya, A., Robert, M. V., & Tecmen, A. (2020). Populism in Turkey and France: nativism, multiculturalism and Euroskepticism. Turkish Studies, 21(3), pp. 361-391. 

Keyman, F. (2008). ‘Introduction: Modernity and Democracy in Turkey’ in Remaking Turkey: Globalization, Alternative Modernities and Democracies, Fuat E. Keyman ed. Oxford: Lexington. 

Lipiansky, E.D. (1991). French identity: representations, myths, ideologies. Harvard University Press. 

Mondon, A. (2014). ‘The Front National in the Twenty-First Century: From Pariah to Republican Contender?’ in Modern & Contemporary France, Vol. 22, pp. 301-320. 

Ozpek, B.B., Yasar, N.T. (2018). ‘Populism and foreign policy in Turkey under AKP rule’ in Turkish Studies, Vol. 19, pp, 198-216. 

Seitz, L. (2020). ‘France Deserve to be Free’: Constituting Frenchness in Marine Le Pen’s National Front/National Rally. Colorado State University. https://mountainscholar.org/bitstream/handle/10217/211987/Seitz_colostate_0053N_16082.pdf?sequence=1 

Symons, E.K. (2017). ‘The New National Front is the same as the Old National Front’ in Foreign Policy, available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/11/the-holocaust-denying-vichy-celebrating-heart-of-the-national-front/  

Yabanci, B. (2016). ‘Populism as the problem child of democracy: the AKP’s enduring appeal and the use of meso-level actors’ in Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Vol. 16, pp, 591-617. 

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