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The use of populis* in the French media in 2019

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Source: congerdesign via Pixbay

When, how, and why did journalists or their guests use the word populis*? The answer can be found in this analysis of the dataset collected by the TrUMPo team. It is based on a selection of 538 occurrences of populis* collected in France in 2019. This dataset emerges from four different sources: a national quality newspaper (Le Monde), the national news agency (France Info), a popular daily newspaper (Le Parisien) and a free daily newspaper (20 Minutes). We will identify the users of populis*, the meanings attributed to the word, the conceptual areas associated with the word, and the entities targeted by the word. Since it is a non-extensive analysis, it is to be reminded that this does not consider the number of articles-quotes or the number of words within each article-quote. In all examples, the occurrence of populis* is highlighted following our own emphasis.

Monthly use of populis*:

In our sample, we noticed a peak in the use of populis* in May, especially on the 27th of May: this was the day of the 2019 European parliament elections results. The second peak is in January, but the occurrences relate to different events. We can, however, mention the causal link between uses of populis* and events such as the protests(s) of the yellow vests (gilets jaunes) and related national debate.

Who says populis* ?

Journalists or news agencies are the main users of the term, populis* (348/538 occurrences). Then come politicians (74), experts (63), non-political figures (24), and commentators (3). In the following figure, the main speakers are represented (more than four uses per user, and unidentified speakers removed).

According to the results presented in the above table, some individual journalists from Le Parisien seem to be very keen on using populis*, contrary to journalists from Le Monde or France Info. In our sample (538 occurrences), there were 143 occurrences in Le Parisien, 156 from France Info and 198 in le Monde. 20 Minutes is not in this ranking probably because it only includes 42 occurrences out of the 538 selected occurrences. We can conclude that in Le Parisien, only a handful of journalists use populis*, whereas France Info and Le Monde both involve a large number of journalists whorarely use populis* repeatedly.

Top users include the press agency AFP, and two individual journalists: Jannick Alimi (head of political news in Le Parisien), Alexandre Sulzer (journalist from Le Parisien). When saying populis*, Jannick Alimi’s principal target was Jean-Luc Mélenchon (5 out of 13 uses). Alexandre Sulzer’s most frequent target was the party Rassemblement National (RN) (5/13 also). In the latter case this target can be easily explained by Alexandre Sulzer’s specialist approach to right and far-right politics.

Top political users include François Hollande (the then French president, PS) and Nathalie Loiseau (European deputy, LREM). When it was possible to identify the speakers’ political parties, we noticed that, like in our post about parliamentary data for France in 2019, most occurrences were produced by LREM (presidential majority) (13 occurrences) and PS (socialist party) (12). The details of this frequency can be observed in the following figure (the names of the parties are those used in 2019. These have not been translated):

The meaning of populis* :

Almost every use of populis* is meant to convey obvious meaning, these uses do not question nor define the term. There are only 20 occurrences where its meaning is discussed and debated.

Example of a use containing explanation: “When I speak of POPULISM, I am referring to the oversimplification of complex phenomena” (« Quand je parle de POPULISME, j'évoque le fait de simplifier à outrance des phénomènes complexes. ») Martine Benoit, 20 Minutes (19/11/2019).

Almost half of the uses of populis* are self-referential (227/538). This means that the term represents the topic of the discourse, it does not target anyone or anything.

Example of a self-referential use: “Will we see the PCF vote to end nuclear energy and to strengthen Europe? The PS votes tomorrow against all the economic aberrations it once voted for and implemented, which has eventually given rise to the POPULISM movement?” (« Verra-t-on le PCF voter la sortie du nucléaire et le renforcement de l'Europe ? Le PS voter demain contre les aberrations économiques qu’il a toutes votées et appliquées et qui ont fait le lit des POPULISMES ? ») Alain Lipietz, local representative EELV, Le Monde (02/04/2019).

Populis* is also used to target a person or a group (217), a collective entity (44), or an action or event (40).

Example targeting a person: “The Islamist Ennahdha party and the party of the POPULIST candidate Kabil Karoui, currently in prison, each claimed their own victory” (« Le parti islamiste Ennahdha et celui du candidat POPULISTE Kabil Karoui, actuellement en prison, ont chacun revendiqué la victoire ») AFP, quoted in FranceInfo (7/10/2019).

Example about a collective entity: “This election, marked by a record abstention rate (45.5%), confirms that Portugal is one of the few countries in Europe where the socialists have the wind in their sails and where the POPULIST right is absent from the political landscape” (« Ce scrutin, marqué par une abstention record (45,5%), confirme que le Portugal est l'un des rares pays d’Europe où les socialistes ont le vent en poupe et où la droite POPULISTE est absente du paysage politique ») AFP, quoted in 20 Minutes (6/10/2019).

More than half of the uses of the term conveys a negative meaning: 334/538. Neutral uses are 21/538, and there is no case of exclusively positive connotations.

Example of neutral use: “Minimum service by Jair Bolsonaro, who chose Davos as his first destination, on the international stage. His aim is to prove that POPULISM can go hand in hand with free trade” (« Service minimum pour Jair Bolsonaro, qui a pourtant choisi Davos comme premier déplacement sur la scène internationale. Son objectif est d'apporter la preuve que le POPULISME peut faire bon ménage avec le libre-échange ») Noémie Bonnin & Isabelle Chaillou, FranceInfo (22/01/2019).

We noticed 7 ambivalent and 3 positive-ironic cases.

Positive-ironic example: “Four lessons for a career in populism and rapid electoral results. Do you want to build a career out of POPULISM, i.e., pretending to speak directly to the people, in what is supposed to be their language, by flattering their so-called common sense?” (« Quatre leçons pour faire carrière dans le populisme et obtenir des résultats électoraux rapides. Vous voulez faire carrière dans le POPULISME, c’est-à-dire prétendre vous adresser directement au peuple, dans ce qui serait censément son langage, en flattant son soi-disant bon sens ? ») Frédéric Joignot, Le Monde (02/02/2019).

Example of ambivalent use: “POPULISM both inspires and worries me” (« Le POPULISME m’inspire et m'inquiète ») Jacques Mailhot, FranceInfo (02/01/2019).

The tone could not be determined in 173 occurrences. A link can be made with two other results of this analysis: 163 occurrences could not be affected to any conceptual area and 260 cases are descriptive. Journalists labeled people or groups “populist” many times in a very descriptive way, without any comment; this can thus explain why we could not identify the tone or the conceptual area in some cases.

In this example, populis* is descriptive and not associated with any tonality nor any conceptual field : “The migration issue, central to the 2015 elections, was scarcely debated, but the UDC (Union démocratique du centre - POPULIST right), an anti-immigration party, is set to remain the country's leading political force” (« La problématique migratoire, centrale lors des élections de 2015, n'a guère été débattue, mais l'UDC (Union démocratique du centre – droite POPULISTE), parti anti-immigration, devrait rester la première force politique du pays. ») 20 Minutes and AFP (20/20/2019).

The conceptual areas:

We coded our occurrences according to the conceptual fields with which the term was associated. In many cases there was more than one area associated with the term, we produced this table which presents the results:

The most frequent conceptual fields associated with populis* are nationalist (171), then extremist (64), demagoguery (59), and anti-elite (48). The conceptual fields that are the least used are popular (4), relying on the people (14), tradition (23) and autocratic (25). There are still 163 cases left where we could not find a link with any conceptual area because, as explained above, a lot of occurrences and articles are purely descriptive.

The function associated with populis*:

One out of two times, populis* was used in order to describe someone or something (261/538). In a more limited number of occurrences, it was used in order to express a concern (141), criticize a person or a group (77), or an act (37).

Example expressing a concern: "Alongside POPULISM and terrorism, it is a worrying rise in violence that can be felt just about everywhere.” (« Avec le POPULISME, le terrorisme, c’est une montée de violence que l’on ressent un peu partout qui est inquiétante. ») Albert Guigui, Le Parisien (10/01/2019).

Example of the criticism of an isolate act: “The executive branch invokes a question of social justice... It is the most disgraceful argument, the most POPULIST one. To invoke social justice so as to justify an argument that is merely an economic argument - unjustified on the scientific level and on the experiential level - I find it particularly unworthy” (« L'exécutif invoque une question de justice sociale… C’est l’argument le plus indigne qui soit, le plus POPULISTE. Invoquer la justice sociale pour justifier d'un argument qui n’est qu’un argument économique, injustifié sur le plan scientifique, sur le plan de l'expérience, je trouve cela particulièrement indigne. ») François Hommeril, France Info (19/06/2019).

Journalists or agencies are the principal users within the corpus. This can be observed in their use of populis* to describe someone or something (representing 227 out of 261 descriptive occurrences). In more limited ways, journalists or agencies use this word as a criticism, but they still represent the main group of users relying on this function (53/114) compared with politicians, experts, etc. Politicians are the second group expressing the concerns (32/141) or criticism (32/77) most frequently. Experts mostly use the term to express concern (preceded by politicians and journalists) (25/141). They are the second most frequent users of populis* when used to produce descriptions (22/261). populis* was rarely used for self-legitimization (7), legalization by opposition (6) denegations (3).

Example of legitimization by opposition: “On the field, in fact, through my various associative commitments, I often noticed the presence of communist women and men, and I could figure out the values that drive them: popular values, but never POPULIST values.” (« "Sur le terrain, justement, à travers mes différents engagements associatifs, j’ai souvent pu voir la présence de femmes et d’hommes communistes et j'ai pu voir les valeurs qui les animaient : des valeurs populaires, jamais POPULISTES." ») Josiane Balasko, Le Parisien (09/05/2019).

Example of denegation: “Anyone who breaks away from the system is called a populist. To be a populist, you need a populist program. To date, I have not yet announced any program, thus I am not a POPULIST", our interviewee replies.” (« "Tous ceux qui sortent du système, on les traite de populistes. Pour être populiste, il faut un programme populiste. À ce jour, je n’ai annoncé aucun programme, je ne suis pas POPULISTE", rétorque l’intéressé. » Nabil Karoui, France Info (15/07/2019).

Target of populis*:

We identified the target of populis* in 209 occurrences out of 538 (the remaining occurrences being too ambiguous, we could not identify a possible intended target). Essentially, the targets were politicians (180/209). The targeted parties or individuals were diverse, but the main targets are presented in the following tables (more than 4 occurrences):

LREM and Emmanuel Macron represent the main target in the uses of populis* (30/180). Then Lega led by Matteo Salvini (Italy), RN led by Marine Le Pen and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Donald Trump in the USA, and LFI led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon are all also targeted by the uses of the term in our dataset.


The database of the project TrUMPo provides an overview of its use in the French media in 2019. The journalists were the main users of populis* (followed by politicians or experts), which can be related to its descriptive function which we identified on many occasions. Populis* is almost always used in a self-referential way, or to designate a person or a group. Its meaning seems obvious to the speakers, and it always comprises negative connotations. The conceptual area most frequently associated with the term is nationalism, followed by extremism, demagoguery, anti-elite. In contrast, conceptual areas related to popular, or traditional, autocratic aspects have only been observed in a limited number of occurrences. The French media used populis* to target Emmanuel Macron, Matteo Salvini, Marine le Pen and her party RN, Donald Trump, lastly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It is to be reminded that this overview is a non-extensive analysis: it does not take into account the speech time and contribution of each person or group.


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