#NousToutes and the limits of populism

In September 2019, protestors took to the streets of France using the hashtag #NousToutes (All of Us), to call attention to the domestic violence that women face in the country. Thousands have voiced concern about the rate of femicide – the killing of women by their partners, ex-partners or family. In France, the number of femicide deaths have reached 128 this year. Today the French government is expected to unveil new measures to combat domestic violence and protect the lives of women.

Prior to the unveiling of these new measures it is worth considering how a populist movement might seek out change from the state. Populism as Cas Mudde a scholar of the European far right has framed it, divides populations into “two homogeneous and antagonistic groups”. There is a criticism of the ‘elites’ who have used ‘corrupt’ means to deprive the ‘ordinary’ people meaningful recognition by the state. The popular belief that the allocation of resources serves the ‘elites’ and forgets the rest, evokes calls to deliver for “the people,” “the real people,” and “the silent majority” as political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has argued. It is also important to note that while populism is often associated with the alt-right, it exists on both the left and right side of the political spectrum.
Unlike a populist movement, the #NousToutes does not evoke the ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ terminology used by populists to rally people to their cause. Instead, women are critical of the state while remaining outside the ‘common’ folk. Women challenging the structural norms that permit abusive partners to kill their spouses are undermining, in much needed ways, the day to day business of the French state.

#NousToutes unites a caucus of people that would otherwise not have come together under the pretense of shared domestic threats. #NousToutes calls out the state and those in positions of power for turning a blind eye to the horrific consequences of structural norms. In many ways, these are components of populism. Yet, #NousToutes is not a populist movement as those who band together remain outside the ‘common’ French people.
While #NousToutes much like the ‘common’ people call to renegotiate their position in France they remain Othered. The Other is a group that does not get to renegotiate their position within the state but must rely on pre-established rules of the ‘common’ people to do so. A reliance on the pre-established rules to achieve new ends is homonormativity for French women. Gender scholar Lisa Duggan termed homonormativity to refer to “a mainstreamed gay discourse that attempts to expand rather than dismantle heteronormativity by internalizing a conceptualization of LGBT identity that constructs legitimacy and rights along established lines”. In France, women of #NousToutes must advocate for change within the heteronormative structure established by the ‘common’ folks. Professor of Ethnic Studies Fatima El-Tayeb argued that this offers the Other “protection” within the heteronormative structure and acceptance as a part of the ‘common’, at the exclusion of diverse groups such as refugee women to France.

For the structural changes desired by women of the #NousToutes movement to be achieved within the current heteronormative system in France the ‘common’ must embrace their objective as well. Thus, social change driven by the Other goes only as far as the ‘common’ folk will allow. Following the study of Anti-gender campaigns by social scientists David Paternotte and Roman Kuhar, support by ‘common’ folk may be hard to obtain. In their review of common opposition in Europe to structural changes that would combat domestic abuse they noted that there were fears of the Other extending their reach beyond what the ‘common’ folk were willing to tolerate. Such as the institutionalization of sexual and reproductive rights, international recognition of abortion, additional attacks on traditional motherhood.

With populist movements leaving no room for the Other, those like the women of the #NousToutes movement and other minority groups are left unacknowledged by both ‘elites’ and the ‘common’ folk. To minority groups, the ‘common’ folks are elite, and the ‘elites’ are even further out of reach. In France, populism can no longer deliver for women at the margins and it is perhaps time to think about what new forms populism will take; a neo-populist agenda may reposition minorities in the heteronormative structure within and outside France.

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