« Europe facing populists in power: communication strategies and practices »

Brussels | January 14 & 15, 2021 | IHECS

Since the early 2000s, “populist” governments as well as governments with a populist coalition partner, both right wing and left wing, have led to democratic paradigmatic shifts such as the advent of the so-called “illiberal” democracy in Hungary, the “conservative revolution” in Poland, the “entrepreneurial populism” in the Czech Republic and the unprecedented “anti-system” coalitions set up in Italy and Greece (Taguieff, 2015; Dieckhoff, Jaffrelot & Massicard, 2019).

Once in power, populists seek to control all aspects of the state. By practising a form of mass clientelism in order to win the loyalty of the people (Laclau, 2005) or by distinguishing themselves by means of their undeniable hostility towards organised civil society and the media, populists can be described through their constitutive anti-elitism and assumed anti-pluralism. Research shows that a key element of populist strategies is the discursive construction of the “homogeneous”, “good”, “honest”, and “hard-working” people on the one hand, in opposition to the “lazy” and “corrupt” elites on the other hand (Canovan, 1999; Jamin, 2009; Mudde, 2004; Taggart, 2004; Tarchi, 2015).

However, the notion of populism – as it is regularly framed in the news – remains blurred. Some scholars conceive populism as a communication phenomenon and describe populism as an expression of political communication content and style (De Vreese et al., 2018). Populism as content refers to communicating and staging elements deriving from its ideological corpus. Populism as a style describes a characteristic set of elements to present these ideas (Charaudeau, 2011). For others, populism can only be fully understood through the decisive role played by (digital) media (Reinemann et al., 2019).

As such, the aim of this international symposium is to bring together academic scholars from a wide variety of communication-related disciplines to discuss how “populist” European political parties and European leaders communicate during the exercise of their mandate at local, regional or national territorial level.

The symposium will be structured along the following three thematic axes:

Communication of populists in power

As long as populists are part of the opposition, they keep emphasising that citizens are represented by deceiving and corrupt elites (Müller, 2016). But what happens when these critical and political outsiders suddenly find themselves joining a governmental majority or are placed at the head of the state? Is this anti-elite posture tenable? This first thematic axis will focus on the communication strategies adopted by former radical anti-elitists who came to power.

Research has shown that elected populist representatives seek to defend a pure majority rule and oppose intermediate bodies or media beyond their control (Hameleers et al., 2018). Other populist movements insist on the loss of control resulting from the process of European integration, blaming Brussels’ authorities – these “Eurocrat elites” – in their ad hominem communication campaigns. Horizontal or vertical groups (e.g., migrants, ethnic minorities, LGBTI, the “rich”) shall, in turn, be instrumentalised or vilified, while, at the same time, ethnic and cultural homogeneity shall be celebrated (Abts & Rummens, 2007; Bonikowsi, 2017; Laclau & Mouffe, 2019). Similarly, majorities may behave like persecuted minorities (Müller, 2016), and representatives of such majorities, having an interest in making their own failures disappear, may benefit from this particular framing process.

The symposium will therefore seek to analyse the main communicative inflections around “illiberal” measures that are often pinpointed: control of the media or justice, modification of electoral laws, criticism of parliamentarianism (Parliaments seen as redundant “chat rooms”), attacks against migrants or minorities, etc.

Disruptive communication strategies of populists

Through verbal violence, insults and outrage (Berry & Sobieraj, 2014), populist communication develops its own rhetorical repertoires, its own “style” (Ekström, Patrona & Thornborrow, 2018). Openly disregarding the codes and social constraints attached to the so called « elites », populist communication lays on disruptive acts of exposure of disembodied and inauthentic mainstream parties and discourses (Sorensen, 2018).

Ostensibly bypassing traditional media, they also claim to directly address the mass of “real people.” Populist discourses paradoxically feed on the social controversies and blaming-shaming discourses they are subject to. Populism sees in the criticism of its discourse the blatant testimony of the gap that separates the “good people” from the necessarily illegitimate and corrupt “elites” (Jamin, 2009).

What happens once populist parties are elected, taking over from the elites they were denouncing? Is not any type of transgression haunted by its own normalisation? In fact, when discursive disruption becomes the new norm, it necessarily tends to fade away (Hastings, Nicolas & Passard, 2012). This second axis thus aims at analysing the limits of those discursive strategies once populists are in government.

Digital practices of populists

It seems that nowadays, “populist” political parties and leaders make clever use of digital media (Van Kessel, 2016; Rußmann, 2019). In fact, digital media offer populist European political parties and leaders in power an attractive platform to promote their political ideas as well as express and spread their populists’ ideologies in pure, unadulterated form. Compared to other parties they usually find less space in (traditional) mainstream mass media, and if they do, then they are often reported very negatively.

Populists, in particularly the right-wing, are generally antagonistic towards the (traditional) mainstream media and perceive it as part of the elite. Digital media are used as front regions (Stanyer, 2008) by political actors wanting to present an attractive image to citizens, and at best, develop an identity most often around a strong leader (Rußmann, 2019), in order to decrease what has been described as the psychological distance between political actors and citizens. Participatory digital media offer populist parties and leaders a flattened communication structure, which is suitable for direct and unmediated exchange with large publics. Specifically, social media enables them to listen to the voice of the people. They can build a (communicative) relationship between them and their supporters, whilst – at the same time – excluding constructed “others” (such as migrants, Muslims, and LGBT persons) due to the spreading of discrimination and hate speech (i.e., echo chambers).

With this third thematic axis we aim to question digital practices of “populist” European political parties and leaders in power. Submissions may cover one or several of the addressed aspects as well as other aspects of digital practices of populists in power.


The registration and participation fee for the conference is 100 euros.



Organisation committee

Nicolas Baygert

Docteur en sciences de l’information et de la communication (Université Paris IV-Sorbonne/UCL), Chargé de cours (IHECS, ULB, CELSA, Sciences Po Paris).

Baptiste Buidin

Research & Development Assistant, Protagoras.

Esther Durin

Docteure en Sciences du langage (UPV – Montpellier 3 / laboratoire Praxiling), Chargée de cours à l’IHECS.

Elise Le Moing – Maas

Professeur et Présidente de la section Relations publiques de l’IHECS, Protagoras et PREFics, Université Rennes 2.

Loïc Nicolas

Docteur en langues et lettres (ULB), collaborateur scientifique Protagoras, formateur IHECS/Institutions européennes.

Uta Russmann

Professor, Department of Communication, FHWien der WKW University of Applied Sciences for Management and Communication

Scientific Committee

  • Nicolas BAYGERT, IHECS (Protagoras), Université Libre de Bruxelles, CELSA, Sciences Po
  • Márton BENE, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungary & Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary
  • Nadège BROUSTAU, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ReSIC)
  • Andrea CERON, Università degli Studi di Milano
  • Anne-Marie COTTON, Haute école Artevelde de Gent, Université Catholique de Louvain (LASCO)
  • Charles DEVELLENNES, University of Kent
  • Lucile DESMOULIN, Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée (DICEN-IDF)
  • Esther DURIN, Université Paul-Valéry (Praxiling), IHECS (Protagoras)
  • Alexandre EYRIES, Université de Bourgogne (Ciméos)
  • Dan JACKSON, Bournemouth University
  • Adrien JAHIER, IHECS (Protagoras)
  • Amanda KLEKOWSKI VON KOPPENFELS, University of Kent / BSIS
  • Ulrike KLINGER, FU Berlin (Free University of Berlin)
  • Alexander KONDRATOV, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ReSIC), IHECS (Protagoras)
  • Pascal LARDELLIER, Université de Bourgogne (Ciméos)
  • Élise LE MOING-MAAS, IHECS (Protagoras), Université Libre de Bruxelles (ReSIC)
  • Darren LILLEKER, Bournemouth University
  • Melanie MAGIN, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim
  • Arnaud MERCIER, Université Paris 2 Panthéon Assas (Carism)
  • Philippe MARION, Université Catholique de Louvain (ORM)
  • Loïc NICOLAS, IHECS (Protagoras)
  • Alvaro OLEART, Vrije Universiteit (VU), Amsterdam
  • Sandrine ROGINSKY, Université Catholique de Louvain (LASCO)
  • Uta RUßMANN, FHWien der WKW, Vienna
  • Caroline VAN WYNSBERGHE, Université catholique de Louvain


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BERRY Jeffrey & SOBIERAJ Sarah (2014), The Outrage. Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

BONIKOWSI Bart (2017). Ethno-nationalist populism and the mobilization of collective resentment, British Journal of Sociology, 68(1), p. 181-213.

CANOVAN Margaret (1999), “Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy”, Political Studies, 47, p. 2-16.

CHARAUDEAU Patrick (2011), « Réflexions pour l’analyse du discours populiste », Mots. Les langages du politique, 97, p. 101-116.

DE VREESE Claes, H., ESSER Frank, AALBERG Toril, REINEMANN Carsten & STANYER James (2018), “Populism as an Expression of Political Communication Content and Style: A New Perspective”, The International Journal of Press/Politics, 23(4), p. 423-443.

DIECKHOFF Alain, JAFFRELOT Christophe & MASSICARD Élise (2019), Populismes au pouvoir, Paris : Presses de Sciences Po.

EKSTRÖM Mats, PATRONA Marianna. & THORNBORROW Joanna (2018), “Right-wing populism and the dynamics of style: a discourse-analytic perspective on mediated political performances”. Palgrave Communications, 4, 83, doi:10.1057/s41599-018-0132-6.

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LACLAU Ernesto, MOUFFE Chantal (2019), Hégémonie et stratégie socialiste. Vers une radicalisation de la démocratie, Paris : Fayard, coll. « Pluriel ».

MÜLLER Jan-Werner (2016), Qu’est-ce que le populisme ? Définir enfin la menace, trad. F. Joly, Paris: Premier parallèle.

REINEMANN Carsten, STANYER James, AALBERG Toril, ESSER Frank, DE VREESE Claes H. (2019). Communicating Populism: Comparing Actor Perceptions, Media Coverage, and Effects on Citizens in Europe, New York: Routledge

RUßMANN, Uta (2019). Social Media – neue Sphären für Populismus [Social media – new spheres for populism]. In W. Buchberger & P. Mittnik (Eds.), Herausforderung Populismus – multidiszipli-näre Zugänge für die Politische Bildung (pp. 134–152). Frankfurt am Main: Wochenschau Verlag.

TAGGART Paul (2004), “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe”, Journal of Political Ideologies, 9(3), p. 269-288.

TARCHI, Marco (2015), Italia populista: dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo, Bologna: Il mulino, coll. “Contemporanea”.

TAGUIEFF Pierre-André (2015), La revanche du nationalisme: Néopopulistes et xénophobes à l’assaut de l’Europe, Paris : PUF.

SORENSEN, Lone (2018), “Populist communication in the new media environment: a cross-regional comparative perspective”, Palgrave Communications, 4(48), doi:10.1057/s41599-018-0101

STANYER, James (2008), “Elected representatives, online self-preservation and the personal vote: Party, personality and webstyles in the United States and the United Kingdom”, Information, Communication and Society, 11, p. 414-432.

VAN KESSEL Stijn (2016), “Shifting the blame. Populist politicians’ use of Twitter as a tool of opposition”, Journal of Contemporary European Research, 2(2), p. 594-614.

WETTSTEIN Martin, ESSER Frank, BÜCHEL Florin, SCHEMER Christian, WIRZ Dominique S., SCHULZ Anne, ERNST Nicole, ENGESSER Sven, MÜLLER Philipp & WIRTH Werner (2018), “What drives populist styles? Analyzing immigration and labor market news in 11 countries”, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 96(2), p. 516-536.