Far-right leaders across Europe, including French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen, held a political summit last weekend following Donald Trump’s inauguration as United States president. The meeting in Germany underlines how much right-wing populism appears to be on the march in key countries across the Western world.
And it is Europe that will provide a lodestar in 2017 for whether this conservative breed of anti-establishment politics will continue to find fertile ground, and potentially change the political complexion of the continent. In elections beginning with The Netherlands in March, where polls indicate the far-right Freedom Party could emerge as the largest single group in the legislature, left and centrist parties are under pressure from insurgency parties championing eurosceptical, anti-immigrant platforms.
France, which alongside Germany has traditionally been the “twin-engine” of European Union integration, will perhaps be the key election to watch. The reason is that the election of National Front candidate Le Pen, who has a realistic, outside shot at victory, and who visited Trump Tower in New York earlier this month, would have big international implications, not least given her campaign promises to take France out of Nato, the eurozone and the wider EU.
Le Pen has called for closer ties with Russia, espoused anti-Americanism, and questioned the need for Nato in the 21st century, asserting that it now exists to serve “Washington’s objectives in Europe”. Her rhetoric on the EU is just as heated, and she has called for a speedy French referendum on membership of the union.
Although Le Pen is not currently the favourite, she leads the latest presidential polls, and the French political mood is very volatile. This is indicated in the surprise choice of the centre-right for its presidential candidate, former prime minister François Fillon, who enjoyed an unexpected, late surge in November to beat Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé to secure the Republican party’s nomination.
Meanwhile, the governing socialists, who finalise their choice of candidate on January 29 between Benoît Hamon and former prime minister Manuel Valls, appear in disarray after François Hollande, the least popular president since records began, became the first incumbent since the Fifth Republic was created in 1958 not to seek re-election for a second term. Already some socialists are looking outside their own party ranks to independent presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He once served in Hollande’s abinet and has surged recently in polls on a centrist platform, but is currently running a close third behind Fillon who trails Le Pen.
In this unpredictable, potential political vortex, Le Pen is running a Trump-style populist campaign and said last weekend that “2016 was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up [with Brexit and Trump’s victory] … I am sure 2017 will be the year the people of continental Europe wake up”. Polls indicate she could navigate her way through the first-round ballot in April, knocking out the socialist candidate, and then potentially face off in May against Fillon or Macron.
Conventional wisdom is that Le Pen would lose hands-down if she got through to the second-round run-off election. In part, this stems from the experience in 2002 of her father, Jean-Marie, when he stood on a National Front platform against right-of-centre incumbent president Jacques Chirac.
Then, leaders of almost all French parties, including socialists, urged supporters to vote for Chirac as the perceived lesser evil and he won more than 80%, the largest landslide in a French presidential election. However, it is significantly more uncertain whether a similar dynamic would play out in 2017 if Le Pen got through to the run-off stage.
To be sure, some early polls indicate, for instance, that Fillon would crush Le Pen in such a head-to-head, but this is by no means certain. This is not least given that the former prime minister is championing a radical free-market economic programme that many on the left and centre may find hard to swallow, especially when Le Pen is positioning herself as a champion of antiglobalisation.
Although the election in France is key, significant uncertainty also hangs over the important ballots in Germany and The Netherlands.
In Germany, incumbent Angela Merkel is presently favourite to win power again, but is facing her toughest ever election fight, and could yet lose out. Although her defeat would be a major blow to the European establishment, given the central role she has played in helping manage the continent’s crises in recent years, she would likely be replaced by another pro-EU politician in Berlin who would not represent the political contrast that is being offered in France between Le Pen and her rivals.
One poll in November found around 40% of Germans wish Merkel not to seek a fourth term and her approval ratings are around 20 percentage points lower than the 70% she enjoyed in the summer of 2015. Symbolic of her troubles is the rise of far-right Alternative for Germany founded less than a half decade ago as an anti-EU group which has, since then, tapped into discontent toward her immigration policies, and is polling at almost 15% nationally, with seats in more than half of state legislatures.
Meanwhile in The Netherlands, the far-right Freedom Party will find it hard to form a legislative majority with coalition partners, even if it does emerge as the largest single party. For now at least, other groups assert that they will not work with the party and its leader Geert Wilders, who was convicted last year for incitement to discrimination, given the extreme positions he espouses.
Taken overall, the 2017 elections have the potential to change the political complexion of Europe. Although the ballots in Germany and The Netherlands will see anti-establishment, far-right forces gaining ground, it is the French poll that could be the one to watch given that election of Le Pen would generate such sizeable international shockwaves.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics