Euroskeptics Win Election in France, Lose in Netherlands

Marine Le Pen is building her party into a national force. Geert Wilders’ prospects are now in doubt.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front national, delivers a press conference, March 23
Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front national, delivers a press conference, March 23 (Front national)

Right-wing Euroskeptic parties in France and the Netherlands did well in local elections last week. But whereas Marine Le Pen’s Front national vastly improved its reach, support for Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party dropped slightly in the cities where it competed. A party mutiny has since thrown his prospects for May’s European Parliament election in doubt.

The Front national reached the second-round runoffs in more than two hundred French cities and towns on Sunday, beating President François Hollande’s Socialists into third place, notably in the port city of Marseille.

It also won its first mayoral seat outright since 1995.

While the opposition conservatives made the biggest gains, winning 46.5 percent of the total first-round vote, Le Pen could with some justification claim to have broken up France’s two-party system.

Mainstreaming the far right

The woman who took over as party leader from Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father, in 2010 has transformed the Front from a fringe right-wing group into a mainstream Euroskeptic and populist party, appealing mainly to working- and lower-middle-class voters who have seen little economic gains under both conservative and Socialist Party rule.

Wilders’ electorate is more diverse, given his emphasis on European policy. That may also account for his lackluster performance in last week’s municipal elections. In the only two cities where it competed, his Freedom Party lost seats. It was the second defeat in a row. The party lost nine of its seat in parliament in 2012.

The Front national competed in just under six hundred of France’s nearly 37,000 municipalities. Its share of the total vote was 4.6 percent.

Euroskeptic pact

Le Pen and Wilders formed an alliance last year to contest the European elections on an anti-federalist platform. Both believe their countries would be better off if they gave up the euro. Wilders advocates an exit from the European Union altogether.

The two nationalists have drawn support from a variety of Euroskeptic parties, including Austria’s Freedom Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and the Sweden Democrats. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and the United Kingdom Independence Party have notably shunned affiliation with parties that are also agitating against immigration. Recent remarks from Wilders could make it all the more difficult for him to find the one more party he needs to form a recognized bloc in the European Parliament.

“Fewer Moroccans”

On Wednesday night, Wilders asked supporters in The Hague whether they wanted “fewer or more Moroccans” in their city. When they chanted “Fewer! Fewer!”, he smiled and promised, “We’ll take care of that.”

The remark was condemned as racist by the Dutch government and most other parties. More than a dozen Freedom Party lawmakers announced their resignations in the days that followed, including its chairwoman in the European Parliament.

Wilders defended his statement by saying residents of Moroccan origin are disproportionately represented among juvenile delinquents and welfare dependents. Which is true — but he didn’t refer to either of those facts on Wednesday, nor did he explain how admitting fewer Moroccan immigrants would change those statistics.

Wilders’ support immediately dropped in national polls with the Freedom Party losing five seats.

Given high Euroskepticism in the Netherlands — some polls put support for leaving the EU at over 50 percent — the party is still expected to do well in May. But so are the strongly pro-European liberal Democrats who took most council seats from the ruling Labor and liberal parties on Wednesday.

Le Pen’s Front national similarly looks likely to take most French seats in the European Parliament in the next election. She may also well succeed in knocking the Socialists out of the presidential race in 2017, as her father did in 2002, unless President Hollande’s approval rating, now at an historic 19 percent low, dramatically improves.