Much at stake in Dutch, French elections

Sunday 19/02/2017
A 2014 file picture shows leader of France’s National Front Marine Le Pen (L) with the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, president of Party for Freedom (PVV) during the far-right French party’s congress in Lyon. (Reuters)

When the Dutch go to the polls in a month, the ruling centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democ­racy (VVD) should be looking at an easy victory. Unemployment is 5.4%, the lowest in five years, manufacturing confidence is high, property prices are rising again after a 6-year slump and the central bank raised its economic growth forecast for 2017 to 2.3%, up from 1.9% last June.

Healthcare, pensions and the economy are certainly important issues in the campaign but many debates revolve around Dutch val­ues and the country’s place in the European Union and the Western world.

Brexit and the election of Don­ald Trump as US president have unsettled a country whose ties to the Anglosphere and the Atlantic run deep. The terrorist outrages in Belgium, France and Germany have added to the deep anxieties fed by the never-ending refugee crisis that has engulfed Europe the past few years.

Bloody mayhem in the Middle East is conflated by politicians in Europe with Islam but many Europeans are increasingly scared of the war between Shias and Sun­nis. They dread the killings fields spreading north of the Mediter­ranean.

The handling of the eurozone crisis and the problems thrown up by the enlargement of the Europe­an Union into Central and Eastern Europe have combined with a fierce debate on the pros and cons of multiculturalism in relation to non-European immigrants. That has convinced many Dutch voters that the image of “Henk and In­grid”, a mythical, ethnically Dutch couple is being pushed around by Muslim immigrants, the European Union and corrupt political elites.

This explains why the VVD is trailing the far-right Party for Free­dom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders.

Dutch politics usually produces moderate coalition governments but, after what happened in Britain and the United States last year, the rise of Europe’s most stridently anti-Islamic and anti-EU far-right movements worries many. A Nexit referendum as advocated by Wil­ders would be hard to arrange and the PVV leader has made it clear he would rather preserve his populist purity than share the responsibili­ties of power with politicians he castigates as specimens of a rotten establishment.

The outcome of the Dutch elec­tions is unlikely to influence the French presidential election very much. There is little risk of the far-right Marine Le Pen winning next May but were that to happen the fallout would be seismic. About one-quarter of the electorate now make her their first choice for the presidency while two-thirds said they preferred anyone but her in the second round.

Like her Dutch peer, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) has fused anti-immigrant senti­ment with growing euroscepticism and hostility to globalisation. She has unveiled a clear outline of 144 presidential proposals of what she would do in case of victory. These include standard FN fare: More prisons and police, a reintroduc­tion of national service and an ex­treme clampdown on immigration.

Unlike Wilders, Le Pen avoids overtly racist language, talking instead of the threat of Islamic extremists. She insists on assimila­tion and enforcing secularism in all public spaces. The terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 are the unspoken background of the National Front’s appeal.

Le Pen is winning new constitu­encies because she is promoting “intelligent protectionism”, which means a state-led industrial policy favouring manufacturing over finance, taxing imports and foreign workers. The National Front seeks to scrap the euro and reintroduce a national currency, dropping the retirement age to 60 and slashing income tax.

None of these measures are com­patible with EU norms but then the National Front wants to organise a referendum on Frexit.

The sums do not add up but the idea that France could prosper under these policies remains very seductive because the political and cultural roots of Le Pen’s party lie deep in Vichy France.

She has eschewed the viru­lent anti-Semitism of her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, concentrating instead on the threat of immigration and terrorism but the National Front’s underpinnings remain what they have always been: Nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism, which have deep roots in modern French history.

The temptation to overplay Le Pen’s chances of victory after the shocks of the vote for Brexit and the US election is obvious but the French establishment is deeply discredited.

The leading right-wing candi­date, François Fillon, is weakened by allegations his wife was paid for many years for a job as parliamen­tary assistant to her husband, a job she never held. The Socialist Party standard bearer, Benoît Hamon, is very much to the left of his party. The new darling of the centre, Em­manuel Macron, is all the rage but untested.

Le Pen’s chances of becoming the next president of France are not great, but if she were elected, the shock waves would be far greater than any result the Dutch election might produce.