What does Geert Wilders’ defeat mean for France’s upcoming presidential election?
The rise of right-wing populism has arguably been one of the most noticeable phenomena in world politics over the last several years, and no less in Europe than anywhere else. The rise of Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden, Front National in France, UKIP (UK Independence Party) in the United Kingdom, and PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid) in the Netherlands, to name a few, have left considerable marks on recent European politics. The pervasive rhetoric is populistic and nationalistic, with opposition to immigration and Euroscepticism being dominant causes. Support for these parties have built up steadily over the past several years, and with several crucial elections taking place in 2017, the role of right-wing populistic ideology in current day Europe is a key consideration to make.
Preceding the Dutch general election this year, a European wide fear that Geert Wilders’ PVV might become the largest party in the Netherlands was tangible. Wilders has very notably compared the Quran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, and he has expressed strong views about what he perceives as the “Islamisation of the Netherlands”, so his triumph would have been a significant setback in Europe’s struggle against populistic inclinations.
Wilders’ was, as it turned out, defeated, by sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie). Nevertheless, PVV did accomplish the feat of achieving the second highest number of parliamentary seats in the Dutch House of Representatives, increasing their number to 20 from the previous 15. The overwhelming reaction to the results from the European political establishment was one of relief, with French President François Hollande declaring it a “clear victory against extremism”. Wilders himself, however, presented it as a victory, tweeting “12 years after its establishment, the PVV is the 2nd largest party in the Netherlands! Great!”
Reactions to this result, and predictions for the immediate future of European politics, have varied. Considering a presidential election will be taking place in France in the end of April, with right-wing populist Marine Le Pen rounding up substantial support, the potential impact of the Dutch election results is likely to provide guidance on the outcome. Will Wilders’ defeat be a demoralising factor for likeminded French voters, or will his relative success encourage them?
History of PVV
So the PVV achieved a whopping 20 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives out of a possible 150, making it the second largest party after the ruling VVD. This was an increase of 5 from the results of the previous election in 2012. However, it is not the largest representation held by the party: after the 2010 election the PVV held 24 seats, which at the time made it the third biggest party in the House. So although the recent electoral outcome provided the PVV with a significant representation increase since the results achieved in 2012, it is still a good distance away from their personal best of 2010 in terms of seats in the House. The recent momentum of the PVV is therefore not unprecedented, but seeing it in the light of Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump in the US, does add some gravity to the scenario…
So with Brexit, Trump, and a runner up Prime Minister of the Netherlands who wants to ban the Quran, what can we expect from the French presidential election?
The political system in France is, like the Netherlands, relatively fractured: there are multiple parties relevant of consideration, although the traditionally largest political camps have been the Republicans and the Socialists. This year, in a proper shake up of the status quo, the race is currently led by social liberal, progressive Emmanuel Macron of the recently formed En Marche!, and Marine Le Pen of far-right populist Front National. The recent polarisation of European politics could not have been made clearer than by this potential standoff.
Support for Front National has not noticeably changed over the recent period, though their platform has shifted to seek suport from the centre and left. Support has, however, grown rapidly behind Macron’s En Marche!. Perhaps the most noteworthy changes is to the support of the traditionally lead parties, the conservative Republicans, (currently under the representation of François Fillon), and the Socialists (currently led by Benoît Hamon). Whereas Fillon was polling above Le Pen at the beginning of this, his favourability has fallen to a mere 18 percent in the most recent polls, compared to Le Pen’s 25 percent and Macron’s 26 percent.
In another surprise development, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise, or ‘Unsubmissive France’, is currently outperforming Hamon’s Socialists 14 to 11 percent. This puts Hamon at the bottom of the list, in spite of his party currently holding the Presidency.
Therefore, this breaking with the familiar political norms is perhaps not just made obvious by increased support for far-right parties, but also by decreasing support for established parties and candidates. This corresponds to sentiments expressed by many American voters in last year’s US presidential election, where a sense of opposition against the political establishment led to the surprising rise of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Taking lessons from the US election results and Brexit is difficult. US politics is mainly divided into two camps, Republicans and Democrats, and although there are other parties and candidates, these are largely marginalised and have little actual influence, at least at a national level. The European political scene is much more nuanced, with the electoral system often being one of proportional representation. Likewise, with Brexit, there were only two options: yes or no to leaving the EU. The French presidential election is conducted in two rounds (provided no candidate achieves an absolute majority in the first round, which never happens), where the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round are voted on again in a second round. This gives the French public an opportunity of a virtual ‘do-over’ where the two candidates with the highest number of votes. This means that even if Le Pen achieves the highest number of votes in the first round, she will still have to rely on those who voted for any other candidate in the first round to turn their votes in for her instead in the second round. Considering Le Pen’s overwhelming unfavourability with other party voters, it is unlikely a large enough crowd will do that. With Le Pen currently polling at 25 %, this still leaves 75 % of voters who are likely to require a good amount of convincing before they turn around and cast a vote for the Front National candidate.
The Netherlands is a much more politically fractured than France, and smaller parties in coalitions dominate the political landscape. In France the political groupings are bigger, and the opportunity for an additional round of voting once the top two candidates have been established allows for a second chance for moderate and left-leaning voters to amend the result of the first round. This gives them the chance to rally behind a different candidate who, although not their first choice, might be a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
The result of the Dutch election is arguably a victory for established politics. Le Pen’s current stronghold is not just because of a surge in her support, but rather because of weakened support for the typical candidates. The best hope is that Rutte and VVD’s victory will encourage moderate voters, and that Wilders’ relative success will scare them into rallying behind whichever candidate is posed against Le Pen.
Ingebjørg Birkeland has completed an LL.M. in European Law at Universiteit Leiden, focusing on European migration law, the laws of the European internal market, and European protection of human rights. Before that she completed an LL.B. Honours in Law and Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. Her Bachelor’s studies were focused on the legal framework of the European Union, concentrating in particular on issues related to EU citizenship and its extent, as well as the politics of the EU, and European national politics.