Dutch elections, a rehearsal for France?

Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. [European Parliament]

Dutch voters will go to the polls on 15 March to elect their new MPs, in what many observers see as a dry run for the French presidential election one month later. EURACTIV France reports.

The extreme right in France and the Netherlands appears to be running on the same narrative: Europe is disenchanted and wants change.

And this message is resonating with a similar number of voters in both countries, with the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) and the French National Front (NF) consistently polling between 25-30%.

The French and Dutch electoral systems are very different – in the Netherlands, for example, 28 parties will compete for 150 seats in parliament – but while Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen are both out in front in the polls, neither has a realistic chance of becoming their country’s next leader.

“The comparison is a relevant one and the result of the Dutch election could have an impact in France by creating a precedent,” said Bruno Cautrès, a specialist in political behaviour at Cevipov, the political research think tank at Paris’ Science Po University.

In the lead but a long way from power

In the Netherlands, the PVV could win as many as 30-35 seats in parliament, while the NF is likely to leave with very little. In France, the two-round electoral system favours “republican fronts” that form to block NF candidates.

But even if it takes the Dutch parliament by storm, the PVV’s newly-elected MPs will find they are kept at arm’s length from any real power. Most of the other parties have already rejected the idea of forming a government with the extreme right, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

“Unlike Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders is not trying to gain power. He refuses to talk with the other parties, he has even refused a televised debate. He is firmly camped in his anti-system position,” said Peter Giesen, France correspondent for the Dutch daily Volkskrant.

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In France, the presidential election will set the tone for the parliamentary elections to follow. But the two-round system gives Le Pen little chance of victory.

“The only way Le Pen could come to power is by winning more than 50% in the first round,” said Renaud Champion, a debt specialist at the Financial Times. “The Anglo-Saxons don’t fully understand the mechanics of the French election,” he added.

Mechanics of the second round

Le Pen’s forecast second round defeat will not be as heavy as her father’s loss against Jacques Chirac in 2002. The shock of seeing Jean-Marie Le Pen on their second ballot paper rallied voters of all political colours behind the incumbent Chirac, who won with a landslide 82%.

Cevipof expects the 27 million self-professed anti-Le Pen voters – out of a total of 44 million registered voters – to turn out in force to block her progress in the second round.

“In the Netherlands, my colleagues are always writing that Le Pen is going to win the election, but that is because they do not understand how the French system works,” said Stefan de Vries, a Dutch journalist working in France.

Eurosceptics snub Wilders' attempt to form European far-right party

The controversial Dutch far-right leader wants to gather like-minded parties in a mass movement ahead of next year's European elections, but not all are ready to join. UKIP frontrunner Nigel Farage has rejected such an initiative.

The French and Dutch far-right parties are alike in their attitudes towards the EU. Both are vocal critics of the EU institutions, yet are happy to accept large amounts of EU funding. The PVV has four MEPs, while the NF has 24. The two parties have come together to form a political group, which gives them access to significant funding and a stronger platform from which to operate.

Both parties also feed off anti-government feeling.

Last spring, the PVV led the campaign against the adoption of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which was rejected by Dutch voters in a referendum. The government later decided to ignore the result.

“Just like in 2005, after the referendum on the EU constitution, the government decided to override the result, which obviously played into the hands of the populists,” a Dutch source said.

Wilders promises to de-Islamise the Netherlands

But the differences between the two leaders are nonetheless striking. Wilders, who is very close to Le Pen, despite not being an MEP himself, does not hesitate to make openly racist remarks. Le Pen herself has spent years carefully trying to clean up the image of her party.

The PVV leader launched his campaign on Saturday (18 February) with a promise to crack down on “Moroccan scum who make the streets unsafe”.

Security is the one major crossover point of the two campaigns, which diverge on most other issues. Wilders’ social policies, including his attitude towards homosexuals, are surprisingly liberal and he has even backtracked on his threat to leave the euro, as Dutch voters appear to be aware of just how damaging this would be to their economy.

Le Pen, on the other hand, still plans to return to the franc, which would be anchored to the other European currencies by a “monetary snake”.