French far-right leader Marine Le Pen urged European voters to follow the example of Americans and the British and “wake up” in 2017, at a meeting of far-right leaders aiming to oust established parties in elections this year.
At a meeting billed as a “counter-summit”, Le Pen (Front National) told several hundred supporters in the German city of Koblenz on Saturday (21 January) that the British vote last year to leave the European Union would set off a “domino effect”.
One day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the United States’ 45th president, Le Pen said his speech included “accents in common” with the message on reclaiming national sovereignty proclaimed by the far-right leaders meeting in Koblenz.
“2016 was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up. I am sure 2017 will be the year the people of continental Europe wake up,” she said to loud applause.
Populist parties are on the rise across Europe. Unemployment and austerity, the arrival of record numbers of refugees and militant attacks in France, Belgium and Germany have left voters disillusioned with conventional parties.
Le Pen, who is seen by pollsters as highly likely to make a two-person runoff vote for the French presidency in May, has marked out Europe as a major plank in her programme.
“The key factor that is going to set in course all the dominos of Europe is Brexit,” Le Pen said. “A sovereign people chose… to decide its destiny itself.”
On Trump, she added: “His position on Europe is clear: he does not support a system of oppression of peoples.”
In a joint interview with the Times of London and German newspaper Bild published on 16 January, Trump said the EU had become “a vehicle for Germany” and predicted that more EU member states would vote to leave the bloc, as the United Kingdom did last June.
On Sunday (22 January), German Foreign Minister and soon-to-be President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the Bundesrepublik it should expect “turbulent times” under Trump’s presidency but managed to find some hope in the situation.
“I know, we must prepare ourselves for turbulent times, unpredictability and uncertainty,” Steinmeier said. “But I am convinced that we will find in Washington attentive listeners, who know that even big countries need partners in this world.”
Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz is hotly tipped to succeed Steinmeier and be tasked with ushering in a new type of Berlin-Washington relationship.
‘Frexit’ back on the table?
Le Pen said if elected she would ask the EU to return sovereign powers to France and hold a referendum on the outcome of negotiations she expected to follow. If the EU rejected her demands, she said: “I will suggest to the French people: exit!”
But political analyst Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund said the gathering was mainly “just good PR” as the parties had little to gain from strengthening ties.
“This is largely to increase media attention,” he told AFP.
“The reasons why people vote for these parties are purely national and are independent from any alleged cross-national cooperation between the far-right.”
The far-right leaders met under the slogan “Freedom for Europe” with the aim of strengthening ties between their parties, whose nationalist tendencies have hampered close collaboration in the past.
“Together with the parties represented here, we want a subsidiary Europe of free Fatherlands,” said Frauke Petry, co-leader of Germany’s anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Petry meanwhile came under fire for taking part in the meeting at all, with some prominent members questioning whether the party should be cosying up to Le Pen, and in doing so, lurching further to the right.
The AfD started out as an anti-euro party but has since gained ground by railing against Merkel’s liberal refugee policy, which has brought over a million asylum seekers to the country since 2015.
Petry used her speech to again lash out at the record influx, slamming the establishment’s calls for tolerance “while hundreds of thousands, millions, of mostly illiterate young men from a far and partly violent culture invade our continent”.
The AfD is polling at between 11-15%, ahead of a general election in September, boosting its chances of becoming the first hardline rightist party to enter Germany’s parliament since 1945.
Several leading German media were barred from the Koblenz meeting, which was organised by the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the smallest group in the European Parliament.
Also at the meeting were Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party (PVV), who was last month convicted of discrimination against Moroccans, and Matteo Salvini of the Northern League, who wants to take Italy out of the euro.
In the Netherlands, Wilders is leading in all major polls before national parliamentary elections on 15 March. Hailing Trump’s election, Wilders told the meeting: “Yesterday, a free America, today Koblenz, and tomorrow a new Europe.”
“The genie will not go back into the bottle,” he added.
Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), a junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition, joined a protest outside the venue. Police said the demonstration was peaceful and about 5,000 people took part.
They displayed cardboard cutouts of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, and some protesters carried signs that read “If you sleep through democracy, you wake up in a dictatorship”.
More than 1,000 police officers were deployed to keep the protests peaceful.
Merkel (CDU) has ruled out meeting Le Pen ahead of the French polls, with her spokesman saying the French far-right politician’s policies have nothing in common with the German government’s.
Le Pen hit back at the perceived snub on Twitter.
“I am going to Germany to meet its future, the AfD, not its past, the CDU,” she wrote, referring to Merkel’s conservative party.
Je vais en Allemagne rencontrer son avenir, l'AfD, pas son passé, la CDU. MLP
— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) January 20, 2017