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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cheese, Wine and Nationalism: What the Dutch General Election can tell us about France's upcoming Presidential tilt

The cheeseheads (sorry, Wisconsin) have spoken.

Citizens of the Kingdom of the Netherlands went to the polls on March 15, 2017, to elect all 150 members of their House of Representatives, and by extension, a Prime Minister.

With 75% of the votes tallied, the center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, known by its Dutch initials VVD, has come in first, with around 21% of the vote.

Mark Rutte, the current Prime Minister, will remain Prime Minister.

Behind the VVD, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) is in a distant second, with the Christian Democratic Appeal party, slightly more centrist than VVD, is in third, with the socially progressive, economic centrist Democrats 66 in a very close fourth. The Labour Party, once the main left-wing party, slumped badly into seventh, a serious drop from their second-place finish in 2012.

Prime Minister Rutte addressed his cheering supporters upon victory, claiming that “Our message to the Netherlands – that we will hold our course, and keep this country safe, stable and prosperous, got through...this was an evening when after Brexit and Trump, the Netherlands said ‘Stop’ to the wrong sort of populism.”

Many media outlets and polls suggested that the nationalist PVV had a real chance of taking first place in this election because of the refugee crisis and other problems. However, the VVD seemed to gain in the polls at the last minute due to their handling of the recent diplomatic row with Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Because of the abundance of parties in the Netherlands (eleven different parties won seats in the 2012 election), however, even if the PVV and their controversial leader Geert Wilders  managed to capture the most seats, they would have had massive trouble in forming a government. As it stands now, the VVD, even with their convincing win, will probably have to partner with at least two, perhaps even three or four other parties to form a governing coalition. Both the VVD and CDA claimed they would not govern in coalition with the PVV if they won, which would have made coalition negotiations nearly impossible. 

As it stands, the PVV is in second and while they have improved on their total from 2012, they have not matched their total from 2010. 

Prime Minister Rutte may be exaggerating a bit when he says that the Netherlands has rejected populism. But this election does buck the trend of Brexit and Trump, and so we can draw some interesting conclusions from the results. 

First, anti-establishment fervor like was visible in the United States may not be as powerful when there is such an abundance of parties. As previously mentioned, even if the Party for Freedom had won the most votes, their ability to form a government would have been severely hampered by other parties' unwillingness to govern with them. 

Second, anti-EU sentiment in continental Europe just isn't as strong as it is in countries like the UK. Geert Wilders campaigned partially on the idea of "Nexit", the Netherlands leaving the European Union, and his French counterpart Marine Le Pen has toyed with a similar idea in France. 

This was never likely. Brexit was a monumental leap into uncharted territory for the United Kingdom, and it did not win by that large of a margin-51.9% to 48.1%. If the Netherlands or France did the same it would do serious, perhaps even mortal, damage to the EU. But the Dutch people at large do not want to leave the political union, and the prominent reluctance to take part in the union that Britain was famous for does not exist in the Netherlands. 

This election also shows an important difference between the nationalist right in the US and in Europe. Ethnic nationalism as a political tool, while certainly not unheard of in the US, has not been utilized in the same way in the United States that it has in Europe, since the United States is generally multicultural and has been for almost its entire history. 

Donald Trump's brash rhetoric and appeals to nationalism worked for the Republican Party in 2016, but these sorts of sentiments were on the fringe (though rising) in 2012 under Mitt Romney. Trump, however, managed to channel this anger and discontent in a way previously unseen because of his perception as an outsider who would "drain the swamp". 

These types of political movements are not new in Europe. Geert Wilders has been in the Dutch House of Representatives since 1998. Likewise, Wilders' French counterpart, Marine Le Pen, joined the National Front in 1986. Wilders and Le Pen are not political outsiders like Trump was, and therefore they may have not be able to play to quite the same sentiments as Trump could. 

And in France? France is going to the polls in April and again in May to elect a new president. The major candidates are Marine Le Pen of the right-wing nationalist National Front, Francois Fillon from Les Republicains, Benoit Hamon of the Socialist Party, Emmanuel Macron of a new center-left party called "En Marche!", and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is running under the banner of a party called Unsubmissive France. 

There is a real chance that Le Pen will win the first round of the presidential election. Because of France's diverse political theatre, however, there will be a runoff in May between the two top candidates. 

The runoff will likely be between Le Pen, Fillon, or Macron. Polls indicate that both Fillon and Macron would beat Le Pen in a hypothetical matchup, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Fillon has been mired in scandal since he won his party's primary and has slumped to third in the polls. Unlike in the Netherlands where the mainstream right-wing VVD is fairly popular, Les Republicains are struggling to address the scandals of their presidential candidate. While Emmanuel Macron is snapping at Le Pen's heels in recent polls, his ability to gain the support of the French left may be up for debate, as he leans farther towards the center than both Hamon and Melenchon. 

If Fillon faces Le Pen in the second round, the polls may end up tight. It's true that in 2002, French left-wing parties rallied behind the center-right Jacques Chirac in order to defeat Jean-Marie Le Pen soundly in the runoff that year, but the FN has managed to appeal to a wider base since 2002. 

Macron does very well in a hypothetical head-to-head against Le Pen, but whether he can inspire the same sort of rally against her is yet to be seen. The National Front may try to paint Macron, a former investment banker, as a corporate fat cat in an attempt to win parts of the French left over, as the nationalist right does tend to lean left on economic issues. 

In the Netherlands, an abundance of political parties has stalled Geert Wilders and his agenda. Can France's safey valve, the presidential runoff do the same against Marine Le Pen? It just might be able to. 

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