Is Europe’s far right experiencing a ‘Trump effect’?
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Election 2016

Is Europe’s far right experiencing a ‘Trump effect’?

Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right party, attending a rally in Paris, May 1, 2011. (Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right party, attending a rally in Paris, May 1, 2011. (Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

(JTA) — European far-right politicians were quick to hold up Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election as a harbinger of their own impending triumphs.

Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right party, said that what Europeans call “the Trump effect” — that is, right-wing nationalism fueled by anger toward political elites and mistrust of immigration — heralds the upset she is seeking in her own country’s presidential elections in May. She called Trump’s election “good news” for France.

Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician whose party is leading polls ahead of March’s general elections, called Trump’s victory a “revolution” that will come to the Netherlands.

And Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate many believe will win Austria’s Dec. 4 presidential election, cited Trump’s victory in predicting his own.

But nearly two weeks after Trump’s success, little evidence suggests that these statements are more than posturing by career politicians eager to rebrand themselves as change-makers despite the fact that they are viewed, even by many of their supporters, as obsolete or deeply compromised.

In Le Pen’s case, polls conducted before and after Trump’s victory project that she will receive about 25 percent of the vote. And while this would certainly be a new record for her National Front party, it is difficult to tie such a result to Trump’s victory.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that Le Pen’s solidarity with Trump is a double-edged sword. In an Odoxa poll conducted among 1,004 French adults a day after Trump was elected, 76 percent of respondents said they lamented his election. Even among National Front voters, the poll found only 54 percent supported him.

In the Netherlands and Austria, Trump’s election also revealed no discernible shift in polls. Wilders’ party, which is running neck and neck with the center-right ruling party, dropped by one point after Trump’s victory in one poll (I&O Research), remained unchanged in another (Politieke Barometer) and rose by one point in a third poll (Maurice de Hond.)

As for Hofer, Wilders’ counterpart in Austria, he rose by one point in polls since Trump’s election, remaining within the margin of error in a race pollsters have said is too close to call.

The polls further show no correlation between the popularity of far-right parties like National Front and the “Brexit” referendum of last June, when British voters supported leaving the European Union.

Undoubtedly, there are some similarities between the message of Europe’s rising far right and Trump’s campaign strategy. Both leverage financial insecurity while warning about Muslim immigration and jihadism in campaigns themed around nostalgia, xenophobia and popular resentment of the seemingly detached ruling elite.

But there are also considerable differences.

Both Wilders’ Party for Freedom and Le Pen’s National Front are seeking greater taxation on some earners (Le Pen wants to raise the income tax on high earners as much as 46 percent) than the policy favored by the countries’ ruling governments. In this regard, the European far right diverges significantly with Trump.

Additionally, Trump was an outsider to American politics; Le Pen, Wilders, Hofer and most of their counterparts elsewhere in Europe have been in politics for at least a decade. Even to potential supporters, they are associated with the very political structures they have for years been promising to tear down.

In France, Le Pen has been trying to mainstream her party and move it away from the more radical anti-establishment message of her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. When she kicked him out of the party last year for saying the Holocaust was insignificant — a statement for which he was convicted of genocide denial – it cause a split within the party, costing her the votes of many supporters who now view her as a sellout. As for Wilders, he agreed in 2010 to briefly join a coalition led by Holland’s centrist ruling party — a compromise that disappointed many of his hard-core supporters.

Nevertheless, Trump’s victory is invigorating supporters of these far-right parties who are finding themselves in the spotlight of left-wing media that are now much more willing to “listen to angry white voters,” as the Dutch NRC Handelsblad put it last weekend.

“If the Americans did it, so can we!” one National Front voter and activist, a former train conductor in his fifties named Fredy Deguin-Dawson, told Le Monde. The article surveyed attitudes toward Trump’s victory in the Hauts-de-France region, which is France’s rust belt with 14 percent unemployment.

Even he, however, recoiled from some of Trump’s xenophobic remarks. “That Trump called Mexicans thieves and rapists … No. I find it unacceptable,” said Deguin-Dawson. His rejection of racism, typical of many Europeans with bitter memory and collective guilt over the Holocaust, is another social inhibitor for the far right.

Still, it is not difficult to see why Europe’s far right, which is eager to project an image of success, would like to portray itself as a continuation of the Trump effect. And the mainstream European media is hesitant to bet on the status quo after failing to foresee both Brexit and Trump’s victory.

Jewish community leaders, along with leaders of other minorities, are also wary about the meaning of Trump’s victory.

“We are not the only ones, we hear this all over Europe,” Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, told JTA last week. “There’s concern of the rise of the extreme right on the coattails of the Trump victory.”

While such alarm is understandable coming from vulnerable minorities, centrist and left-wing politicians have also warned about a “Trump effect.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls shocked many of his citizens when he said last week during a visit to Berlin that “Le Pen could become president in 2017.” He injected Trump into the equation by adding: “Of course, I’m not comparing: Trump headed the Republican Party, which already controlled Congress and numerous states, but of course his rhetoric and proposals are disturbing.”

Valls, a Socialist, may have political reasons to establish a connection between Le Pen and the “Trump effect.” After all, French centrists, worried about the National Front, have for decades rallied voters  to vote for other candidates just to keep that party out of power. It’s such a common strategy that it even has a name — the “Republican Front” — and it has allowed both the Socialists and their center-right rivals to increase voting participation and keep the National Front in opposition.

Olivier Faye, Le Monde’s expert on the far right, says he does not recognize any “Trump effect” in French politics at this time.

“It’s difficult to draw conclusions on any effect, negative or positive, of Trump’s victory on how Le Pen will perform in the French presidential elections,” he wrote last week. What is clear, he said, is that “she’ll happily use any populist victory abroad“ to her advantage.