The sigh of relief coming from the unelected European Commission in Brussels was so loud that you could probably hear it in every capital of the 28-member European Union (EU). The occasion was the result of the Dutch elections last week, when the sitting Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, of the Liberal party managed to win 33 of the 150-seat Dutch Parliament. With 21% of the total vote, the Liberals (VVD), contrary to all expectations, easily beat off the challenge of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) led by the charismatic, anti-EU Geert Wilders. The PVV had been polling neck and neck with the VVD throughout the months leading up to the poll, leading to speculation that the Netherlands would be the next victim of seemingly rampant populism, following the Trump victory in the US and Brexit in the UK. In the event, the jubilant Rutte declared that “populism did not break through” and boasted that he had stemmed the tide.

“Not so fast”, cry the supporters of populism, “let’s look at the details”. Although he polled less than expected, Wilders increased his seats from 15 to 20, whereas Rutte lost 8 seats. In normal times, this would have been seen as a disappointment for the ruling party, but in this frenzied era in European politics, the sense of relief has crowded out normality. Rutte’s demand that migrants should integrate more with Dutch society or leave the country, thus stealing some of Wilders’ clothes, was far removed from the traditional Dutch welcome to its liberal values. Rutte was also aided by the extraordinary outburst from the Turkish President Erdogan, claiming the Netherlands “massacred more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica”. This outlandish and false claim benefited Rutte, allowing him to give the appearance of a strong leader by refuting the charge. His poll rating rose with every speech given by Erdogan, as Dutch voters rallied round the flag. Even if Wilders had won, there was little or no chance that he and the PVV could win control of Parliament. The bewildering nature of Dutch politics requires that several parties must work together to form a majority and every party leader had declared they would not be willing to join with the PVV. Rutte will now need to spend the next few months negotiating with at least three other parties, each with fewer seats than the PVV, to form the next government.

And so the EU electoral focus moves on to France, which will be a greater test for EU survival. The presidential elections in April and May will be the second of a three-round battle (possibly 4 or 5 if there are snap elections in Italy and Greece) in Europe this year. Current polling suggests that the right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen will contest the second round with Emmanuel Macron, the rising star of the centre, with the previous favourite Francois Fillon fading into third place under the charge of earlier financial fraud. Le Pen has cleverly moved her National Front (NF) away from her father’s position, which was similar to that of Geert Wilders, in a process which she called “de-demonisation”. She went to the extent of expelling her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party he founded, in order to create distance from his toxic image. She has even removed her family name from NF posters, which now read simply “MARINE 2017”. Although this has made the NF more attractive to the less hard-line voters, pundits still consider the nature of the French voting system will act against her. In the second round, which takes place on 7 May, they predict that the majority vote will cluster around Macron and Le Pen will fail in her bid to become President.

But what if conventional wisdom is wrong? What if France experiences the “Trump” effect and voters show their anger against the establishment? Take a look at the current situation in France and compare it with that in America before last year’s presidential elections. You will find uncanny similarities. The old industrial heartland of north-east France is suffering from factory closures as owners relocate to cheaper areas in Europe, such as Poland, taking advantage of the borderless EU. “We will re-establish borders and tax imports from Poland” says Le Pen, echoing Trump’s comments on the US rust-belt. Immigration remains a serious issue, especially when linked to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. Any terrorist outbreak just before the elections will see Le Pen’s ratings soar. Working class attitudes towards establishment figures could also act in Le Pen’s favour. France has a strong record of producing leaders from the elite “Ecole Normale Superieure” in Paris, including the current President Francois Hollande and the current favourite Macron. Just as American voters reacted against Ivy League alumni such as the Bushes and Clintons, so French voters could well reject those from the dual-party establishment whom they blame for the current stagnation and malaise.

Brexit wounded the EU, but a win for Le Pen could be terminal for the 60-year project. As President, Le Pen would initially press for a looser relationship with the EU, threatening withdrawal if this cannot be achieved. She wants to re-introduce the franc, regarding the euro as a failed currency. With border controls and her France-first policy towards jobs, she would drive a coach and horses through all the ideals of the EU founding fathers. When British Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated with the EU to achieve concessions prior to the UK referendum, he met with a brick wall and was allowed only phony concessions. Le Pen’s demands would be several orders of magnitude beyond Cameron’s, totally unacceptable to the EU bureaucrats and doomed to certain failure leading to a French withdrawal. If there is Frexit, the EU will collapse. Quite literally, French voters have the future of the EU in their hands.

John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.

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