Europe's Populists, Back on their Heels, Rethink -2-

By Stacy Meichtry, Anton Troianovski and Marcus Walker Features Dow Jones Newswires

CARPENTRAS, France -- Europe's populist politicians hoped this would be the year they rocked the Continent's establishment. Instead, their assault on the European Union has brought election defeats, recriminations and self-doubt.

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Hervé de Lépinau, a parliamentary candidate for France's far-right National Front, ended a rally before parliamentary elections in June with an attack on his own party's leadership. "Making a French exit from the euro the essence of our platform was an absurdity," he said. His party subsequently lost that seat in what was supposed to be a party stronghold in France's sun-baked south.

Many of Europe's far-right politicians now believe their attempt to associate themselves with the antiestablishment uprisings behind the U.K.'s vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump's U.S. presidential victory has backfired.

Outright rejection of the EU and the euro was a departure for most of Europe's far right, which traditionally concentrated more on immigration and identity. What they discovered is that Continental European voters, although hardly content with incumbents or the EU, viewed electoral shocks in the U.K. and U.S. as destabilizing.

Centrist leaders such as new French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel exploited those concerns, and nationalist parties have stopped talking about leaving the EU or the euro -- or styling themselves as the local version of Mr. Trump.

Anti-EU nationalists "were so electrified after Brexit and Trump that they thought all of us would be president or prime minister of their country," says Gerolf Annemans, a leading figure in Belgium's Flemish-nationalist party and in a group of EU-skeptic parties in the European Parliament. Instead, he says, "to some extent the Trump election has frightened off parts of the center electorate in Europe."

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The tide of far-right and populist parties is still running high in Europe by historical standards, even with the economy picking up steam, and some voters say it wouldn't take much to see them switch back their support.

Far-right and other populist parties made significant gains, despite recriminations over their tactical decision to up their anti-EU rhetoric. National Front leader Marine Le Pen won 34% of the vote in France's presidential election, her party's highest-ever share. Her vanquisher, Mr. Macron, has struggled in his early days with falling poll numbers and some domestic political setbacks.

The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, is on course to enter the German parliament in September's national elections, the first time a far-right party has done so in decades.

In Austria, elections in October could put the far-right Freedom Party in a position to join the next government. Italy's ideologically eclectic 5 Star Movement, fueled by fury at incumbents, could become the country's biggest party in elections due next year.

Yet in most of Europe, elections and surveys suggest that populism might have peaked -- at least for now. Support for European antiestablishment parties rose to just over 30% in opinion polls in 2016, but has declined to around 23%, according to a composite measure of opinion-poll support developed by economists at bank Nomura Holdings.

The current level of support still represents a substantial increase from what it was five years ago. That suggests the populist movement is here to stay, even through recent election tactics appear to have backfired.

The Dutch Party for Freedom, led by anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders, won more seats in elections this March than in the previous elections in 2012, but fewer than in 2010. Mr. Wilders missed his goal of becoming the Netherlands' biggest party. Like Mr. Wilders, France's Ms. Le Pen performed worse in the presidential election than opinion polls last winter suggested she would. The AfD is polling about 8% in Germany, well below its 15% level of support last fall.

When the heads of Europe's populist parties gathered in the picturesque German Rhineland town of Koblenz in January, they believed momentum was with them. The U.K.'s Brexit vote and Mr. Trump's November victory, they said, heralded an antiestablishment wave that would sweep them into power or close to it, while bringing about the end of the EU in today's form.

"Yesterday a free America...Tomorrow a new Europe," Mr. Wilders told a cheering crowd from a stage shared with Ms. Le Pen and other allies.

Mr. Wilders styled himself as the Dutch Trump. Ms. Le Pen visited Trump Tower in New York, although she didn't meet the president-elect. Each promised to emulate Brexit by holding referendums on leaving the euro or EU, proposals dubbed "Frexit" in France, "Nexit" in the Netherlands, and "Öxit" in Austria.

Incumbents believed that populist upsets were distinctly possible. In the German chancellery, some aides to Ms. Merkel feared they might soon lose France as a close and predictable ally. The multilateral order of the West, consolidated since the end of the Cold War, was felt to be in unprecedented danger. "If Le Pen wins, then the EU is over," predicted one longtime German official.

Yet many European voters were unsettled by what was happening in the U.K. and U.S. The U.K. has struggled to figure out how to disentangle itself from the EU. Germans' trust in the U.S. fell from 59% in Nov. 2016 to 21% in February, and has remained at low levels, according to opinion polls commissioned by public broadcaster ARD.

Support for the EU, battered by long crises over debt and migration, began to recover. The EU's own latest Eurobarometer report on public opinion, published in August, found that trust in the EU has risen to 42%, from 36% a year ago and 32% in late 2015.

Improving economic growth in much of Europe, especially in the 19-country euro currency zone, helped blunt some of the discontent. Eurozone growth reached at an annualized pace of 2.5% in the most recent quarter, high by recent standards. That has helped slowly reduce the unemployment rate, which now stands at around 9% in the eurozone, compared with 12% after the region's debt crisis.

Mr. Wilders and Ms. Le Pen began slipping in opinion polls over the winter.

Peter Appelt, a 57-year-old worker in a train factory who lives in Germany's east, told The Wall Street Journal last year he supported the anti-immigration AfD party because Europe "doesn't work," and because he was fearful of the large influx of immigrants. "The other parties need to be taught a lesson," he said then.

Now, he says he has changed his mind. He doesn't know yet who he will vote for in Germany's Sept. 24 parliamentary elections, he says, but it won't be the AfD. He says he finds the party too amateurish and extreme, and that watching events in the U.S. and U.K. has made him more skeptical.

He sees the AfD's policies as similar to Mr. Trump's. "He wants to wall off his country, and the AfD also wants to keep all foreigners from entering, and that doesn't work either," he says. Mr. Trump's political struggles and the U.K. difficulties defining its future relationship with Europe have convinced him that isolationism makes for bad policy, he says. "In a globalized world, one can't act like a small island," he says.

Alexander Gauland, who co-heads the AfD ticket for the September election, says his party "of course used the Trump victory to say, 'This is also coming in Germany. The establishment is being voted out.' We have a figure like [Hillary] Clinton here: Merkel."

Mr. Gauland says if Mr. Trump had managed to start construction on his promised Mexican-border wall, the AfD could have used the new president's success to trumpet the feasibility of its own demands to close Germany's borders.

"Now that it's become tangled up in details, people are no longer paying attention," Mr. Gauland says.

Mr. Trump's mixed messages on traditional U.S. security commitments to European allies -- in June he affirmed U.S. defense guarantees to NATO allies, after declining to do so at a NATO summit in May -- have also hurt support for an EU-skeptic agenda, Mr. Gauland says.

His party continues to campaign for a "Dexit" referendum on leaving the EU unless the bloc agrees to loosen ties between members.

Only 20% of Germans want a looser EU, however, while 78% support more cooperation between EU countries, according to an ARD survey this spring. Another survey by market-research firm GfK in March found that only 10% of Germans would vote to leave the EU in a referendum, while 75% would vote to remain.

In France, Ms. Le Pen hailed Mr. Trump and Brexit as harbingers and echoed the message of economic nationalism and sovereignty. She amplified her opposition to the EU and unveiled a plan in January to pull France out of the euro.

Some National Front politicians thought the party should stick to its traditional anti-immigration theme. Among the sharpest internal critics was Ms. Le Pen's niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a rising star in the party since she won a parliamentary seat in the Vaucluse region of southern France in 2012 with an anti-immigration message.

Ms. Maréchal-Le Pen told the party brass that returning to the French franc was irrelevant to voters' problems in the coming decades, says her longtime lieutenant, Mr. Lépinau. "I don't care if one day my daughter needs to use francs or euros to buy her burqa," Ms. Maréchal-Le Pen told one leadership meeting, according to her spokesman.

The elder Ms. Le Pen stuck to the Frexit policy. In a televised debate against Mr. Macron, she gave a raucous performance. She spoke over Mr. Macron, gestured at him theatrically and falsely insinuated he had an offshore account.

A close aide to Ms. Le Pen says the performance gave an impression of recklessness that backfired with French voters. Already trailing in the polls, Ms. Le Pen slumped to a defeat by 32 percentage points.

Ms. Maréchal-Le Pen resigned from office after her aunt's defeat in May, leaving Mr. Lépinau to defend the Vaucluse seat in June's parliamentary elections.

His adversary was political neophyte Brune Poirson, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who says she decided to join Mr. Macron's brand-new party, "En Marche !", after Mr. Trump's victory in November. "I was devastated, " she says. "We had Brexit and then Trump, and I was like, 'We're going to have Le Pen."

The odds of her winning in the Le Pen family bastion were long. But the divisions in the National Front gave her an opening, as did the right's association with the American president in some voters' minds.

She won in an upset, partly because of a weak turnout among National Front supporters. Mr. Macron's upstart movement achieved a large majority in Parliament.

At meeting in late July, National Front leaders reaffirmed their opposition to the EU but said they would prioritize tougher immigration and trade policy over matters of "monetary sovereignty."

A survey of 10 EU countries published in June by the Pew Research Center found that Europeans remain critical of the bloc. A median of 46% disapproved of the EU's handling of its long economic crisis, while 66% disapproved of its management of the refugee crisis.

But dissatisfaction didn't translate into support for leaving. The survey found that, outside the U.K., a median of only 18% wanted to quit the EU, while 77% wanted to stay.

Mr. Appelt, the factory worker from eastern Germany, says voters such as himself will give mainstream politicians a brief opportunity to fix Europe's problems.

"It's now all about whether things take a turn for the better," he says. "If this doesn't happen in the next couple of years, then it is possible that Europe again simply takes a rightward turn."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 21, 2017 13:08 ET (17:08 GMT)