Why populists in France and the Netherlands failed despite Trump and Brexit

Supporters of right wing firebrands Geert of the Netherlands and Marine of France claimed that the election of populist President Donald and the British vote to leave the EU demonstrated global momentum in favour of nationalism and against globalisation and most particularly against the EU. Both candidates aggressively promoted anti Muslim migration policies in response to the wave of Islamic extremist inspired terror attacks across western Europe. But where Donald Trump and the Leave campaign in the UK succeeded against the odds (and pollsters), Geert Wilders and Marine Le Penn failed to win power and in fact both never came close to winning. There are 10 reasons why this was the case:

  1. The US Presidential election and the British EU exit referendum were fought in a series of first past the post winner-take-all contests. The Dutch Parliament elects members via a proportional voting system with a very low (1%) minimum vote threshold resulting in a myriad of small parties leading to Dutch governments with four or even six coalition partners. It was difficult for Geert Wilders’ PVV (Party For Freedom) to reach a point where it was ever dominant enough to lead the process of forming a government.The French Presidential voting system threw up a myriad of candidates across the political spectrum in the first round that saw the traditional French conservative/socialist divide cast aside for newcomers. Scandal prone Francois Fillon from the traditional right was overshadowed by the more extreme Le Pen and the so-called centrist Emmanuel Macron capitalised on the unpopularity of the Hollande socialist Presidency and shut out all candidates from the left. This gave French voters an uncomfortable choice in the second round between political novices, a choice that favoured the less extreme candidate Macron.
  1. Trump, if you set aside his anti-free trade populism, ran on a pretty mainstream (by US standards) conservative ticket featuring policy planks that have (at least in terms of campaign rhetoric) been part of several prior Republican Presidential campaigns: border security, tough on Islamic terror, tax cuts, fewer regulations, conservative judicial appointments to Federal Courts, more pro-Israel and strengthening the US military. Trump was controversial in his personal moral shortcomings, his propensity to strongly attack his opponents and the media and the inflammatory rhetoric that he used in his campaign appearances and social media pronouncements, but his policy announcements and actions thus far in power have been little different from what Ronald Reagan did in office. Le Pen on the other hand, espoused a raft of quite left wing economic policies such as protecting workers’ rights, raising state pensions, raising taxes on big businesses, lowering the age of retirement and increasing the disability living allowance. Wilders likewise was never an economic conservative and he sometimes voted with left leaning parties on healthcare and social welfare issues. So, whilst nationalism themes were certainly a part of Trump’s appeal, they were not the only part. Le Pen and Wilders made opposition to Muslim migration and its cultural effects the central part of their respective campaigns adding economic nationalism into the pot (supporting Frexit and Nexit referenda and also going back to the franc and guilder).
  1. Trump’s rhetoric on Islamic terrorism and immigration, whilst strong in comparison to his Democrat opponents, proposed actual policy prescriptions that were simple and not nearly as extreme as his earliest rhetoric: defeat ISIS abroad (Clinton also campaigned on a similar platform) and to temporarily restrict migrants from 7 (later 6) high risk Muslim countries (the same 7 proposed by the Obama Administration) and to suspend refugee applications from Syria – all until a more thorough vetting regime could be implemented. Wilders went significantly further proposing to ban the Koran and other Muslim symbols, shut down mosques and Islamic schools and ban all Muslim migration and Le Pen similarly proposed expelling imams, removing all illegal Muslim migrants, shutting down mosques and both proposed a raft of restrictions or bans on Muslim expressions of culture such as FGM and the wearing of burqas and hijabs in public. Whilst both Dutch and French voters were sensitive to the issue of Islamic terror (the Dutch have witnessed the high profile murders of film maker Theo van Gogh and gay politician Pym Fonteyn at the hands of Muslim hit men) and France has suffered several recent Islamic extremist inspired massacres (Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, Nice, Normandy and others), the more extreme measures proposed by Le Pen and Wilders had a more limited electoral appeal than Trump’s more measured proposals.
  1. Regarding relations with Russia, when you strip away current rhetoric by Democrats and the media about supposed Russian influence on the Trump campaign, and aside from the obvious Russian sponsored hack of the DNC emails, there has been no credible evidence presented that anyone close to Trump in his campaign and now administration had any ties to Russia. Whilst Trump was less critical of Putin during the campaign than Clinton, his administration’s actions in attacking the airbase of Russia’s ally Syria, the frostier response of Trump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson towards Russia, the demand that they leave the Ukraine, accusations that Putin armed the Taliban and partially blaming Putin for Assad’s use of chemical weapons demonstrates that the Trump administration is far from Putin’s stooge as alleged. Le Pen, on the other hand, has been, and remains, a vocal advocate for Russia to the point of calling for the lifting of sanctions against Putin, saying she’d recognize former Ukrainian territory of Crimea annexed by Russia as Russian territory and her arranging an almost €30 million loan for her campaign obtained from a Czech bank with strong ties to Putin. The 11th hour likely Russian hack on Macron’s emails played nicely into his campaign’s message that Le Pen was too pro Putin.
  1. The EU and its pan-European economic and judicial model is more deeply ingrained into French and Dutch political culture. France was one of the leading proponents of the Customs Union that became the EEC then the EU and its politicians and bureaucrats have been at the heart of the EU model and have been enthusiastic supporters of the various Treaties and Accords that have extended the reach and power of the EU over its member states. The same is true for the Netherlands. They were a founding member and quickly and uncontroversially embraced the EU trading model and the Euro. Populist politicians in each country were running up hard against a status quo that had broad bi-partisan support across their societies. The British were late to join the EU and always more reluctant participants compared to the French and Dutch. They strongly resisted the Euro and the open borders policy and subsequent blowout of migration from Eastern Europe and the gradual subjugation of British courts to the European Court of Justice became issues of considerably more electoral potency in the UK than in France and Holland.
  1. The face of for many years was Nigel Farage of UKIP and Brexit was the main raison d’etre of his party. Unlike Wilders, who could more easily bring his party into the proportionally elected Dutch Parliament, outside of Farage’s representation in the EU Parliament, the UK’s FPP vote system largely shut UKIP out of power in Westminster. This spared UKIP the burden of trying to be a serious party of government and thus Farage’s job was much clearer cut and simple compared to that of Le Pen or Wilders. Farage sought mostly the referendum that former British PM David Cameron granted and when that referendum went the way he had campaigned for, his job was done and he retreated from the stage and UKIP is now going through its death throes in the current UK General Election campaign as senior Tory Ministers have now taken up the Brexit cause and mainstreamed it. Wilders and Le Pen sought to govern their respective countries and so their parties had to produce broader policy platforms which is much harder to do. Once Wilders and Le Pen were outside their main campaigning platform (against Muslim and other migration) they were less sure footed and exposed as being single issue politicians.
  1. Trump faced Clinton who was a fatally flawed candidate with a grab bag of negative political baggage which eventually sunk her campaign. Wilders faced a relatively personally popular and politically canny sitting Dutch PM in Mark Rutte who played up the strong Dutch economic recovery under his watch and skillfully exploited attempts by Turkish President Erdogan to promote his Turkish constitutional referendum to Turks resident in Holland by provoking a diplomatic crisis between Holland and Turkey after banning and expelling Turkish politicians. This action alone saw Wilders’ narrow poll lead over Rutte’s VVD party evaporate in the run up to the March 15th Dutch elections to eventually falling 8% behind and almost into third place. Rutte’s ruling party suffered losses but remained the largest party and so was able to lead new coalition negotiations. Le Pen similarly faced an opponent with no real political history but still with a relatively impressive CV. Macron’s globalist free trade approach, his clean break from his time as a Minister in Hollande’s unpopular government and his seeming centrist positioning was the perfect foil to Le Pen’s more extreme rhetoric. In the end, he easily defeated her.
  1. Trump had no coalition of parties who could unite to oppose him due to the unique ‘big church’ nature of US political parties. The Libertarians on his right syphoned off no more votes from the GOP than did the Greens siphon from the left of the Democrats making it a wash. Wilders on the other hand faced a wall of opposition from all the other larger parties likely to be returned to the Dutch Parliament who unitedly refused to go into coalition with him and thus the fragmented nature of the Dutch electoral system diffusing votes across a wide number of parties isolated Wilders’ PVV to a minority 20% of the seats and so not a position from which to govern. Similarly, once the first round eliminated all the major parties in the French political system, it was easy for voters to unite around Macron against Le Pen. Socialist politicians, including fourth ranked run off candidate charismatic hard left socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, endorsed Macron. Many of Fillon’s centre right voters stayed home fearing the extremism and left wing economic policies of Le Pen paving the way to an easy Macron victory.
  1. Despite allegations to the contrary, Trump is not anti-Semitic whereas Le Pen has clearly had a history of anti-Semitism and her party (Front National) had a long and storied anti-Semitic history not the least of which was the well-known anti-Semitic views of her father and former Presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Wilders has worked hard to not be anti-Semitic but it was clear his PVV party was attracting some of that vote.
  1. Trump had a robust and thriving right wing media to help get his message out (Fox News, popular talkback radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt, right wing magazines and newspapers and a myriad of right wing blogs). Whilst media reporting of the Brexit referendum was one sided in favour of Remain, there are still powerful media voices on the right in Britain that ensured the Leave view was heard. Wilders and Le Pen faced a largely hostile media in the Netherlands and France. Both were darlings of right-wing media overseas (e.g. Breitbart who championed both Wilders and Le Pen) but Dutch and French voters consume a diet of media that is largely pro-EU, relaxed on Muslim migration and centre-left in political and economic leaning shutting out their populist messaging and counter balancing in favour of more establishment candidates.

The defeats of Le Pen and Wilders prove that you need to offer voters more than just opposition to Muslim migration and the effects of such migration on your culture. Both populists had political systems and the establishment media firmly and strongly opposed to their platforms. Le Pen had a confused almost schizophrenic economic platform and failed to live down the extremism of her family’s past and Wilders faced a cleverer and more politically astute opponent who tapped into the anti-Muslim migrant sentiment of his opponent and turned it in his favour.

Say what you want about Trump as candidate and President but he has broader appeal than either Le Pen or Wilders. He managed to hold on to his own party’s base and steal Obama voters from Clinton and has espoused policies that, whilst controversial to the mainstream of the left leaning Washington establishment and commentariat, have struck a popular chord because they are implementable. Whilst protest against the ruling class has been a theme of all four populist leaders/movements, Trump and Brexit resonated enough with the broad centre to ensure success in way that the harder edged policies of Le Pen and Wilders failed to do.

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