Elisabeth Zerofsky, New Yorker, January 25, 2017
On January 20th, as Donald Trump was taking the oath of office, in Washington, populist leaders from across Europe were arriving in a quiet city on the Rhine. Early the next morning, French, German, Italian, Austrian, and Dutch nationalists stood together on a stage in Koblenz, a central German town that has been associated with political countercurrents since it harbored aristocrats during the French Revolution. Their national flags flew behind them as they greeted what they called the “birth of a new world.” “Yesterday, a new America,” Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, proclaimed to a hall filled with about a thousand attendees, most of them sturdy men in dark suits. “Tomorrow, a new Europe.”
The momentum of the Brexit vote, followed by Trump’s election, has provided European populists with a ready-made argument for their own inevitability. “People thought Trump wouldn’t win and he won; they thought during the two months preceding his Inauguration he would backpedal on all his promises, but he didn’t do it,” Thibaud Gibelin, a parliamentary aide to France’s National Front, told me. “It shows it is possible to achieve victory over the establishment, and for us that’s the most beautiful symbol.” The parties gathered in Koblenz have gained voters over the past few years, as Europeans across the political spectrum have lost confidence in mainstream politicians’ ability to manage the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism, and, in some cases, high unemployment. Both Wilders and Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Front, will face elections this spring, and both lead in the polls. Le Pen, who could become President of France in May, has called for a Brexit-style referendum, which she claims is the only way to regain control over national borders and put an end to immigration. France and Germany are the nucleus of the European Union, and a “Frexit” would in all likelihood mean its end.
The Koblenz conference was organized by Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a four-year-old party that is trying to gain a foothold in a country that is still loath to tolerate the far right. In the fall, the AfD will likely obtain seats in the German parliament for the first time.
Le Pen took the stage like the instructor at a populists’ master class, radiating a warm familiarity. She hailed the domino effect that June’s Brexit vote had set in motion. “We have felt it coming, the rebellion of the people of Europe against a non-elected power that has pretended to be based on democracy,” she said. “What a blow to the old order!” The applause at the end was so rapturous that she returned to the stage for a curtain call.
Le Pen presents an alliance between nationalist parties as a source not of bellicosity but of harmony. In Koblenz, she laid out a vision of a flowering of European cultures, and argued that a “diversity” of strong national identities would bring not war but mutual respect. Far-right supporters also believe that new European and American alliances with Russia will bring about a broader détente
At the Koblenz conference, the populists made their claims of “rebirth” before an audience of mostly older white men. But the “identitarian” movement, while small — the French chapter claims two thousand paying members — is growing among the young. Gibelin, the National Front aide, is twenty-seven years old and was dressed in a gray wool suit, his hair slicked back in the manner of Donald Trump’s elder sons.
“We have our Roman roots, our language, our culture; the cathedrals you see, whether in Cologne or Paris, that are Gothic, that’s transnational; the Renaissance was a European phenomenon; and the great religious moments that marked Europe, the spread of Christianity, the Reformation, those were never isolated to one nation,” he said.
He shrugged confidently. “We are attacked by the media as being extremist, but for me it’s exactly the opposite. It’s global capitalism that is extreme. We are simply defending the interests of the people.”