Is Trump causing European populism to crumble?

Marine Le Pen runs for French president.
Marine Le Pen runs for French president.

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Marine Le Pen runs for French president. 02:36

Story highlights

  • Trump's outrageous actions seem to be causing a backlash against populism in Europe, Andelman says
  • Upcoming elections in the Netherlands and France are unlikely to result in far-right victories

David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Donald Trump's travails are apparently sending shivers through Europe's so-called populist right. This seems particularly true in France.

Marine Le Pen -- the leader of France's National Front party and darling of the French far right -- had hoped to ride President Trump's coattails to power -- and in the process, bring down the entire European project.
As France, Italy and the Netherlands gear up for critical elections this spring, many of Trump's more outrageous pronouncements -- not to mention actions -- are casting a pall over Europe's populism.
    Trump's continuing embrace of Vladimir Putin, his support for a Brexit that even many Brits are now viewing with fear, and above all his de-facto Muslim ban all appear to be moving much of the European electorate closer to the center and driving these often-bickering nations closer to each other.
    The first test comes in France barely 10 weeks from now in the first round of France's presidential election. Already, it holds the promise of a most contentious period. In an effort to smooth her own image and ease her way into the hearts of a broader electorate than her explosive father, far-right demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine has dropped her toxic last name from her campaign material -- at about the same time she released a 144-point program that's clearly designed to smooth some of her sharpest edges.
    No longer does Le Pen want France to "exit the eurozone," but rather "restore the national currency," which many in France worry will do little to improve their economic plight. No longer does she seek to reinstate the death penalty but rather life imprisonment for "the worst crimes." She doesn't even want to leave the European Union but rather renegotiate France's terms of membership.
    Still she does want an end to the Schengen, passport-free travel within Europe, and an exit from the military functions of NATO, much as President Charles de Gaulle did 50 years ago.
    But this retro view of Europe is hardly exploding in popularity, as contiguous as it may appear with the views of Donald Trump.
    Above all, what Europeans value most from their leaders is competence and a steady hand on the tiller. That is clearly, to most, been glaringly absent from the early days of the Trump presidency. It is also not something that Marine Le Pen, or many of her populist counterparts in other countries, can promise.
    Le Pen has never held any national elective office in France (though she has been a member of the European Parliament). She has never served in the National Assembly or as a minister of government. That means she has never been forced to face the consequence of any of her pronouncements or her positions that to an increasing number of Europeans would appear to offer existential threats to the continent.
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    Such threats have not been lost on other leading European politicians seeking office this year, the vast bulk of them distancing themselves persuasively from a broad range of positions taken by the Trump administration.
    In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has managed to poll barely 11% of the popular vote. And, since Trump's arrival in the White House, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have announced that their candidate to take on Chancellor Angela Merkel in the election will be Martin Schulz, a former President of the European Parliament and an outspoken critic of Trump. His party has now pulled within four points of Merkel's conservative alliance.
    Of course Merkel, who's seeking a fourth term on September 24, is also no friend of Donald Trump. And while recognizing the need for some relationship with the American leader, she "will see issue by issue where we can cooperate and where we have different opinions, but it's in Germany's interest to strengthen the common ground there is."
    In a joint news conference with France's president, Francois Hollande, Merkel elaborated, "We see that global conditions are changing dramatically and quickly, and we must respond to these new challenges, both in terms of defending a free society and defending free trade, as well as in terms of the economic challenges." Merkel is clearly walking a delicate line between extremes in her own nation.
    The first election to test the Trump effect in Europe comes five weeks from now in the Netherlands, which will choose a new parliament and ruling prime minister.
    Here, a Trump clone is generating quite a lot of interest. Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party have promised to pull their nation out of the EU. Wilders promises a "Patriotic Spring." Should he become the next prime minister, all that could restrain his anti-Islam sympathies and preserve a united Europe is the fact that 28 political parties are on the ballot, and any prime minister will need to assemble a coalition of as many as four or five parties to rule.
    Le Pen faces a similar problem in France. Even if Marine Le Pen should manage the unthinkable and pull out an election victory in the final round of the presidential election on May 7, the French will still go back to the ballot boxes a month later to vote for the parliament. Le Pen's National Front party has never managed more than 35 seats (out of 573 -- in 1986), and currently holds just two seats out of 577. Such a showing makes it most unlikely that Le Pen would be able to push through much of her 144-point agenda.
    Above all, it must be remembered, that the French, like much of Europe, have long seen themselves in starkly different terms from those of a Trump-tinged America. While many French people don't especially like foreigners and -- since their own terrorist attacks from radical Islam -- are in some fear of importing terror, they also still consider themselves bastions of freedom and human rights. Closing all frontiers and barring the desperate and needy is anathema to broad swaths of the French electorate. Moreover, the French are hardly inclined to make their own vast domestic Muslim population feel even more disenfranchised and receptive to attacks on their Christian neighbors.
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    In these respects, France is not alone. In Germany, Angela Merkel, who had to deal with the Christmas terrorist truck assault in Berlin, has her own cross to bear in the wake of her decision to admit 890,000 refugees in 2015, though that number dropped to 280,000 last year.
    Still, her humanitarian decision to continue accepting victims of Middle East violence has been reinforced by what's being regarded as a 1930s-style approach to such issues by Trumpworld in America.
    "It often seemed as though Donald Trump could no longer outdo himself when it came to demonstrating his lunacy," the German magazine Der Spiegel suggested in its issue with a cover of Donald Trump holding aloft the head of Lady Liberty dripping with blood in his right hand, and a meat cleaver in his left, with the caption, "America First." But, the magazine added, the travel ban "is more dangerous than any other action he has taken since his inauguration."
    So, Trump's actions are being monitored closely across the Atlantic. Ironically, the more intense the madness, the broader the backlash, and the more likely that Europe could return to a much-needed path of sanity.