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Populist movements have already made their mark on the European political landscape in a series of closely-watched elections held across the continent.

Emboldened by the UK’s decision to leave the EU and by US President Donald Trump’s anti-establishment victory, a candidate from a far-right, nationalist and euroskeptic party is vying for power in France’s presidential vote on Sunday, and a similar outfit in Germany will be looking for more influence in September.

Populist parties lost recent elections in the Netherlands and Austria, but they have nonetheless risen from the fringes and are shaking up the debate.

Here’s a look at how – and why – some of Europe’s populist parties have swept into mainstream politics.


France will hold its second and final round of votes in its presidential election on Sunday that pits a far-right anti-immigration euroskeptic against a centrist former banker promoting unity with the European Union.

The popularity of Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front party has grown in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks and an influx of refugees fleeing unrest in the Middle East. The party’s share of the vote rose to 27% in last year’s regional elections.

Le Pen recently stepped down as National Front leader, saying she wanted to focus on her presidential candidacy. But the move was widely seen as an attempt to “detoxify” the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, of its reputation for racism and xenophobia.

Le Pen says her party can cure France’s economic malaise – since the 2008 economic crisis, unemployment has risen from 7.1% to around 10%, while almost a quarter of the nation’s youth is now out of work.

Economic growth in France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy, slowed to just 0.2% of GDP at the end of 2016.

Le Pen has employed similar tactics to US President Trump by tapping into the frustrations of the French electorate and focusing on a more nationalistic agenda to sway voters to her corner.

At the launch of her presidential campaign in February, Le Pen said she favors a return to the French franc currency, wants France out of NATO and pledged to hold a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU.

“What is at stake in this election … is whether France can still be a free nation,” Le Pen told a crowd of thousands at a rally in Lyon.

“The divide is not between the left and right anymore but between patriots and globalists!”

She has also praised Trump’s action on immigration and said his election “shows that people are taking their future back.”

“Clearly French values are being attacked as are the values of other countries and I worry other countries will be affected in the future,” she said.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a bold step by vowing to welcome 1 million refugees in 2015, and in 2016, she paid for it at the ballot box.

Formed in 2013, the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was initially galvanized into action by what it saw as Merkel’s bungled handling of the eurozone crisis – specifically the multiple Greek bailouts. Since then, the party has assumed a more nationalistic platform strongly opposing the influx of migrants.

AfD contributed to defeats for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Berlin and her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern during regional elections in 2016, as voters looked for a candidate who would appease their concerns about rising rents, increasing gentrification and refugees.

Opinion: Angela Merkel may be the biggest loser of 2017

Merkel’s controversial migrant policy was further criticized in December, after a Tunisian migrant was identified as the perpetrator of an attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people and injured 48 others.

With national elections due in the autumn of 2017, it’s unclear what the future holds for Merkel.

The Netherlands

On March 15, Dutch voters cast their ballots in the first of the three European elections slated for 2017, and elected the incumbent liberal Mark Rutte into power.

But the vote marked the most significant rise seen so far of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV), growing in popularity among Dutch voters unhappy with the status quo. The party’s presence largely pushed the election debates to the far right.

Its leader – the flamboyant Geert Wilders, dubbed the “Dutch Trump” by some – made his name internationally in 2008 with the provocative online film “Fitna,” which juxtaposed the aftermath of terrorist attacks with verses from the Quran.

In February, he called the Netherland’s sizeable Moroccan population “scum” just months after being convicted of inciting discrimination against Dutch-Moroccans in 2014.

The Netherlands has a significant Muslim community, making up an estimated 5% of the total adult population in 2014.

Wilders, who polled worse than expected, had been running on a party manifesto calling for the “de-Islamification” of the Netherlands. In it, he pledged to shut down the country’s Islamic schools, close the borders to migrants from Islamic nations, ban the burqa and the Quran, and imprison radical Muslims who have committed no crimes on a “preventative” basis.

Why refugees in the Netherlands fear the status quo

He had also promised a referendum on the Netherlands’ membership of the European Union, following Britain’s vote for Brexit in 2016.

In the run up to the election, there were signs that Rutte and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) were shifting to the right to compete with Wilders, rather than taking up an opposing position.

In January, Rutte wrote an open letter in which he said immigrants who did not assimilate into Dutch society should “behave normally, or go away.”


While several European nations have said no to populism, a referendum in Italy on constitutional changes was widely seen as a victory for rising populist fringe parties.

In December, Matteo Renzi resigned as Prime Minister after conceding an “extraordinarily clear” defeat in the referendum.

He had promised the reforms would help revive Italy’s lagging economy, but voters used the opportunity to push him out, setting the scene for a possible snap general election this year, if not one in 2018.

The parties who stand to gain most from the shift are far-right group Northern League and the radically populist Five Star Movement, led by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo.

Experts say that if Grillo comes to power, he’ll likely follow through on promises to call a referendum to scrap the euro, reintroduce the Italian lira and perhaps even follow Britain out of the European Union.


Like the Netherlands, Austria rejected its far-right candidate, bringing a wave of relief to EU leaders in Brussels, who are trying to stave off growing discontent with the union from across the content.

Austria looked at electing the EU’s first far-right head of state since World War II when it picked its next president on the same day as Italy’s critical constitutional reforms ballot in December.

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) had ridden a populist wave to challenge for presidential power (albeit in a largely ceremonial role). The race had appeared close, but Hofer conceded to left-wing independent Alexander Van der Bellen, when early returns ran against him.

The far-right refugee-blocking candidate campaigned hard on the issue of migrants, calling for a complete end to immigration in a bid to preserve the country’s “ethnic culture.”

The migrant crisis reached a tipping point for many in 2015 when almost a million refugees crossed into Europe from the Balkans. At least 700,000 of them traveled via Austria.

The trendy young face of Austria’s far-right

Although the country has largely been a transit stop in the migrant journey, Austria received over 88,000 asylum applications last year.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) enjoyed a surge of support at the 2015 general election under the leadership of Nigel Farage.

Farage was one of the chief architects of the Brexit campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

UKIP’s share of the vote was 12.6% behind the traditionally dominant Conservative and Labour parties.

The party finished second in 118 of the 650 parliamentary contests. However, it only gained one seat in the House of Commons because of the UK’s first-past-the-post system.

UKIP’s personal record of more than 3.8 million votes came at a time when immigration into the country was at its highest rate since the turn of the century.

UKIP has since become a major influence in the political scene, giving a voice to those frustrated with the perceived “Westminster elite,” now under new leader Paul Nuttall.

But that period of influence may be coming to an end. UKIP is expected to lose much of its vote share in the June 8 general elections, as its main policy of taking Britain out of the EU has already been decided.

In local council elections on Thursday, UKIP had not won a single seat, preliminary results showed, giving an indication that party could be obliterated on June 8.

CNN’s Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Bryony Jones, Mark Oliver, Atika Shubert, Kara Fox, Laura Smith-Spark, Richard Allen Greene, James Masters, Peter Wilkinson, Angela Dewan, Judith Vonberg and Karla Pequenino contributed to this report.