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Home Opinion The ‘Le Pen-Wilders’ alliance will change European politics
EU • Populism • Election

The ‘Le Pen-Wilders’ alliance will change European politics

Sarah L. de Lange, Matthijs Rooduijn & Joost van Spanje - 04 February 2014

The electoral growth of populist parties is not the most important development as we approach the European elections this May. Rather, the intention of a number of populist parties to pool together is far more relevant, as it is indicative of a number of significant transformations taking place within the radical right

Although 2014 has just started, major news outlets, such as The Economist, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the New York Times, are already concentrating on the European Parliament elections that will take place between the 22nd and the 25th of May. Especially the electoral growth of radical right-wing populist parties, such as the Front National and UKIP, has received a lot of attention in recent weeks. For mainstream politicians the rise of these parties has been a primary reason for concern. José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament, Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council, and a host of national politicians have warned against the threat these parties pose. A number of political scientists have countered these arguments, claiming that the electoral progress of radical right-wing populist parties is negligent and that their influence on the daily activities of the European Parliament is likely to be insignificant.

 In October, for example, Marley Morris argued on this website that the impact of these parties on policy-making is unlikely to be substantial. We believe that although the EP presence of radical right-wing populist parties will undoubtedly remain modest compared to that of Christian-democrats and conservatives, liberals or social-democrats, and their impact therefore small, their growth and their intentions to cooperate, signify important changes for the EU and European politics.

The electoral growth of radical right-wing populist parties

Traditionally, radical right-wing populist parties fare fairly well in elections for the European Parliament. Due to differences in the degree to which voters vote strategically, diverging levels of turnout, and dissimilarities in the issues that are at stake, radical right-wing populist parties often score higher in EP elections than in national elections. To give just one example of this pattern, the Dutch PVV obtained 5.9 per cent of the seats in the 2006 and 15.5 per cent in the 2010 national elections, as opposed to 17.0 per cent in the 2009 elections for the European Parliament.    

At first sight, the 2014 elections seem to repeat this pattern (see Table 1). On the basis of existing polls the radical right-wing populist party family is likely to grow from 37 to 67 seats and welcome one new member to the EP, namely the Swedish SD. However, this increase is primarily due to the electoral growth of the FN and UKIP. Most other radical right-wing populist parties are either unlikely to make significant headway (e.g. the DF, the FPÖ, the PVV or the VB), or are even projected to lose their parliamentary representation (in addition to the BNP and LAOS, the LN also runs the risk of not surpassing Italy’s 4 per cent electoral threshold).

Table 1: Electoral growth projections for radical right-wing populist parties

NOTE: Bold = Parties that are expected to join the European Alliance for Freedom after the EP elections. NOTE 2: The expected number of seats parties are likely to gain at the 2014 EP elections were computed on the basis of the Electionista polling overview, by multiplying the percentage of predicted votes with the number of EP seats allocated to the country in which a party participates in elections. With the exception of electoral thresholds, specific features of the electoral system were not taken into consideration when calculating seat shares.

A sign of changing times

However, the electoral growth of the radical right-wing populist party family is probably not the most important development. Rather, the intention of a number of radical right-wing populist parties to cooperate in the European Alliance for Freedom, as announced by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen on the 13th of November 2013, is far more relevant, as it is indicative for a number of significant transformations taking place within the radical right.

Of course, the ‘Le Pen – Wilders’ alliance, which will most likely include also the FPÖ, LN, SD, and VB (a seventh member still has to be found), is not the first attempt at cooperation between radical right-wing populist parties. In previous legislatures, groups of radical right-wing populist parties have allied in the (Technical) Group of the European Right (1984-1989 and 1989-1994), the Union for Europe of Nations (1999-2009), Independence/Democracy (2004-2009), Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (2007), and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group (2009-2014).

These initiatives have often been short-lived and at times fraught with difficulties. The reasons for their failure have been manifold: border disputes and conflicting nationalisms, lack of ideological coherence, leadership strife, and fear of guilt by association. Especially the latter made radical right-wing populist parties originating from the mainstream, such as the DF, the PVV, and UKIP, hesitant to cooperate with radical right-wing populist parties with roots in ultra-nationalist milieus or manifest links to extreme right movements, such as the FN, the FPÖ, or the VB.

However, the times they are a-changin’ - albeit slowly. Geert Wilders’ decision to ally with Marine Le Pen represents a U-turn, given that in 2007 he still stated that  “Le Pen and those kind of people, [are] terrible”. The change of heart of Wilders is the result of three significant changes – in context, ideology, and leadership – that have created a window of opportunity for a radical right-wing populist alliance that is likely to be less conflictual, and hence more successful, than its predecessors.

First of all, the old generation of radical right-wing populist leaders (Bossi, Le Pen senior, and Haider) has been replaced with a new generation (Le Pen junior, Salvini, and Strache), which has its eyes on the prize. The leaders appear focused on growth and influence, both direct and indirect, and seem more pragmatic and strategic than their predecessors. Indicative for their desire to cooperate (and their apparently good interpersonal relations) are, for example, the active participation of Annemans (VB), De Donne (FN), Strache (FPÖ), and Wilders (PVV) in the LN’s annual conference in December, their frequent trips to visit each other, and their positive comments about the alliance in international and national media.

Only last Friday, VB leaders Dewinter and Annemans came to The Hague to visit Wilders and his PVV representatives. Their trip came on the heels of an announcement by the LN that it will be officially joining the European Alliance for Freedom. In the announcement LN leader Salvini states that he is “proud to cooperate with Marine Le Pen and with all the movements which believe in a different Europe, based on work and peoples and not in the one based on servitude to euro and banks, ready to let us die from immigration and unemployment. We are not” and that the alliance is an “iron pact”.     

Secondly, the ideological coherence within the alliance is far greater than that in previous parliamentary groups, which tended to include both extreme right and radical right-wing populist parties, national populists and neo-liberal populists, and Central and Eastern European and Western Europeans. All participating parties adhere to a European form of nationalism, linking national norms, traditions and values to a common European history of enlightenment and the French revolution.

Moreover, all are highly Eurosceptic, campaign on an economic manifesto that is mixed, rather than neo-liberal (such as the programme of UKIP), and all emphasize national preference and welfare chauvinism. The parties themselves stress the relevance of a shared agenda. In a recent broadcast by the Dutch news programme Nieuwsuur, for example, SD ideologue Mattias Karlsson declared that "there are interesting similarities between the SD and the PVV".

Thirdly, in a number of countries changing attitudes towards radical right-wing populist parties, both among the elite and the public, can be observed. As a result of the ‘mainstreaming’ or ‘normalization’ of radical right-wing populist parties like the FN, the fear of guilt by association is decreasing. Although the DF remains highly critical of the history of the FN, which is the primary reason for the party not to join the European Alliance for Freedom, in many countries we see a different approach. In the Netherlands, for example, the alliance between Le Pen and Wilders was positively evaluated by 72 per cent of PVV voters.  

A small but stable radical right-wing populist alliance might bring about considerable challenges for the mainstream parties represented in the EP. Although the number of seats controlled by the European Alliance for Freedom will remain rather limited, the members of the alliance could make life for the ALDE, the EPP and the S&D more difficult, for example by presenting motions and amendments that force mainstream parties to clarify or elaborate upon their positions on politicized issues, a tactic these parties also employ in national parliaments. Thus, although their influence might remain small, they are likely to stir up debate and competition in the EP.

Sarah L. de Lange is assistant professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam,

Matthijs Rooduijn is a post doctoral researcher in the department of political science at the University of Amsterdam

Joost van Spanje is assistant professor of political communication at the University of Amsterdam

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Sarah L. de Lange , Sarah de Lange , Matthijs Rooduijn , Joost van Spanje , Opinion , EU , European Union , Europe , Election , Left , Centre , Right , Centre left , Centre right , Centre-left , Centre-right , José Manuel Barroso , European People's Party , EPP , Party of European Socialists , PES , Crisis , Financial , Economic , Sovereign Debt , Financial Crisis , Economic Crisis , Sovereign Debt Crisis , Debt , Public Debt , Euroscepticism , European Parliament , EP , European Commission , Marine LePen , Front National , Jean-Luc Melanchon , The Left Party , Parti de Gauche , PG , UMP , Union for a Popular Movement , Union pour un Mouvement Populaire , Jean-François Copé , United Kingdom , UK , UKIP , Germany , Alternativ für Deutschland , Nationalism , Populism , Growth , Austerity , Free Trade , Schengen , Free Movement , Immigration , Geert Wilders , Party for Freedom , Partij voor de Vrijheid , PVV


David Cameron
06 February 2014 18:29

Thank you for another predictable smear. Somehow you managed to use the phrase "radical right-wing populist" 21 times in an article of les than 1500 words. I'm sure you had your reasons ...

Scott Craig
05 February 2014 07:22

The article's use of political terms is very loose and ambiguous. Of prospective members of the EAF, there are wide ranging views even on immigration, yet they are all unanimously labeled "far-right." The term "far-right" used to mean "fascist" or something equivalent. Today poliitcal organizations are designated "far-right" based on their position regarding gays, islamism, abortion, the State of Israel, etc. without any examination of their distinctive political positions. In the last French presidential election Sarkozy sounded like the Front National on immigration but his party, the UMP, was never labeled "far-right." It shows that the language of the Left, lingering from the period of post WWII through the New Left, still dominates and defines the political discourse. It will only change course when a Le Pen, Strache, Wilders or another EAF party leader wins an election.

Walter van der Cruijsen
04 February 2014 17:01

Excellent read. If the polls are correct, FN will have more seats than the other members of the coalition. There may be consensus about a shared agenda, French chauvinism will be dominant and Jean-Marie le Pen may lead the new generation.

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