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Europe's far-right populists eye EU elections

May 2, 2018

Far-right French politician Marine Le Pen has called on European nationalists to "fundamentally change" the EU. She was trying to fire up a pan-European right-wing alliance, but some key populist leaders were no-shows.

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen attends the gathering of European populist far-right leaders
Image: Reuters/E. Gailard

French politician Marine Le Pen set out her vision for "another Europe" on Tuesday during a gathering of European populists in Nice.

The anti-immigration and euroskeptic politicians came together to try to energize their campaigns ahead of next year's European Parliament elections.

Read more: Can Marine Le Pen's National Front make a comeback?

"Europe is a good idea but the European Union is killing it," Le Pen said to hundreds of supporters. The EU is having "catastrophic consequences for our countries," she said, adding that she hoped to "fundamentally change" the union from within.

Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front (FN) party, was joined by other European far-right representatives whose parties are part of the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (MENF). The NF is the biggest party in the loose parliamentary grouping, which hopes to secure significant gains in the 2019 election.

"The possibility of obtaining a majority to change Europe is not so far-fetched. It's up to us to build this historic victory," Le Pen said.

She also had typically harsh words for immigration at Tuesday's gathering, where she said the diverse city had "suffered from very strong pressure from migration that has partly changed the face" of the city on the French Riviera.

Noticeably absent faces

The far-right French leader was joined in Nice by Harald Vilimsky of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which entered Austria's governing coalition last December, and Czech nationalist Tomio Okamura, founder of the Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD). Representatives from the euroskeptic Polish Congress of the New Right and Bulgaria's populist Volya were also present.

Harald Vilimsky points onstage against a blue background
Austrian FPÖ leader Harald Vilimsky spoke at the rally in NiceImage: Reuters/E. Gaillard

However, a few notable European politicians failed to show up.

Italian Matteo Salvini, head of the nationalist, euroskeptic Northern League, turned down the invitation but sent a video message in support. The party is attempting to form a government following elections that saw mainstream parties take a beating.

Read more: Matteo Salvini: Italy's far-right success story

Dutch Islamophobic politician Geert Wilders was expected to attend but failed to show up. A senior official from Le Pen's FN told AFP that Wilders "had urgent business that required him to stay in the Netherlands."

The parties of Wilders and Le Pen both suffered setbacks in their respective 2017 national elections.

Le Pen captured a historic 36 percent of the vote during France's presidential election last May, but fell short of expectations. She has been trying to rebrand her FN party by softening her tone toward Europe and advocating EU reform from the inside. She has also tried to rid the party of racist stigmas, while maintaining a firm anti-immigration stance.

Le Pen's decision to hold her rally in Nice on May 1 rather than attend the annual May Day rally held by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in Paris also showed her attempt to place distance between herself and the highly controversial 89-year-old founder of the FN.

Elections for the European Parliament are scheduled for May 2019.

Far-right populist parties have celebrated a slew of electoral successes in Europe in recent months. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the German parliament with 13 percent of the vote, while Hungarian nationalist Victor Orban was elected to a third term last month.

Populists on the rise in Italy

cmb/cmk (AFP, AP)

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