Populist Leaders in Italy and France Optimistic About European Parliament Elections

By Fayçal Benhassain | October 10, 2018 | 7:31 PM EDT

Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini speak to the media in Rome, Italy on October 8, 2018. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

Paris (CNSNews.com) – Ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections, the leaders of far-right parties in France and Italy met in Rome this week to strategize, and predicted strong showings against traditional parties.

Marine Le Pen, president of the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France met with the leader of the League Party, Matteo Salvini, to discuss cooperation with each other and other nationalist parties in Europe going into next May’s elections.

Salvini is serving as interior minister in Italy’s national coalition government formed last June, a position that has enabled him to push forward his party’s strong anti-immigration stance.

Referring to the chances of parties such as theirs doing well in the European Parliament (E.P.) elections, Le Pen said, “Matteo Salvini proves that it’s possible.”

Le Pen, Salvini and likeminded anti-immigration European politicians hope to secure enough votes in the elections to upset the balance in the E.P., which they derisively term the “Brussels bunker.”

Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, has been traveling in Europe working on establishing a Brussels-based think tank called The Movement, aimed at supporting populist parties across the continent.

Bannon addressed Le Pen’s party congress last March, but in a joint press conference with Salvini in Rome Le Pen spoke cautiously of Bannon’s efforts, saying only Europeans can “save” Europe.

“Let that be very clear: it is us and only us who can structure the political forces that aim to save Europe,” she said.

In the E.P., relationships among far-right leaders have not always been good. A former National Rally official, speaking on condition of anonymity, attributed tensions to the fact Le Pen is viewed as very authoritarian.

French political scientist Jean-Yves Camus said on television the Le Pen-Salvini alliance “could end up becoming embarrassing” in the long run.

The 751-member E.P. comprises political groups of varying sizes and ideological persuasions. Members are elected every five years by universal suffrage, on a party-list, proportional representation system.

The Europe of Nations and Liberty (ENL) group includes the parties led by Le Pen and Salvini, along with populist parties from Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands. Opinion polls indicate that a Euroskeptic wave could see it increase its representation next May from the current 35 members to around 63. In the current parliament, Le Pen’s National Rally has 20 members.

In France, polls give the National Rally 17-20 percent of the votes for the E.P. elections, just behind French President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic In Motion movement, at 21-23 percent. Recent polls show that small gap narrowing further.

Le Pen and Salvini are of the same generation and have good relationships, according to Philippe Olivier, one of her advisors.

“She found this young Italian very determined, full of talent,” he said of their first meeting in Brussels several years ago.

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany’s anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) fared strongly in federal elections last year, and this year has seen its popularity rise further according to opinion polls.

In Austria, the far-right anti-immigration Freedom Party is now a member of the ruling coalition, and in Hungary, nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is now serving a third term.

French media outlets say Le Pen plans to get closer to German AfD and to the nationalist Swedish Democrats.

National Rally vice president Nicolas Bay said in a recent interview the party is also ready to work closely with parties not yet represented in the E.P., pointing to parties in Bulgaria, Greece and the Czech Republic.

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