Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini launched their campaigns for the May 29th, 2019, European parliamentary elections together in Rome on Monday. Their goal is for Eurosceptical, populist parties – including Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN, the former Front National) and Salvini's Lega – to obtain a blocking minority of 30 per cent in the Strasbourg assembly.
Their rhetoric has shifted away from immigration, doubtless because the flow of migrants into Europe has slowed dramatically. Instead, they emphasised economic and social policy. "The real challenge is the fight against precarious jobs, unemployment and empty cradles," Salvini said, referring to the drop in Italy's fertility rate since the 2008 economic crisis.
“We are not fighting against Europe, but against the EU, which has become a totalitarian system . . . We will write history with a capital ‘H’ next May,” Le Pen said.
Salvini lashed out at Jean-Claude Juncker and Pierre Moscovici, the president of the EU Commission and the commissioner for economic affairs. They recently criticised Italian plans to increase government spending and budget deficits, in violation of Italy's EU commitments.
“The enemies of Europe are those holed up in the Brussels bunker; the Junckers, the Moscovicis, who have brought economic precariousness and fear to Europe, and refuse to give up their seats,” Salvini said.
Le Pen (50) was long a model for the 45-year-old Italian populist. Now, as deputy prime minister, interior minister and the most powerful man in Italy, Salvini is an inspiration to Le Pen. She has never recovered from her abysmal performance in the final debate of the 2017 presidential campaign and faces legal proceedings for having tweeted images of beheadings by Islamic State, and for allegedly misusing EU parliamentary funds.
Since the Lega and the left-wing populist Five-Star Movement won elections last March, Salvini has continued to rise in Italian polls. When a French judge asked Le Pen to undergo a psychiatric examination for having tweeted the Isis images, Salvini supported her.
Both leaders were first elected to the European Parliament in 2004. They met in the canteen of the Strasbourg assembly. Five years ago, Salvini used a selfie of himself with Le Pen on a campaign poster with the slogan, "A vote for me is a vote for her." He attended a Front National party conference in Lyon wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Basta Euro".
Both right-wing populists have been courted by Steve Bannon, the former strategic adviser to President Donald Trump who co-founded "The Movement" in July to foster co-operation between European populists in the run-up to parliamentary election.
"We certainly support his project," Le Pen's partner, Louis Aliot, said last month.
But the RN is sending mixed signals about Bannon now. He may have provoked the jealousy of Marine Le Pen by praising her niece, Marion Maréchal, as “the rising star” of the extreme right. (Maréchal recently dropped “Le Pen” from her name and has left the party.) Maréchal said she found it difficult to understand “what [Bannon’s] project is about”.
Le Pen further distanced herself from Bannon on Monday, apparently because of his nationality. “Mr Bannon is not from a European country,” she said. “He’s an American. He suggested creating a foundation that would provide studies, polls and analyses to European sovereignist parties. But we alone will structure the political force born of elections in Europe.”
Wariness of US
Bannon has promised to spend 80 per cent of his time in Europe after next month’s US midterm elections. He and Mischael Modrikamen, the leader of a small Belgian populist party who co-founded The Movement with Bannon, visited populist leaders across Europe in recent weeks, with mixed results.
The Austrian FPÖ declined Bannon's services. "We want to forge alliances in Europe, but we are doing it independently of the US," said the FPÖ's secretary general, Harald Vilimsky, quoted by Agence France Presse. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, the figurehead for right-wing nationalists in Europe, said he was not "interested in things that don't touch Hungary". And the Czech president, Milos Zeman, argued with Bannon about the huge tariffs Trump has imposed on Chinese imports.
Despite these dissonant notes, populist parties are undeniably on the rise. Le Figaro on Monday devoted its front-page editorial and three inside pages to what it called the new "Populist International". In a full-page interview with Trump's biographer, Laure Mandeville, Bannon said the "simple people" who have suffered at the hands of the "party of Davos . . . are the same in Europe as in the US".
His contacts in Europe are united by "total rejection of the Macron project", Bannon said, accusing the French president of wanting to continue the work of Jean Monnet, a historic father of Europe. "The other project is that of Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban, who reject the idea of a United States of Europe," Bannon said.