Europe's nationalist leaders launch year of election hopes

KOBLENZ: French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen declared Saturday that 2017 will be the "year of the awakening of the people of continental Europe" as she joined fellow nationalist leaders in Germany at the beginning of a year of high-stakes national elections.

Le Pen was joined by the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, Matteo Salvini of Italy's Northern League and Frauke Petry of the four-year-old Alternative for Germany at the gathering of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament.

The mood among delegates was celebratory a day after Donald Trump was sworn in as US president, following a campaign buoyed by anti-establishment and protectionist themes.

Wilders' anti-Islam Party of Freedom could win the largest percentage of votes in the March 15 Dutch parliamentary election. Le Pen is among top contenders in France's April-May presidential vote. And in September, Petry's party hopes to enter the German parliament.

"We are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of another," Le Pen said. "We are experiencing the return of nation-states."

The first "real blow to the old order" was last June's British vote to leave the European Union, she said — followed closely by Trump's election. The new US president, she said, "will not support a system of oppression" in Europe.

Last year saw the awakening of Anglo-Saxon countries, she said, and "2017, I am sure, will be the year of the awakening of the people of continental Europe."

She denounced the EU as "a force of sterilisation," and assailed German Chancellor Angela Merkel — whose name was booed loudly — for allowing in large numbers of migrants.

"Everyone sees that this migration policy is a daily disaster," Le Pen said.

Organisers billed Saturday's meeting, held in a conference hall on the banks of the Rhine river under heavy security, as bringing together "the top politicians of the new Europe."

Left-wing protesters staged a sit-in outside the hall shouting slogans like "no border, no nation, stop deportation."

Not far away, demonstrators from the global AVAAZ activist group placed statues of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Josef Stalin, among others, in front of the city's landmark statue of German Kaiser Wilhelm.

AVAAZ organiser Pascal Vollenweider said the statues of the dictators were meant to send a "strong message" to the nationalist politicians meeting that "global citisens are rejecting their old dangerous ideas."

"They are not fascists in jackboots, it's a different type of fascism, of course, but if you look at the ideas ... it's very dangerous, and we have to face it: these guys are carrying old, dangerous fascist ideas," he said.

Marcus Pretzell, Alternative for Germany's European lawmaker and Petry's husband, denied accreditation to German public broadcasters and several other German outlets. Public broadcaster ARD has said it was refused access for "not meeting journalistic standards in its past reporting on the party," a claim it has rejected.

Pretzell opened the congress lamenting the current state of the European Union, its passport-free travel zone and the euro. He praised Trump's opposition to trade agreements such as a planned EU-US trade deal, and said that "we have a problem with political Islam."

"Who would still want to become a member of the European Union of their own free will?" he asked.

"We have to turn back some steps that have gone too far," he said. "The solution is sitting in this room."