March 16, 2017 / 6:03 AM / 5 months ago

Le Pen foes relish Dutch vote, but French election may be different

France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Netherlands' Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders take a Selfie during a European far-right leaders meeting to discuss about the European Union, in Koblenz, Germany, January 21, 2017.Wolfgang Rattay

PARIS (Reuters) - Adversaries of Marine Le Pen expressed relief on Thursday after her ally Geert Wilders won fewer seats than expected in a Dutch election, but analysts warned against reading too much into the result ahead of France's tight presidential race.

They said far-right leader Le Pen's campaign in France is better planned and targeted than that of Wilders' party, while a standoff between the Dutch and Turkish governments had given a "one-off" boost to incumbent Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.

Centre-right Rutte's decisive victory over anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Wilders delighted European Union leaders and others concerned about rising populism across the bloc in the wake of last year's shock Brexit vote.

Le Pen's rivals for the presidency were quick to welcome the Dutch result, which centrist Emmanuel Macron said showed that "a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion and that progressives are gaining momentum".

Polls suggest that Macron, 39, an independent, will make it through the election's April 23 first round before comfortably beating the National Front's Le Pen in the run-off on May 7.

Conservative Francois Fillon, an ex-prime minister who has slipped behind Le Pen and Macron after being the frontrunner, said the Dutch result underlined that opinion polls are flawed.

"We were all being told this was going to be a triumph for the extreme right," he said. "And yet again the outcome shows that it's the (political) centre and right that provide the best bulwark against populism and extremism."

Outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande referred to a "clear victory against extremism".

Le Pen and Wilders were pictured together in a series of light-hearted "selfies" in January when they met with other far-right politicians who hope rising anti-establishment sentiment across Europe will give them a lift at the ballot box.

The Dutch result drove the euro higher and analysts in the banking and investment industry, where many see Le Pen as a grave danger because of her plans to quit the single currency and probably the European Union too, also took heart.

"To whatever extent this vote is a signal on France, the high turnout and rally towards the mainstream centre look bad for her (Le Pen)," said Anna Stupnytska, Global Economist at Fidelity International.

"The structure of the French presidential election also creates additional obstacles to any far-right victory in France. As such, the Dutch result may be remembered as the turning point in the popularity of populism for 2017."

Although Wilders' party came second in the vote and actually gained seats, it fell short of its best performance in a national election and has no chance of joining a coalition government as rival parties have shunned it.

With Le Pen conspicuously silent, it fell to National Front secretary-general Nicolas Bay to put a positive face on Wilders' showing. He said the rise in the number of seats won by the party, to 20 from 15, was a "partial victory even if not the final victory".

He said Rutte's campaign had undoubtedly been boosted late in the campaign by the confrontation with Turkey, which saw him ban Turkish government politicians from staging rallies in the Netherlands for expatriate voters.

Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University in the United States, said the French election would still provide the key test of anti-establishment power in Europe.

"That is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon," she said.

Le Pen, 48, has built up a solid following by appealing to working class voters dismayed by five years of left-wing rule, a 10 percent jobless rate and restraints on public spending.

Surveys regularly show that upwards of three-quarters of pro-Le Pen respondents are already absolutely certain they will vote for her. For Macron, that share is closer to one in two.

And while Fillon has crashed from first to third place in polls after a scandal over payments from public funds to his wife, Le Pen has shrugged off complaints about her payment of European Union funds to bodyguard and assistants.

Writing by Brian Love; Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans

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