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World In wake of Trump win, Europe’s far-right plans the next disruptions

Far-right leader and candidate for next spring presidential elections Marine le Pen from France celebrates after her speech at a meeting of European Nationalists in Koblenz, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

Michael Probst/AP

The days before the inauguration of Donald Trump were filled with signs that it was not just the occupant of the White House that was changing, but the entire international script.

For decades, it has been the United States that has set rules and enforced them around the globe, often through institutions such as the United Nations and NATO that Mr. Trump openly disparages. If the new President intends to focus on domestic politics and "making America great again," that leaves the stage empty for other actors.

Some of those players were already moving this week to take advantage of that expected American absence, portending – at least in the short term – a multipolar world where the rules of the game are murky, and the possibility of conflict is high.

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If NATO is "obsolete," as Mr. Trump says, what is to stop member countries, and rivals, from pursuing their own interests? If the United States is no longer committed to being the global policeman, who will guarantee the peace in, say, the Balkans, which the Western alliance has overseen since the breakup of Yugoslavia?

In the eyes of many, it's Russian President Vladimir Putin – accused by U.S. intelligence of having overseen an effort to boost Mr. Trump's election chances – who is now the master puppeteer. (France's Le Point magazine declared a "New World Order" ahead of Inauguration Day in Washington. But it was Mr. Putin's face, rather than Mr. Trump's, staring out at readers from the cover.)

China's Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is oddly left as the defender of the old order, as Beijing's carefully managed "peaceful rise" is challenged by Mr. Trump's economic protectionism and general unpredictability.

And there may well be other shocks to the system ahead, particularly in Europe, where far-right parties are meeting this weekend to try to build on Mr. Trump's success.

Scene One in the planet's rewritten play unfolded in the skies over Syria this week, where Russian and Turkish warplanes carried out their first joint air strikes against the so-called Islamic State. The collaboration between the air forces of Russia and a member of the NATO alliance would have been unthinkable a few months ago, but – with Mr. Trump taking every opportunity to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to recognize that it's Moscow now doing the directing in Syria, and perhaps beyond.

Scene Two unfolded at the border between Serbia and Kosovo, where a passenger train painted in the colours of the Serbian flag – bearing the slogan "Kosovo is Serbia" in dozens of languages, and bound for the Serbian-majority city of Mitrovica – was halted by Kosovo police. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, a close ally of Mr. Putin's, threatened to send the Serbian military into northern Kosovo, which Belgrade has never recognized as independent, to defend the rights of Serbs living there.

Scene Three saw Chinese President Xi Jinping give a lonely speech on Tuesday in defence of globalization – blamed by Mr. Trump supporters and many others for many of the world's ills – to the World Economic Forum in Davos. As fascinating as it was to see the leader of the Communist Party of China arguing (against an absent and unnamed Mr. Trump) in defence of free trade and investment, the WEF felt less relevant than ever before.

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Those attending the WEF were left guessing, like the rest of us, at what Mr. Trump might do in office; how he would deal with the war in Syria and the emerging crisis in the Balkans, among other issues. Television stations cut away from Davos panel discussions in order to cover British Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking in London, as she laid out her plan to pursue a clean break from the European Union following the U.K.'s shocking vote for Brexit in a referendum last year.

There was a time when the global agenda was set at Davos. That time, at least for now, is over.

"The question I get everywhere is: 'Is American leadership going to continue?'"outgoing U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden told The New York Times Magazine. He admitted he had no answer to the question. "We have no freakin' idea what [Mr. Trump] is gonna do."

The next scene in this confusing global play – a scene that will be the first of many to unfold this year in Europe, where the re-ordering of global power faces several key tests in 2017 – will take place Saturday in the German city of Koblenz. There, leaders of the French, German, Italian and Dutch far right will gather for what's been billed as a "countersummit" – something of an anti-Davos – to plot the next big shocks to the international system.

The Koblenz gathering will be headlined by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's Front National, as well as Dutch ally Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom, and the leaders of Italy's Northern League and the upstart Alternative for Germany, or AfD. In announcing the meeting, Mr. Wilders tweeted a hashtag that American voters would instantly recognize: #WeWillMakeOurCountriesGreatAgain.

"In the U.K., in the USA, in Italy, there is a big movement," the Front National's chief economic strategist, Bernard Monot, said in an interview, referencing Brexit and a December referendum that saw Italian voters turn down proposed constitutional changes – again against the advice of the countries' political and economic leaders.

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"We are at a civilizational crossroads," Mr. Monot continued. "The elites have made the choice of globalization and unlimited immigration, but the people don't welcome these solutions."

The parties gathering in Koblenz are linked by domestic platforms that criticize Islam and call for steep cuts to immigration – as well as worldviews that oppose the European Union while sharing Mr. Trump's admiration for Mr. Putin and Russia.

Mr. Monot – who praised both Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin as "patriots" – said that if Ms. Le Pen wins this year's French presidential election, the Front National would take France out of the passport-free Schengen Area as well as the euro currency zone. He denied the party was Islamophobic, but said it was opposed to "Islamic terrorism and radicalization" and said there were many jihadists among the refugees and migrants who had arrived in Europe over the past two years.

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations said there was "a very forceful and determined drive" by Europe's far-right parties to try to portray themselves as part of the same populist movement that delivered Brexit to the U.K. and Mr. Trump to the White House.

"It's the anti-establishment thing, it's populist rage, it's 'us against the odds, against the media, against the polls,'" Mr. Rapnouil said of the connections between Europe's populists and Mr. Trump.

He said that parties such as the Front National are eager to point out that Americans voted for Mr. Trump, and Britons voted to leave the EU, "and the world didn't disappear. 'So don't believe those who say it will be a huge crisis if [European far-right parties] win.'"

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While Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Wilders have met frequently in the past, Saturday will be the first time AfD leader Frauke Petry openly links arms with her far-right compatriots.

Borrowing again from Mr. Trump, host AfD told several mainstream German media outlets – including respected publications such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper and the Der Spiegel weekly magazine – that they would not be accredited to cover the Koblenz summit because they have reported "fake news."

"This is essentially the Trumpification of German politics," Frank Uberall, the head of one of the country's main journalist associations, told German radio.

Those gathering in Koblenz hope that 2017 will be as shocking for their countries as 2016 was for the U.S. and Britain.

Ms. Le Pen – who was seen this week having coffee in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York with allies of the new president – has emerged as a genuine contender to capture the top job in her own country. Similarly, Mr. Wilders, who was convicted (but given no sentence) last month of hate speech after calling for "fewer Moroccans" in the Netherlands, looks set to lead the Party for Freedom to a plurality of seats in Dutch elections scheduled for March.

Italy's Northern League is further from power, but played a crucial role mobilizing Italians to vote No to proposed constitutional amendments in a December referendum, a result that forced the resignation of then-prime minister Matteo Renzi. Snap elections are expected some time in 2017.

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The AfD, meanwhile, has seen its support surge in a series of regional elections, drawing dissatisfied voters away from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. While no one expects the far right to win Germany's September election, the AfD could play a spoiler role in denying Ms. Merkel – whom some now call the moral leader of a declining West – a fourth term in office.

But it's Ms. Le Pen who will garner most of the attention both in Koblenz and in the months ahead. Should the 48-year-old win the French presidency, it will be as jarring to the European political establishment as Mr. Trump's win was to the powers-that-were in the U.S.

Much of Ms. Le Pen's campaign message is a French-accented take on the themes that delivered victory for Mr. Trump. Like the new U.S. President, Ms. Le Pen frames France's coming election as a battle between "globalists" and "patriots."

"You can boil it down to being anti-elite," said Nonna Mayer, an expert on France's far right and a research professor at the Sciences Po Centre of European Studies. "The second thing [Mr. Trump and Ms. Le Pen] have in common is a message of patriotism, the defence of the nation, closing the borders, going back to a glorious past, even if it never really existed."

France has been somewhere like here before. Ms. Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie – an outright anti-Semite who infamously dismissed the Holocaust as "a detail" of history – stunned the country by reaching the second round of the 2002 presidential election, capturing just under 18 per cent of the vote in the first round. Appalled centrists and left-wingers rallied to the centre-right Jacques Chirac in the second round, delivering the incumbent an easy win with 82 per cent of the vote.

Ms. Le Pen has overseen what she calls the dédiabolization of the FN since taking over the leadership in 2011. She pushed out its anti-Semitic fringe, including her father, whom she expelled from the party in 2015, though she now stands accused of promoting Islamophobia after linking the religion to a recent wave of terrorist attacks in France.

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She's far more popular than her father ever was. Polls suggest that roughly 25 per cent of French voters are planning to support Ms. Le Pen in the first round, roughly the same number that say they will vote for Republican candidate François Fillon. But the conventional wisdom remains that Ms. Le Pen will be denied a path to the presidency in the second round as voters again rally around whichever mainstream candidate faces her in the run-off.

But, as 2016 repeatedly proved, the experts can be badly wrong. France's Le Parisien newspaper announced this week that it was abandoning the practice of publishing polls during the run-up to the election, in favour of more field reporting and what editor Stephane Albouy called "proximity to people."

Another barrier that Ms. Le Pen faces is a crippling shortage of cash; Mr. Monot said the party – despite a $9.4-million loan from Ms. Le Pen's father – is about $20-million short of what it needs to fight a two-round election. French banks, Mr. Monot said, were unwilling to loan money to Ms. Le Pen's campaign. "They think we're against them," Mr. Monot said. "It's political repression."

French political parties are barred from raising corporate donations – and individual donors are allowed to give only 7,500 euros (about $10,700) a year – forcing the parties to rely largely on loans that are later repaid by the state if the party captures more than 5 per cent of the vote.

The FN solved a past cash crisis by borrowing $12.7-million from a Russian bank in 2014. Many accuse Ms. Le Pen of adopting more pro-Russian positions after accepting the money.

It's no longer clear how badly Russia wants to see Ms. Le Pen in the Élysée Palace (Mr. Fillon is also considered pro-Russian, and has criticized Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over the 2014 annexation of Crimea), a development that has sent the FN leader scrambling, again, to find new sources of money.

Mr. Monot said the main reason Ms. Le Pen had travelled to New York was to raise funds, but that she had "not yet" succeeded in securing new loans. Mr. Monot said the party would take loans from "anywhere," but denied that outside money would have any influence over Ms. Le Pen's stances on international affairs.

Russia has been accused of aiding not only Mr. Trump and Ms. Le Pen, but of helping to fuel the rise of Europe's other anti-establishment parties through disinformation – often in the form of false tales of crimes committed by refugees, stories that happen to fit the far-right narrative – spread via Kremlin-run websites and troll accounts on social media.

In an echo of the allegation that Kremlin-linked hackers actively worked to aid Mr. Trump's march to the White House, German security officials last month said they believed that Russia was behind a hacking attack on computers in the German parliament. Documents stolen in that incident were later published on the Wikileaks website.

Russia denies that it played any role in helping Mr. Trump get elected, and Kremlin media have mocked the lack of evidence behind the claims that it hacked the German parliament or that has helped the European far right.

Still, there's little doubt that Moscow is one of the few capitals watching global events with a smile.

"The tide has turned" foreign policy theorist Sergey Karaganov wrote Thursday in the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper. "In foreign policy, Russia has held out, it is winning in almost all areas and has significantly strengthened its international positions."

"The old world order is destroyed," Mr. Karaganov declared. "We must start building a new one."

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's senior international correspondent, based in London. @markmackinnon

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