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The Populist, Nativist Appeal Of Dutch Politician Geert Wilders

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Netherlands holds an election this week. And the political party leaders contending to be the next prime minister include Geert Wilders, a candidate known for his stance against immigration, his critique of Islam and his distinctive hair. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last month, Wilders made a rare campaign visit Spijkenisse, a small city outside of Rotterdam. Surrounded by bodyguards, the charismatic populist blamed Muslim immigrants for crime in this country. Here he is captured on video by Ruptly, a Russian news agency.

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GEERT WILDERS: There is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland who makes the streets unsafe. Look how many security measures have to be taken. Is this the Netherlands that we want to have on every street and every city in the next decade? I don't think so.

LANGFITT: Either does Klazina Feteris. I bumped into her while she was shopping for glasses recently in the mall where Wilders campaigned. Feteris supports Wilders based on personal experience. She says her old neighborhood in south Rotterdam shifted from white Dutch to immigrant. Crime rose, and she became a victim. Feteris recalls seemingly friendly neighbors from Yugoslavia occasionally coming over for dinner but eventually robbing her house. She's counting on Wilders to change things.

KLAZINA FETERIS: (Speaking Dutch). I just hope that he makes the criminal foreigners stay outside the country. People from all the African countries that are coming over now - they just come for the money. We have enough people out of a job already. They'll just end up on social security. They'll end up in the world of drugs.

LANGFITT: The Netherlands has absorbed immigrants for decades. But a surge in 2015, amid the European refugee crisis, helped fuel support for Wilders. On a visit to Spijkenisse last year, he handed out cans of red spray paint that he said women should use to repel attackers.

MELANIE MURRAY: (Singing).

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LANGFITT: Melanie Murray, who runs a cafe in town, showed me a can from the visit and explained.

MURRAY: He was giving it out to the women here in Spijkenisse on the market to protect themselves against refugees who would be raping you, according to him.

LANGFITT: The cans were an allusion to a mass assault on New Year's Eve 2015 outside the central train station in Cologne, Germany. More than 150 women filed complaints that men whom police described as Arab or North African had sexually assaulted them. Melanie Murray was appalled by the attacks but also by what she sees as Wilders' attempt to scapegoat foreigners to win votes.

MURRAY: I feel it's really bad because I know more white people or more Dutch people who are doing these things than refugees.

LANGFITT: Committing these crimes, harassing women.

MURRAY: Yeah, yeah. I think Mr. Wilders is splitting the country in two. And I have four kids. I don't want my kids to grow up with hate, and that's how they grow up now.

LANGFITT: Wilders may aspire to split the country, but his party is polling just under 16 percent in a crowded political field. That's just behind the leader of the ruling Liberal Party and nowhere near enough to make Wilders prime minister. In fact, polls suggest Wilders, after spending several months atop the polls, may be slipping. Some political scientists think the rough start of another populist leader with whom he's often associated, U.S. President Donald Trump, may be hurting him. Melanie Murray hopes so.

MURRAY: You see, they are starting to make mistakes, both Trump and Wilders. And I hope that people are thinking - is their big mouths the solution for our problems?

LANGFITT: Voters in the Netherlands head to the polls on Wednesday. People around the world will be watching to see if populism continues its role on the European continent.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Spijkenisse, the Netherlands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.