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KOBLENZ, Germany — Declaring that 2017 will be the "year of the awakening of the people of continental Europe," French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen joined fellow nationalists Saturday at a conference in Germany in a show of populist confidence as Europe faces a series of high-stakes national elections.
Populist parties have been surging in polls in Europe and the leaders' mood was celebratory as they came together in support of one another, the day after Donald Trump was sworn in as U.S. president following a campaign buoyed by anti-establishment and protectionist themes.
"Yesterday, a new America. Today — hello Koblenz — a new Europe!" Dutch anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders said as he opened his speech under heavy security in the German city of Koblenz on the banks of the Rhine River.
"The people of the West are awakening. They are throwing off the yoke of political correctness," he said. "This year will be the year of the people ... the year of liberation, the year of the patriotic spring."
Wilders' anti-Islam Party of Freedom could win the largest percentage of votes in the March 15 Dutch parliamentary election. Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front, is among the top contenders in France's April-May presidential vote. And in September, Frauke Petry's four-year-old Alternative for Germany party hopes to enter the German parliament in that country's national election, riding high on anti-immigrant sentiment that rejects German Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming policy toward refugees.
The meeting of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament also featured Matteo Salvini of Italy's conservative Northern League and Harald Vilimsky, the general secretary of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, which last year narrowly failed to win the country's presidency.
"Just as Donald Trump in America shows the way out of a dead end, with new prospects — including for (resolving) international conflicts, we want to do that in the coming months and years for Europe," Petry told reporters.
"We are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of another," Le Pen said in her address to the conference. "We are experiencing the return of nation-states."
She denounced the 28-nation European Union as "a force of sterilization," and assailed 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.
The first "real blow to the old order" was last June's British vote to leave the EU, Le Pen said — followed closely by Trump's election.
"His position on Europe is clear," Le Pen said. "He will not support a system of oppression of the people."
She added that "2016 was the year when the Anglo-Saxon world woke up and 2017, I am sure, will be the year of the awakening of the people of continental 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 a landmark statue of German Kaiser Wilhelm.
AVAAZ organizer Pascal Vollenweider said the statues of the dictators were meant to send a "strong message" to the nationalist politicians' meeting that "global citizens 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 for the meeting 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.
Wilders said the nationalist parties won't be deterred if they fail immediately to achieve their election aims this year.
"We will win, I'm very confident," he said. "And if we wouldn't, or if we would not win, all of us, the genie will not go back into the bottle."
"The people won't accept that kind of policy anymore," he added. "We will be here not only next year but many years more."