In The Netherlands, Flamboyant populist Thierry Baudet (C) is on course to beat Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals
The Hague (AFP) - Flamboyant Dutch populist Thierry Baudet is set to make major inroads Thursday at European parliamentary elections, in a result that will be closely watched by other eurosceptic parties across the continent.
The 36-year-old's Forum for Democracy party has come out of nowhere in the past two years and is now poised to win the same number of seats as Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals.
Fond of referencing classical literature, Baudet runs on a nativist manifesto that mass immigration is destroying Western culture, that feminism is causing European birthrates to fall and that climate change is a sham.
Rutte and Baudet sharply clashed in a debate hours before polling stations opened -- watched by an estimated 1.5 million viewers on national television.
"Leadership means daring to swim against the stream. A moral compass. Exactly the sort of thing I find lacking in you," Baudet fired at Rutte.
The Dutch premier in return berated Baudet for advocating a "Nexit" and wanting to leave the eurozone.
"If he (Baudet) becomes the largest party, he'll try and rip Europe apart from day one," Rutte said to applause.
- 'Napoleon and Hitler' -
Russia was also a key issue in a country still reeling from the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 just hours after it left Amsterdam.
Baudet likened European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to "Napoleon and Hitler" because of the EU's stance on Russia, while Rutte slammed Baudet for wanting to ease relations with Vladimir Putin.
The debate veered into personal territory too, with Baudet asking Rutte when he had last cried, in a bid to capitalise on the premier's publicly unemotional image -- only to have to backtrack and offer his condolences when Rutte revealed his sister had died four years ago.
Rutte then hit back by asking whether there was "something in your private life" that explained Baudet's controversial comments about women.
Latest opinion polls show the Forum snatching as many as five of the 26 European Parliament seats allotted to the Netherlands, similar to Rutte's ruling VVD.
Dutch exit polls are expected late Thursday, although official results will not be out until Sunday.
Once best known for naked Instagram selfies, Baudet, who holds a law doctorate, stunned Europe in March when the Forum became the biggest party in the Dutch senate.
In the process he stole votes from Geert Wilders, the bleached-blonde anti-Islam leader who has long dented the Netherlands' image abroad as a bastion of tolerant liberalism.
"Baudet is the new flavour of the year," Claes de Vreese, politics professor at the University of Amsterdam told AFP. "He does attract a certain audience of voters who may be disgruntled by the fact that Wilders' style is very confrontational and not particularly intellectual."
- 'Owl of Minerva' -
Baudet faced fresh controversy this week when, in a review of the works of French author Michel Houellebecq, he made comments about abortion and working Western women having fewer children and thus causing the "demographic decline of Europe".
He also drew criticism for retweeting a video that accused other Dutch leaders of ignoring crimes against women by immigrants -- but appearing to link it to post-World War II attitudes in Germany towards forgetting Nazi crimes.
However Baudet's popularity seems unimpeded, backed by a populist narrative similar to the one that has swept Europe from Italy to Poland to Hungary, that triggered Brexit in Britain, and brought Donald Trump to power in the United States.
"What happens in the Netherlands is also happening elsewhere in Europe," said politics professor de Vreese.
Baudet's senate election victory speech declaring that the "Owl of Minerva spreads his wings" -- referring to the Roman goddess of wisdom -- was typical of a narrative that sees an ancient European civilisation under threat from immigration.
"For a long time, Europe has been a very technical story," said Amy Verdun, European politics professor at Leiden University. "The populists made things simple. You may not agree with them, but they simplify things for the ordinary citizen."