BERLIN — At a recent rally in the French city of Lille, presidential hopeful and right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen took aim at one person she has repeatedly slammed on her improbable road to Sunday’s runoff vote.
Her competitor, Emmanuel Macron?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We do not want the migrants of Madame Merkel,” Le Pen said, accenting the foreignness of the chancellor’s name to loud applause.
“Don’t you think Madame Merkel is toxic for Europe?” Le Pen added two days later in an interview with the BBC. “She let 1.5 million migrants in. Isn’t that toxic? She imposes austerity on all the nations of Europe. Isn’t that toxic?”
In Europe, Le Pen’s barrage highlights a rallying cry going up in elections and populist movements from Britain to Germany, France and Italy:
Blame it on Merkel.
Since the election of Donald Trump, some have dubbed the stoic German chancellor the new leader of the free world. Blazing a humanitarian trail, she opened the door to war-weary refugees. Her even-tempered diplomacy kept a lid on the crisis in Ukraine. Her insistence on tough fiscal love pulled near-bankrupt Greece — and Europe — back from the financial brink more than once.
At least, that’s one narrative.
The other is the one making the rounds on campaign trails and at protest rallies across the continent, where Merkel is emerging as a symbol of everything that is wrong with the German-dominated European Union. Amid a string of major European elections this year — including Merkel’s bid for a fourth term in September — Europe’s decider has also become its divider.
Her initial policy of welcoming asylum seekers, critics charge, brought foreign faces not just to Germany but to big cities and small towns and across Europe — setting up the challenging task of integrating hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim newcomers.
Her contentious stance on austerity and balanced budgets across the bloc, meanwhile, came as she led economically strong Germany to the zenith of its post-World War II power, partly on the back of a trade surplus with its neighbors. Many other E.U. nations, meanwhile, have been hogtied from combating high unemployment and stagnation through economic stimulus.
The German stamp on the E.U. emerged as a rallying cry against the bloc during Britain’s vote last year to leave. Now, Merkel’s critics insist, her policies are at least partly responsible for giving a lift across the continent to nationalist populists such as Le Pen who may seek to unravel the E.U.
“The politics of Angela Merkel and [her finance minister] Wolfgang Schäuble up to this point have contributed significantly to the deepening crises in the E.U.,” Merkel’s foreign minister from the rival Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, wrote on his party’s website.
He added, “A result of this has been the strengthening of anti-European populist parties.”
In France, Le Pen’s attacks have lent an anti-German bent to her National Front’s Euroskepticism, exposing the historical rifts that have led some in France to chafe against the rise of German influence under Merkel.
At the same time, Le Pen supporters increasingly see Merkel as the essence of the globalized, multicultural society that they are seeking to reject.
“We cannot accept the threat of Madame Merkel to our country, to our national identity,” said Davy Rodriguez, 23, a deputy of a National Front youth organization in Paris and a student at Sciences Po in the capital, one of France’s elite universities.
“They’re putting migrants all over the countryside,” said Rodriguez, who conceded that his parents were immigrants from Spain and Portugal who arrived in France in the 1980s. “We have to take back our sovereignty.”
Merkel as lightning rod is hardly new — for years, the Greeks were hauling out Merkel-as-Adolf-Hitler posters to protest her cuts-for-cash bailout demands. And last year Trump took clear swipes at Merkel during the bitterly fought U.S. election campaign.
But now she is emblematic of a bloc in which Germany is seen to have enjoyed outsize benefits, even as some other residents of the E.U. find themselves questioning the value of their membership.
On the ancient streets of Rome, posters recently went up advertising an anti-E.U. demonstration organized by the nationalist Polo Sovranista movement. An image of Merkel stood at the center of the poster — between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French President François Hollande — under the caption “Against this Europe.”
The anti-German sentiment is reaching hyperbolic proportions in some quarters. The chief of Italy’s populist Northern League — posturing as Italians brace for possible elections as soon as this year — recently blasted Merkel’s Germany as doing with economics what Hitler did with bombs. “They aren’t employing tanks, but they’re managing to economically subjugate the whole continent,” Matteo Salvini said on Italian radio in March.
It isn’t just the right-wing populists calling out German leadership. In an interview with The Washington Post, Sandro Gozi, state secretary of European affairs from Italy’s ruling center-left Democratic Party, also pointed a finger of blame.
“Whether it is Angela Merkel herself, I don’t know,” he said. “But the German approach to the euro zone is not effective.”
Merkel’s handling of European policy is also surging to the surface in Germany, where she is waging a critical reelection campaign. In a nation that lost its appetite to lead after the horror of World War II, it is almost as if some blame her for being too successful at imposing Germany’s will on the continent.
Sven Giegold, a Green Party politician and member of the European Parliament, chalked up the high voter support for Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential election last month to anger over “German dominance in the E.U.”
“The 21 percent vote for Le Pen is also a result of German politicians’ lecturing attitude towards others in Europe,” he wrote on his website.
Yet when it comes to leading Europe, rather than seeking power, Merkel and Germany have in many ways inherited it by default. Weak and diminished by his domestic unpopularity, Hollande was ultimately drowned out on the European stage. Italy has had five prime ministers in six years. Britain is more focused on leaving Europe than leading it.
Merkel’s supporters, meanwhile, say the chancellor — widely popular among Germans after nearly 12 years in office — is being unfairly blamed. Jürgen Hardt, a close Merkel ally from her center-right Christian Democratic Union, defended her against the charge that her politics of austerity and budget deficit caps have slammed Germany’s neighbors. And she has been more flexible on that front than her critics say.
“It’s not austerity policy that’s to blame but the previous policy of making debts,” he said.
As for migrants, Merkel has taken heat for famously saying in 2015 that “we can do this” and suggesting that there was no limit to the number of asylum seekers Germany would accept.
But she has since sought to close the door, forging a deal last year with Turkey to block migrants from entering Europe. In addition, she has taken a harder line on integration — backing legislation passed last week by the German Parliament that imposes a partial ban on full Muslim face coverings.
Hardt conceded that these days, “being anti-E.U. means being anti-German.” But he added that Merkel stood out as the sure-footed leader that Europe needs.
“If Europeans could freely vote on who should be the president of Europe,” Hardt said, “. . . Angela Merkel would have the best chance.”
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.