SPIJKENISSE (Netherlands) • Firebrand Dutch politician Geert Wilders has launched his election campaign with a stinging attack on the country's Moroccan population, calling some "scum" and saying he wanted to make the Netherlands "ours again".
Mr Wilders has been leading opinion polls ahead of crunch elections on March 15, seen as a litmus test of European politics after Brexit and Mr Donald Trump's presidential victory in the United States.
"The Moroccan scum in Holland ... once again not all are scum... but there is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland who make the streets unsafe, mostly young people... and that should change," Mr Wilders told journalists in English, before attempting to take a stroll at a market.
"If you want to regain your country, if you want to make the Netherlands for the people of the Netherlands your own home again, then you can only vote" for his Party for Freedom (PVV), Mr Wilders said on Saturday in the blue-collar town of Spijkenisse, not far from Europe's largest port of Rotterdam.
"Please, make the Netherlands ours again," said the far-right, anti-Islam politician, as a small group of supporters chanted "Wilders! Wilders!" in the background.
The MP, who has vowed to ban the Quran and close mosques should he win power, was convicted last December of inciting discrimination for leading supporters in a chant calling for "Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!" Moroccans in the country. But his words have found some traction among traditional supporters worried about immigration and extremist attacks across Europe in recent years.
Asked who his voters were, Mr Wilders said: "Every Dutchman with common sense... And fortunately, we have a lot of people with common sense."
He added: "Dutch people who want their country back will vote for us irrespective of their education or background."
The MP, who has vowed to ban the Quran and close mosques should he win power, was convicted last December of inciting discrimination for leading supporters in a chant calling for "Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!" Moroccans in the country.
But his words have found some traction among traditional supporters worried about immigration and extremist attacks across Europe in recent years.
The latest combined opinion polls give Mr Wilders and his PVV party between 24 and 28 seats in the 150-seat Lower House of Parliament, two to four seats ahead of Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte's ruling People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).
Support for Mr Wilders - who posed for selfies and shook hands with citizens in the town's mediaeval square - varied widely.
After he left, several arguments between his backers and opponents broke out.
"We are all voting for Wilders this year because it's dangerous in this country these days," said a 59-year-old supporter.
"It's not safe in the streets anymore, especially in the big cities," he told Agence France-Presse, as Mr Wilders walked around with heavy police protection.
Mr Wilders' views have seen him receive death threats, including from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Al-Qaeda.
He is guarded at all times.
Mr Martin Bosma, regarded as Mr Wilders' right-hand man and fellow PVV parliamentarian, said his party will look for coalition partners should it win the elections.
But he admitted "it will be difficult", as most major Dutch political parties - including Mr Rutte's VVD - refuse to work with the PVV after Mr Wilders' comments on Moroccans and his conviction.
"Geert Wilders is polarising people," said Mr Theo de Boer, 50, as he walked away from the market clutching a bunch of flowers.
"He discriminates and I totally disagree with him. We have a Constitution and freedom of religion is one of its most important pillars."
Some locals were conflicted about Mr Wilders.
"Geert dares to say what a whole bunch of Dutch people think and that's a good thing," said fishmonger Marianne Sleurink, 60.
However, she added: "But he causes a whole lot of hatred and has no real solution."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS