SPIJKENISSE, Netherlands – The Dutch debate on refugees and asylum seekers has come to this: Firebrand lawmaker Geert Wilders handing out self-defense sprays to women fearful of what he describes as "Islamic testosterone bombs" in the wake of the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.
Wilders, surrounded by bodyguards and police, visited a market in the largely blue-collar town of Spijkenisse on Saturday to hand out the sprays, which contained red paint. Amid stalls selling vegetables, fish, flowers and bicycle parts, Wilders got a rock-star welcome from dozens of supporters, while a small group of protesters chanted and waved placards including one that read, "Refugees are welcome, racism is not."
The publicity stunt fits into Wilders' uncompromising anti-immigrant, anti-Islam rhetoric that has propelled him to the top of Dutch opinion polls, just over a year away from parliamentary elections.
In between shaking hands and posing for selfies with supporters, the Freedom Party leader said that, if elected, he would, "close the borders immediately and have no more asylum seekers. We just cannot afford to have more. The Dutch people in a big majority don't want it and we cannot afford it and it makes our people and women only more unsafe."
His message is gaining traction here amid the Europe-wide migrant surge and following attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris last year. It echoes Republican front-runner Donald Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and is similar to other populist, nationalist groups in Europe like Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.
"The tendencies across Europe are very similar," said University of Amsterdam political science professor Wouter van der Brug. "Across Europe, right-wing populist parties are picking up support as a result of the asylum crisis that we're facing now, and also as a result of terrorist attacks."
Leontine Maris was one of the first women to get a spray from Wilders on Saturday.
The 53-year-old said she votes for him though she disagrees with some of his more extreme comments. She said she was afraid not just of migrants, but also Dutch men.
"The whole society is going down the drain," she said.
As Wilders' popularity soars on the back of such disenchantment, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's two-party coalition is in a slump, losing ground mainly to Wilders.
"Wilders is getting support across different layers of society," Van der Brug said.
Whether Wilders is able to parlay his current popularity into parliamentary seats next year and a tilt at power in the splintered Dutch parliament remains to be seen. He propped up Rutte's first administration, a minority coalition of the Liberal Party and Christian Democrats, from 2010-2012, but walked out amid drawn out negotiations over austerity measures. Two days later, the government collapsed.
That decision could yet come back to haunt Wilders.
"The only logical coalition he could form would be with the same parties again and I think it's quite unlikely they will do this again with him because of the negative experience they have in the past," Van der Brug said. "They don't really trust him."
Rutte has ruled out cooperating with Wilders unless the Freedom Party leader takes back comments made in 2014 that he would see to it that there were fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. Those same comments also landed Wilders in trouble with Dutch prosecutors, who plan to put him on trial on charges of discrimination.
That kind of criticism is not new to Wilders, who has made his name with inflammatory anti-Islam rhetoric. He was acquitted in 2011 on hate speech charges for comments including likening Islam to fascism and calling for a ban on the Quran.
Wilders' party currently holds 12 seats in the 150-member lower house, but a poll by Ipsos on Thursday suggested the Freedom Party would win 32 seats now. Rutte's Liberals were second with 26 seats, down from its current tally of 40. The online survey of 1,061 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent. Other polls have Wilders even further ahead.
While Wilders is riding high, Rutte and his coalition partner are hoping to survive the next year and reap the electoral rewards of tough economic reforms that are beginning to bear fruit.
The government has slashed spending and driven through an austerity package that has revived the ailing Dutch economy and is beginning to cut into unemployment. The number of Dutch workers without jobs last month was 588,000 in a nation of around 17 million, down from 700,000 early in 2014.
Wilders' opponents are hoping that popular opinion shifts when it comes time to vote in national elections.
"It is hard to talk about a tipping point because we have seen this phenomenon in the polls before," Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher, a Labor Party member, told reporters recently. "Geert Wilders has lost the last three elections. That is something we tend to forget."