Diederik Samsom: Portrait of a firebrand

The PvdA has a new leader. Diederik Samsom (40) got 54 % of the vote to 31% compared to his most serious rival Ronald Plasterk. So what’s he like? NRC did some digging.

Rob Frauenfelder is Diederik Samson’s old Dutch teacher at the Stedelijk Gymnasium in Leeuwarden. ‘He was an active boy’, he describes his former student. ‘He would go to the swimming pool for water polo practice before school. And after school he would rock ‘n roll in the local bar. He was very good, you know’, Frauenfelder tells the paper.
Right wrongs
Samsom was always an activist, he says. When schools were faced with mergers in the late eighties, Samson and three of his fellow students occupied the school for eight days. Samsom talked to the media and even the national papers came to the school to see what all the fuss was about. In the end, the Stedelijk Gymnasium remained independent. Frauenfelder remembers Samsom not as particularly leftwing but as someone who wanted to ‘right wrongs in society’.
Samsom was fifteen at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He became a campaigner with Greenpeace. GroenLinks MP and former Milieudefensie director Wijnand Duyvendak calls him ‘a good campaigner, someone with guts’. One of his colleagues at Greenpeace, the present campaign director Joris Thijssen says Samsom combines strategy with a big mouth.
In 2001, Samsom showed just how much guts he had: when Greenpeace wanted to demonstrate against the transportation of nuclear waste to Dodewaard he suggested they trick the three police cordons guarding the site into thinking they were dealing with fellow policemen. Samsom and his fellow activists bought a police van, donned dark blue sweaters and bluffed their way through to the site where they chained themselves to the gate. ‘We could feel the anger when they found out what had happened and treated us much rougher that usual’, remembers Thijssen.
Samsom, who is a nuclear physicist, used his knowledge in the service of his political activism, much to the annoyance of reactor physics professor Hugo van Dam who called him ‘a demagogue’ whose comments on nuclear waste were ‘without foundation in fact.’
Even the Greenpeace diehards sometimes thought Samsom went too far: ‘We were diving near a nuclear plant in France once’, Thijssen tells the paper. ‘The tide made it difficult to go down more often than once every four hours but Samsom insisted we did. Sometimes you need to stop. You can only challenge people so much.’
That particular trait may prove a weak spot for Samsom as the leader of the PvdA. According to Duyvendak, Samsom likes a confrontation more than a compromise.
Liesbeth van Tongeren, former director of Greenpeace and now a GroenLinks MP, says the new PvdA leader will be emotionally involved, ‘much more so than Mark Rutte who seems to be unaffected by what is happening. Samson wants a better world for his children, that is his driving force.’
Emotionally involved
Because Samsom is emotionally involved he can be very sensitive to criticism. Trouw journalist Ingrid Weel remembers a debate organised by the paper in 2007 when Samsom faced his old friend Duyvendak in a debate. At the time the PvdA was part of the cabinet and Duyvendak attacked the then environment minister. ‘Samsom growled, banged the table and walked off frequently. They nearly came to blows’, the journalist tells the paper. Critical journalist can expect a phone call from Samsom asking for explanations.
Van Tongeren: ‘He will tap Rutger Castricum on the shoulder and say: ok mate, let’s have you then.’

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