Urban Insight on the French and Dutch elections
Following the first round of the presidential election in France, over half of the electorate that did not vote for Macron or Le Pen will now have to choose between staying home or voting for their second-best (or least-worst) candidate. Both traditional major center-left and center-right parties will be absent from the second round for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. The driving forces behind this unprecedented political upheaval are multiple, ranging from questions of identity and economic inequality to anti-establishment sentiments and visions for Europe. While the commentary and analysis of the national and international impacts of the recent votes in France and the Netherlands, as well as the upcoming ones in the U.K., Germany, and potentially Italy, will continue to be important and plentiful, the local-level perspective, which directly affects and is affected by the key issues in most of these elections, remains underexplored.
In France, Marine Le Pen made it to the second round after obtaining less than 5 percent of the vote in the nation’s capital and socioeconomic epicenter. A similar phenomenon was seen in the Dutch elections last month where Amsterdam revealed itself to have a markedly different political landscape from the rest of the country with a surprising first place for the Green Left party while the top two parties in the city came only 4th and 6th nationally. In Lyon and Toulouse, France’s third- and fourth-largest cities, Le Pen’s xenophobic rhetoric also failed to resonate with the electorate and she came last among major candidates. Despite these clear divergences between the prevailing political preferences nationally and those in capitals and other major cities, the reality is more nuanced than a difference between urban and rural voters.
In Marseille, France’s second-largest city, however, Mélenchon and Le Pen came in 1st and 2nd respectively, breaking with the rather simplistic urban-rural dichotomy. Here as well, there are interesting parallels with the Dutch elections, where Geert Wilder’s PVV came in a very close second in the country’s second city, Rotterdam, where already over a third of the city council belongs to the fiercely anti-immigrant Livable Rotterdam party. Although both of these port cities have higher unemployment rates than the other major metropolitan areas nationally, to properly understand the sentiments and perspectives behind these voting patterns there is a lot to be learned by looking a level deeper which shows that not only does Marseille have one of the “highest levels of inequality in France” but that this is more “concentrated in particular neighborhoods.”
Similarly in Rotterdam, according to Gabrielle Muris, who has worked extensively in several key urban projects and interventions in the city, it appears that traditional supporters of the social democratic PdVA who felt neglected, turned to more ethnic-based parties such as Denk in the more diverse neighborhoods and to Wilders’ PVV in the less diverse but equally disadvantaged neighborhoods. This also plays out in the more prosperous city of Amsterdam, where according to Mei Ling Liem, an advisor with the city, the district level voting shows a much more divided electorate, with the more diverse New West district voting decisively for Denk (19.2 percent in the district and just 2.1 percent nationally), and in parallel the PVV winning in the city’s North district (15.7 percent in the district and 6.8 percent citywide).
Increasingly visible and distinct urban-rural and center-periphery (i.e. city vs peripheral neighborhoods and capital city vs peripheral city) cleavages in political worldviews offer important insights into the sources of discontent that are shaping European politics. The issues are multifaceted and too complex to fully capture or analyze in a short commentary or blog post, however, for the purposes of a schematic understanding from an urban perspective, we can see two cleavages that feed into each other and fuel populist discourse. On one level we have cities that have not been successful in their de-industrialization and transition to a more integrated regional and global economy, and on an even more local level, we have neighborhoods within more prosperous cities that have problems related to integration, inequality, and unemployment. Both of these fragmentations enable and strengthen the playbook populist framework of us versus them, with the them being both the multicultural elites in political and economic capital cities and the marginalized minorities groups, both of which become the targets for social and economic frustrations. This first round of the presidential elections in France confirms another profound division in French society at these levels; not only between wealthier neighborhoods and areas of social relegation within metropolitan areas, but also between these metropolitan areas and smaller declining cities with high unemployment, in which Marine Le Pen has obtained particularly high percentages of the vote.
Such issues related to diversity and socioeconomic integration in urban areas are essential to understanding the growing support for nativist rhetoric since this is often “strongly focused on ethnic groups and social issues […] equat[ing] the city with out-of-touch leftist elites, as well as with crime and criminality, moral deviance, non-traditional behavior, and immigrants.” This rhetoric is enabled by communities that are more segregated than integrated and where the loss of industrial jobs is not followed by any promising future prospects for economic advancement. While the populist answers are far from being a solution, they do point to a failure of policies related to integration and unequal distribution of the gains from globalization, both of which are often evident at the local level.
Populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are using the imagery of multicultural and globally connected cities to represent the erosion of national identities and to focus the blame of those who are afraid of globalization or have lost because of it. Last year, after a campaign largely based on fighting back immigration, trade, and globalization — all forces that inherently drive the growth of thriving U.S. cities — Donald Trump won the election, while losing 90 percent of urban cores. In light of the upcoming elections across Europe this year, policymakers need to address the local roots of this sense of fear and neglect or they will continue to have a forcible impact on national, regional, and global politics.
To see a detailed breakdown and map of the first round results in France see:
To see a detailed breakdown and maps of the Dutch election results see:
 Van Gent, W.P.C., E.F. Jansen, & J.H.F. Smits (fc) "Right-wing Radical Populism in City and Suburbs; An Electoral Geography of Partij Voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands", Urban Studies. Doi:10.1177/0042098013505889.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.