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Do feelings of abandonment motivate far right?

Ian P. Johnson
March 17, 2018

Feeling abandoned by government prompted some in downcast German and French regions to vote far right in 2017, researchers say. Anti-migrant, anti-Islam or anti-Europe election slogans hardly figured in their decisions.

Dresden: Pegida
Image: picture-alliance/dpa-Zentralbild/M. Skolimowska

Many people who voted for far-right parties in Germany and France in 2017 were motivated by uncertainties about their personal futures, the Berlin think tank Das Progressive Zentrum (Progressive Center) concluded following 500 door-to-door interviews conducted in 12 regions of the countries last September. 

Sociopolitical conditions and not anti-foreigner views drove discontent, the think tank found in its survey of regions where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and France's National Front (FN) often scored in excess of 20 percent in last year's elections.

Far-right slogans resonated much less with voters than had been commonly assumed, Johannes Hillje and Philipp Sälhoff, the authors of the study, told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper for an article published on Friday.

"Low wages and the collapse of social and transport infrastructure are the real drivers of anxiety about the future," said the authors, who titled their study "Return to the Politically Abandoned."

There prevailed a "feeling of being abandoned," Hillje and Sälhoff concluded.

In their interviews, the authors said they heard few Islamophobic statements, blanket criticisms of the media or even expressions of euroskepticism. "On the contrary, Europe was often seen as part of the solution," they found.

A far-right militia in Cologne
Alienation may mobilize far-right voters, but their movement also has a militant wingImage: picture-alliance/Geisler/C. Hardt

Chronically excluded communities

Responses from residents in six German regions, such as Berlin's Marzahn-Hellersdorf and Duisburg-Neumühl, in the Ruhrgebiet, appeared to reveal societal patterns. Residents felt depreciated and ignored by politicians, the researchers found. 

Many respondents believed that Germany's political mainstream ignored economically neglected communities and had withdrawn from regions that are now underserved by the transport infrastructure and blighted by closed shops. One respondent said lobbyists had leaders' ears more than voters do now.

Locations in France included districts of Marseille and Calais.

Domestic solidarity is a prerequisite for solidarity with new residents, Hillje and Sälhoff found: "As long as people have anxiety about their future, there will be skepticism about giving help to strangers."

Hillje said expressions of xenophobia could be a result of voters' sense of feeling depreciated.

The authors offered politicians tips for winning back people who felt abandoned.

"Especially the mainstream political parties must again make themselves useful in civil society at the local level to win back trust," they wrote.

Furthermore, public services and transport must be re-established to ensure equality, opportunity and structures based on the social contract.

"We sought conversation at these locations to better understand how the people view their situation and that of their country," Sälhoff said.

"The problem has long been recognized," he said. "Too often people are talked about, instead of talking with them."