Maxwell, R.: Prospects for Political Participation in France among non-Western Origin Migrants, 2011

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Voting is a central component of democratic societies. It is the mechanism by which citizens express their political preferences, elect representatives and hold those representatives accountable. However, not all segments of society are equally likely to vote. In Western Europe one of the groups with the lowest turnout rates among eligible voters are migrant-origin individuals from non-Western countries. Moreover, when one considers the large numbers of non-Western-origin migrants who are not registered to vote or do not even have citizenship, it is clear that these communities suffer from severe deficits in their capacity to formally engage the political system (Bird et al. 2010; Givens and Maxwell 2012; Messina 2007). This is not only important for migrant-origin individuals but also for natives. Migrants are at the center of many crucial contemporary issues (e.g. religious accommodation, socio-economic inequality, urban renewal) and if their interests are not being expressed in the political system then public policies may not be effective and the entire society will suffer. Moreover, if migrant-origin individuals do not participate in mainstream political channels they may resort to more destructive methods as seen in recent urban unrest across Europe.

The Challenge of Political Integration among non-Western-Origin Migrant Communities in France

France is one of the West European countries with the longest tradition of receiving immigrants. During the 19th and early 20th centuries France’s declining birthrates and expanding industrial economy attracted migrants from across Southern and Eastern Europe. These migrants faced many integration challenges, including discrimination and limited access to mainstream politics. However, as time passed they assimilated into mainstream French society and thus no longer face significant political disadvantages (Noiriel 1988; Weil 2004).

In comparison, the non-European migrants who arrived after World War II continue to face some of the most severe economic and political challenges in France. These migrants arrived due to the combination of labor shortages in France and high unemployment and economic and political instability in their home countries. The majority of these migrants came from French colonies in the Caribbean, the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, therefore they arrived with some prior exposure to French culture (Hargreaves 1995: 11; Maxwell 2012). However, non-Western-origin migrant groups are more likely than European-origin migrants and native French to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods with poor schools and limited opportunities for economic advancement. In addition, non-Western-origin migrant groups have faced labor market discrimination that makes it even more difficult to access social mobility (Maxwell 2012; Weil 2004: 128-35).

Non-Western-origin migrants’ political participation has been hindered by the fact that they more likely than European-origin migrants suffer from discrimination and delays during the long-stay visa and citizenship acquisition process (Spire 2005). Even once they become citizens, non-Western-origin migrants have limited capacity for political mobilization against discrimination. This is due to the fact that France’s dominant republican discourse considers minority identities to be an illegitimate basis for political seriousness (Favell 2001; Geisser 1997). There has been progress over the years as most political parties openly embrace the concept of diversity and non-Western-origin migrants are increasingly likely to win elected office (Geisser and Soum 2012). Yet non-Western-origin groups in France still tend to have lower rates of descriptive representation among elected officials and limited political influence in comparison to other migrants in other Western European countries (Givens and Maxwell 2012). Given these challenges it is particularly important to examine the issue of vote turnout, which is a key mechanism for engaging the political system.

Various Explanations for Migrant-Native Voting Gaps

One common way of explaining voting behavior is to focus on socio-economic status. Research consistently shows that individuals with higher levels of education and more socio-economic resources tend to be more likely to vote because they are more comfortable dealing with public institutions and feel empowered to engage the political process. This helps explain low turnout among non-Western-origin migrants in France, as they are more likely than native metropolitans to suffer from poor educational qualifications, low-level jobs and high unemployment rates.

Age is another often-cited factor in the voting literature as research suggests that turnout increases, as individuals get older before peaking in late-middle age and declining among the elderly. Low turnout among non-Western-origin migrants in France is explained by having a disproportionately young migrant-population in comparison to native French metropolitans.

A third branch of research focuses on attitudes, political interest and social capital. Here, the logic is that when individuals are more engaged in their community they will be more likely to vote. In some respects it is easy to claim that non-Western-migrant groups are segregated from French society and not interested in engaging mainstream politics. Yet, a more complex way of addressing this explanation would consider the various ways in which non-Western-migrant groups feel comfortable engaging society. In this perspective the urban unrest of autumn 2005 is less interpreted as an example of disengagement from society and more as an example of a dramatic attempt to claim a place in the mainstream political discussion.

The previous strands of research focused on individual-level factors but there is also a wide range of research on the contextual factors that shape turnout. For example, in districts where elections are closely contested there is likely to be more interest and higher turnout. In addition, when districts are involved in big dramatic crises there is likely to be more interest and higher turnout. Yet, it is not clear why these general contextual factors should affect non-Western-origin migrant groups any differently than other groups of voters. Two contextual level factors that may be especially important for non-Western-origin groups in France are the presence of far-right wing candidates and the neighborhood socio-economic environment. Existing research shows that migrant-origin voters in cities where the far-right wing National Front (FN) party receives high levels of support are more likely to vote compared to migrant-origin voters who live in cities where the FN receives less support. The logic behind this argument is that minority migrants who live in areas where the FN party is strongly represented need to vote as a way of combating their perceived political enemies (Richard 1999: 130-1; Richard 2004: 90-1). Unfortunately, this research was not able to distinguish between Western and non-Western-origin migrant voters.

Existing research on neighborhood-level factors was able to distinguish between Western and non-Western-origin migrants and analysed that once the local socio-economic environment was taken into account, non-Western-origin migrants no longer had significantly lower turnout rates. This is due to the fact that living in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods reduces turnout, and non-Western-origin migrants are disproportionately likely to live in such neighborhoods (Maxwell 2010). This suggests that non-Western-origin migrants suffer from individual and neighborhood-level socio-economic disadvantages. Research suggests that the neighborhood environment not only influences access to opportunities, it also creates status and stigmas that remain with the inhabitants and impede their social mobility even after they obtain educational qualifications (Richard 2007). In many ways socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods have become symbols of the outcasts of French society who live in separate communities that even the police refuse to enter (Weil 2005). It is not hard to imagine that this type of environment would reduce the enthusiasm for going to the voting booth, irrespective of one’s migrant background.

Conclusion: An Increasingly Diverse Future?

The low voting turnout among non-European-origin migrants in France is a complex dynamic with multiple explanations. Socio-economic disadvantages (at the individual and neighborhood level), age-related issues, political attitudes, and the local political context all play an important role. Moreover, the cumulative effect of all of these factors depressing turnout among non-Western-origin migrant groups suggests that low voting rates will continue until there is significant change in the broader French social structure.

However, there is always the possibility for particular issues or candidates to galvanize the electorate. In the United States, Barack Obama was credited with inspiring large numbers of first-time voters (most notably ethnic minorities and young people) who believed in his candidacy. In France, there is some evidence that Nicolas Sarkozy has a similar effect on migrant-origin voters, who emerge to oppose his candidacy. There was a surge of voter registration in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods for the 2007 presidential election, which was largely considered to be a form of protest against Sarkozy. Many of these new voters felt that Sarkozy had been a repressive Interior Minister who unfairly stigmatized the migrant-origin residents of disadvantaged urban neighborhoods as criminals and delinquents. Voting against Sarkozy was an opportunity for disadvantaged minority voters to seize their political voice (Lichfield 2007). However, Sarkozy was elected with 53% of the second round vote and post-election analysis suggests that many minority migrant residents of disadvantaged urban neighborhoods who registered for the first time may not have actually voted. In that sense, the overwhelming disadvantages of living in the socio-economically deprived neighborhood may have overcome the short-term emotional incentive to combat Sarkozy. The upcoming 2012 presidential election will be an interesting test of whether these anti-Sarkozy attitudes have deepened among non-Western-origin minorities.

In another respect, the 2012 election will be a revealing test of whether Sarkozy has broadened his appeal to migrant-origin voters. Sarkzoy made symbolic and dramatic appointments of several minority women to his cabinet, out-flanking the left in his willingness to promote minority politicians. In addition, Sarkozy’s public discourse has embraced diversity and even some previously-taboo conceptions of “positive discrimination”, which may sway some non-European-origin voters to support him.

Historically, non-Western-origin voters in France have preferred left-wing parties because those parties have tended to focus on working-class issues and promote a more inclusive immigration policy than right-wing parties, two issues that are important for migrant-origin voters. However, left-wing parties in France have been more reluctant to fervently embrace migrant issues than other left-wing parties in Western Europe, in part because of their commitment to French republicanism and the unity of the nation. This has left many migrant-origin political activists dissatisfied with the French left and created the opening for Sarkozy to begin trumpeting his brand of diversity à la française. It remains to be seen whether this will attract significant numbers of non-Western-origin voters. But the partisan competition is most likely to increase, if the amount of non-Western-origin voters, which are currently not following mainstream political parties, will be considered as important new votes in the political process.


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Rahsaan Maxwell, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2011