“The distribution of the populist vote refers to old geographical divisions”

Hervé Le Bras is a demographer and director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). In his work The Great Smoke. Populism and immigration in seven European countries (Ed. de l’Aube-Fondation Jean Jaurès, publication on February 3, 168 pages, 17.90 euros), it deciphers the political springs of the populist vote and demonstrates that this is not correlated with the presence of immigrants in the territory.

In France and in six other European countries, the geography of the populist vote does not match that of immigration. How is it possible ?

Immigration is much more present in people’s minds than in their daily existence. Thus, in 2017, in France, there were, according to INSEE, 3.8% immigrants in municipalities with less than 2,500 inhabitants, while the vote for [la candidate du Rassemblement national, RN] Marine Le Pen had reached 27% in the first round of the presidential election. In cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants, there were 15% immigrants and 14% of votes for the Frontist candidate. In Paris, there were 23% immigrants and only 5% voting for Le Pen. Seine-Saint-Denis, the department with the highest proportion of immigrants (30.6%), had voted for Le Pen at 13.6%. Aisne, the department where the Frontist vote was the strongest (35.7%), had only 4.4% immigrants.

The situation is more or less the same in the six other European countries. In Switzerland, for example, the Democratic Union of the Center (UDC, far-right populism) won 12% of the vote in the big cities, 24% in the medium-sized towns and 34% in the rural areas, while the big cities are home to 35% of foreigners, the middle, 22%, and rural areas, 12%.

Does the populist vote respond more to a socio-economic geography?

The regions with the highest unemployment sometimes vote more for the extreme right, sometimes not. In Germany, unemployment is more widespread in the East, where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) vote is strongest. Conversely, in Italy, it is concentrated in the south of the country while the League triumphs in the North.

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In France, at the broad level of the regions, there is a correspondence between the unemployment rate and the RN vote. But, more locally, the relationship is reversed. While cities vote significantly less for the RN, unemployment is on average a little higher.

The geography of migration does follow an economic logic…

Immigrants target dynamic urban areas where they can find employment. In the long run, they attract relatives, who settle in the same places. When the centers of the economy change, they hardly relocate and it is immigrants from other origins who arrive or are called in.

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