This post is part of a CityLab series on power—the political kind, the stuff inside batteries and gas tanks, and the transformative might of mass movements.
Fiorello H. La Guardia, former mayor of New York, famously said, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to collect garbage.” It’s still a belief of city leaders around the world: that ideology can’t run city government, both because of mayors’ limited powers and their need to produce practical results for their people.
But in Europe, a wave of city-level victories by populist right-wing parties suggests this may not be the case anymore. The election of several National Front mayors shocked crisis-ridden France in the 1990s, but was rarely repeated until the recent populist wave. Then in 2014, the university city of Padua in northern Italy elected a mayor of the Northern League. Béziers, France, elected a member of the National Front that same year. The Austrian city of Wels followed suit with a vote for the Freedom Party in 2015. These cities had previously been governed by mainstream parties throughout post-war period, and are the largest cities in these countries ever to be governed by the far-right. They are now laboratories for small-scale experiments of this radical ideology, primarily in attempts to create a newly secured “populist city.”
Securing the city
How distinctive can European mayors really be though, and how much of the populist rhetoric disappears after winning power? In the area of security at least, there is evidence of a particular emphasis on the threat to public order posed by migrants and non-native residents. The ethnicizing of the threat goes beyond the widespread contemporary trend of heightening urban security, popularized by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s revival of 1990s New York.
Security is a theme which offers an effective means to popularize an issue critical to the European populist right-wing: the presence of poor, jobless migrants within the city. The migrants arriving in increasing numbers in recent years are depicted by these politicians and supportive press as particular sources of disorder and criminality. This threat is one populist right-wingers are striving to raise in the prominence of citizens’ minds through their actions in power, far beyond its true statistical significance.
The strategy is simple: a shocking crime is relentlessly highlighted by populists and then used to condemn migrants in general, in words and actions. Lurid tales of sexual assaults by migrants at swimming pools in other parts of Austria in summer 2016 were given substantial local press attention in Wels. Mayor Andreas Rabl subsequently assigned municipal security guards to patrol the city’s outdoor swimming pool, announced personal security alarms would be offered for free to local women, and invested €160,000 into expanding CCTV surveillance across the city center despite widespread budget cuts. Finally, a curfew was imposed on an asylum center housing young men. Beyond raising popular fears, the denouncement of all migrants for the crimes of individuals smacks of collective punishment. The leader of the center-right party in Wels drew the line here, despite their coalition agreement with the far-right: “The share of foreigners in Wels is very high and the mood tense. We must be careful our language does not to contribute to a worsening of the situation.”
Protecting ‘the people’
The limited power of mayors is also demonstrated by national governments directing the cities where migrants are placed. Populist mayors in Europe, while unable to block these arrivals, have used the process to portray themselves as uniquely protective of their people in opposition to the elites. In Béziers, mayor Robert Menard condemned the state’s demand for an expanded asylum center in the city in a series of provocative posters in October 2016, declaring it a “stab in the back” undoing recent work to revive the city center. His promise to hold a citizen’s referendum on the subject was then blocked as illegal, a decision that according to Menard showed how the establishment are “blind and deaf to local concerns.”
Such a strategy follows a classic “us vs. them” populist logic, in which the elites are presented as distant from, and indeed harmful to, the concerns of ordinary people. Strategies that stress security are therefore not only useful for their direct effect on the outsiders targeted, but on the indirect benefits gained by the right-wing populists themselves. The sense of danger and urgency whipped up in these peaceful, picturesque European cities creates a popular impression of the city under threat, both from the domineering elites and the invading migrants. Every crime of one migrant becomes a threat posed by all; every legal challenge by the elite to the right-wing populists’ actions becomes an attempt to harm citizen security, which only the right-wing populist mayors are willing to stand up to. This represents a potentially effective electoral strategy. Whether these symbolic acts and discriminatory rhetoric make for an effective governing strategy is another matter.
What if these mayors ruled the world?
In his 2013 book “If Mayors Ruled the World,” or the more emphatically titled TED Talk “Why Mayors Should Rule the World,” Benjamin Barber recommended a transfer of power from nations to cities, as mayors would be better able to contend with the global challenges of the 21st century. According to Barber, mayors—pragmatists who solve problems day-in and day-out—should be ruling the world. But not all cities will elect an idealized, unbiased and efficient problem-solver. And right-wing populism, with its hateful words and empty deeds, is already the name of the game in some European city halls.