Rightist-leaning German and French voters in structurally weak regions have more in common with one another than one might think – and it’s not fear of foreigners or Islam, the EU's shortcomings, unemployment, or even the elitist media, concludes the left-liberal German think tank Das Progressive Zentrum and its French partner Liegey Muller Pons in their recent study “Return to the Politically Abandoned: Conversations in Right-Wing Populist Regions in Germany and France.” They conducted 500 in-depth, door-to-door interviews in socio-economically disadvantaged regions of Germany and France where a high proportion of people voted for right-wing populist parties in 2017. 

The study’s results are highly relevant to European politicians and policymakers who seek to understand the phenomenon of the far-right parties and counter them. The study found that the rightist parties do well in some deprived constituencies, for example those with high unemployment, but that in others, with much less unemployment, they often do just as well or even better. The study confirmed research that found that although the majority of Alternative for Germany (AfD) supporters have below-average incomes, "a substantial minority are doing very well."

Rather, the common denominator seems to be feelings of dislocation, political powerlessness, precarity, and disrespect. AfD voters in Germany are convinced that their generation is worse off than that of their parents; they’re worried about their children’s future, too. National Front (FN) voters are also skeptical about their prospects for social mobility, seeing a worsening of their living standards and job situation more likely rather than improvement. Their concerns are precarious working conditions, worries about money, and weak social infrastructure. They sense unfairness and disadvantage in the system – and are angry about it.

The study’s proposed way forward in a nutshell: redress conditions accentuating feelings of uncertainty by reinvigorating the social welfare state; pay more attention to rural, “abandoned regions;” and strengthen the presence of political parties at the local level. Europe’s democrats, it concludes, have to develop strong counter-narratives that trump those of the national populists.