When I found out I was interning at a community center in northern France this summer, I figured it would be a sort of summer camp-like experience: finger painting with kids, teaching hip-hop dance to senior citizens or showcasing my lack of athleticism at soccer games. However, within the first week of work, I was surprised to find myself in the middle of a major social development project –– one that affects not only the daily lives of the community center’s local residents but also influences the broader development of France’s social and political climate.
The Community Association of Arques is located in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the northernmost region of France. Nord-Pas-de-Calais used to be a large industrial hub, employing the majority of its residents in manufacturing services. However, over the past few decades, the region’s industrial sector has declined, resulting in crippling unemployment nearly 3.2% higher than the national average.
These economic hardships have been correlated with a concerning rise of political extremes within the region, with residents voting overwhelmingly for the Rassemblement National in the past European election, signaling an uptick in xenophobic and racist sentiment, a reoccuring pattern throughout modern liberal democracies. With such troubling socioeconomic circumstances, localized public services have taken an increasingly active role toward improving regional life.
The Community Association’s socially-oriented approach presents a strong potential solution against the region’s elevated political extremism: By focusing on individual well-being, local organizations may combat the toxic circumstances that propel dangerous political reactions. Instead of trying to outvote the far-right, focusing on local improvement provides a solution that will last throughout the election cycles.
Despite the polarizing social climate in Arques, the Community Association provides services and activities open to all ages, incomes, and cultural backgrounds for local members and organizes international projects. Some of its international projects, geared specifically toward youth, have included a service trip to Morocco and exchange programs in Quebec and Germany. Additionally, the center takes part in regional European social development projects such as unemployment and childcare programs, financed by policy researchers such as Interreg Europe.
In rural areas such as Arques, with relatively low cultural diversity, residents are more likely to adhere to anti-immigrant stereotypes and parochial rhetoric when faced with political challenges. By exposing its members to international experiences, specifically youth members, the center hopes to introduce new cultures and perspectives while emphasizing the theme of shared humanity. Newfound cultural perspectives, in turn, may translate into more open political mindsets, as well as more accepting community dynamics.
These international connections can also increase employment opportunities. According to the Community Association’s director, Sylvain Clabaux, much of the region’s unemployed population has little desire to look outside the local areas to which it is accustomed. This occurrence stems from an overall narrower cultural comfort level and mindset. As a result, these people become stationary under unsound economic circumstances. In response, the organization encourages its members to expand their employment search outside of their local areas to other countries within the European Union. Instilling an international mindset in unemployed members allows them to see the possibility of uprooting as less daunting and more promising.
The services and opportunities provided by the Community Association of Arques not only show us how international participation can benefit local communities, but also present a policy model of positive local empowerment.
Many of the social and political occurrences seen in Nord-Pas-de-Calais are not far from extreme political movements taking hold in parts of the United States. As we look toward improving our national political dialogue within the upcoming elections, our approach should not be focused solely on outvoting the far-right. Instead, we may look to using a method of positive local empowerment as a long-term approach: helping the economically disparaged get back on their feet, forming international connections within small towns and forming communities built not around hate but self-improvement. When people are satisfied with their lives, the hate-filled rhetoric of the far-right becomes obsolete.
Creating healthy environments might just be the best shield against unhealthy rhetoric. Once we start seeing people as people and not as political opponents, we will be able to create more resilient policy solutions and begin to effectively bridge political divisions.
Christina Luke is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.