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Transatlantic Dialogue Initiative: Elevating the Role of French Cities in Preventing Hate, Violent Extremism and Polarisation, Strengthening Social Cohesion and Safeguarding Local Democracy

— 19 minutes reading time

On 14 – 15 May 2024 in Strasbourg, France, the Strong Cities Network convened more than 40 mayors and other city officials from Europe and North America, as well as representatives from national governments, civil society organisations and the European Union (EU) to provide a platform to enable local leaders and practitioners from French cities in particular to learn from counterparts. More broadly, the workshop built on Strong Cities’ ongoing efforts to support cities with maintaining social cohesion in the face of consecutive global crises – from climate change to international and regional conflicts – that are increasingly having local impacts. 

Organised as part of Strong Cities’ ongoing transatlantic dialogue initiative, the workshop took place at the European Parliament, with support from the United States Consulate (Strasbourg), the City of Strasbourg and the EU, and in collaboration with the European Forum for Urban Security – Forum Français pour la Sécurité Urbaine (EFUS).

Several key findings emerged from the discussions:

No city can progress by itself … this is where Strong Cities comes in … we recently went to London, Oslo and New York [City] for the Fourth Global Summit, all as part of Strong Cities, and these trips have enriched us to make better prevention policies.

Nadia Zourgui-Saada, Deputy Mayor, City of Strasbourg

Threats & Key Challenges

City officials from both Europe and North America spoke about how the Israel-Gaza crisis is impacting social cohesion in their communities. For example, Louis Molina, Assistant Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, New York City (New York, United States) shared that since 7 October 2023, his city has experienced an increase in activity and mobilisation across the full spectrum of hate and extremist movements while also dealing with mass demonstrations that have led to infrastructural and property damage. Federico Faloppa, Professor of Italian Studies and Linguistics, Reading University (UK) and lead author of a recent Council of Europe study on preventing and combating hate speech in times of cries,shared that in the UK, antisemitism and anti-Muslim attacks – particularly those targeting women – have both increased significantly since 7 October, noting that “what feels true is that both Jewish and Muslim citizens do not feel safe in public spaces”. Veronique Bertholle, Member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe & Deputy Mayor, City of Strasbourg (France) said that no city in the EU has been immune to the impacts of the crisis. She added that the situation is exacerbated by how challenging it can be for local governments to bring affected communities together despite the cities’ best intentions.

Pointing to the potential long-term impacts of global crises, city officials added that they are still grappling with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Alexandre Loretz, Mayor, Commune of Mittelhausbergen (France), observed that a legacy of that crisis is that “we live increasingly isolated from one another”, with many individuals fulfilling their social needs online. He noted that many local governments are still learning to adapt and thus struggling to meaningfully engage residents that are less likely to seek in-person interactions (e.g., attending town hall and/or community meetings).

Meanwhile, participants shared how climate change and ongoing conflicts like the war in Ukraine are driving unprecedented levels of migration, with cities feeling ill-supported to accommodate rapidly growing demographics. This, in turn, they said, is fuelling anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment, with migrants sometimes scapegoated for insufficient public service delivery and other grievances. For example, Dimitris Rossakis, Executive Director, City of Kalamaria (Greece) shared that this is particularly the case in his city and in Greece more broadly, pointing to a consequent rise of xenophobic right-wing extremist groups.

Participants also expressed concerns about the spread and mainstreaming of antisemitic, Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, aided in part by social media and the proliferation of mis- and disinformation. For example, Curt Skoog, Mayor, Overland Park (Kansas, United States) noted that white supremacy and antisemitism have posed significant threats to community safety in his city, while Jean-Yves Camus, Political Scientist, City of Paris (France) noted that there are 3,000 individuals assumed to adhere to racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist views in France, of which at least 1000 are thought to be willing to commit hate-motivated violence.

Finally, participants expressed concern about threats against elected officials, noting that this can impede targeted officials from fulfilling their mandate and scare away those who might otherwise be interested in running for elected office, thus contributing to the erosion of local democracy. For example, Kildine Bataille-Bennetz, Deputy Mayor, City of Dijon (France) shared how she was harassed and called a terrorist for publicly advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. She noted that “as elected officials, we are not really prepared for these threats and we do not have the right equipment to fight it.” She said that a survey among female leaders in France indicated that many of them would not seek re-election as a result of the misogynistic and sexist content with which they are confronted.

Key Themes

Mayors and other city officials shared several practices for engaging and building trust with communities that can, among other things, contribute to the prevention of hate and extremism. For example, Mayor Alexandre Lorentz said that in Mittelhausbergen, residents can share concerns with him and other city officials directly at regular town hall meetings that are open to all residents, as well as in neighbourhood-specific meetings that bring city officials to particular communities. This helps ensure that residents, who may find it challenging to go to the town hall due to mobility or other reasons, have the opportunity to share. Sarah Pinnock, Prevent Manager, Luton Council (UK) similarly said that Luton officials regularly visit residents rather than relying on them to come to the town hall to share concerns, citing the importance of ensuring all residents feel they are part of local democratic processes. More broadly, participants underscored the importance of local governments not waiting until a crisis emerges to invest in building trust with residents, but to prioritizing these engagements when things appear stable.

Noor Duisterhoff, Policy Officer, Municipality of The Hague (The Netherlands) said that the Municipality’s existing relationship with its diverse religious communities helped facilitate a swift response to rising tensions in the context of the Israel-Gaza crisis. As a result, the Municipality was able to meet with relevant community members promptly by virtue of the pre-existing foundation of trust with them. She additionally shared that Mayor Jan van Zanen regularly makes time to meet with communities himself to reinforce his commitment to being a mayor for all the city’s residents.

The City of Dijon (France) has also been able to leverage existing relationships and structures to respond to local impacts of the Israel-Gaza crisis. This includes its Mediation and Prevention Office, which was established in 2015 to help strengthen and safeguard ‘social bonds’ between Dijon’s residents and both the local and Metropolitan government. In 2021, the Office was given an additional mandate to support the inclusion and integration of marginalised communities, with a focus on young people. Among other things, the Office brings different communities together to foster inter-communal dialogue and trains residents on conflict mediation. Deputy Mayor Kildine Bataille-Bennetz said that this platform has both proven vital in ensuring diverse communities feel heard and defusing inter-communal tensions during the Israel-Gaza crisis.

What is at stake for us is to create bonds between residents and the local government. This will make it possible to lay the groundwork for a relationship built on trust, so that if we do reach a conflict situation, we will have the right relationships to address this.

Alexandre Lorentz, Mayor, Mittelhausbergen Commune

Among the comparative advantages of local governments in prevention is their ability to identify, convene and coordinate relevant city departments and community-based actors for a strategic and networked response to hate and extremism. For example, the City of Liège (Belgium) has adopted an integrated approach that not only treats prevention as core to its mandate, but also brings together national and local police, social workers, youth, cultural institutions, schools and other relevant actors, all of whom are involved in the City’s prevention policy development and programme delivery. As the City’s Preventing Violent Extremism Coordinator, Manuel Comeron, shared, local governments can serve as interlocutors between actors that are not used to working together, such as their national government and local youth and community leaders. He added that for such multi-actor collaboration to work, cities should ensure all actors ‘speak the same language’ by:

Further, Emile Mouheb, Deputy Mayor, Commune of Cernay (France) explained that he holds monthly meetings with social workers, educators, local police and relevant city officials to support an early warning system and proactive response to hate, extremism and other threats to community safety. 

Participants also shared tangible examples of community-based partnerships to deliver specific projects to safeguard social cohesion. For example, the City of Montpellier (France) has a mentorship programme for migrants called Republican Mentoring, in which newcomers are connected to an elected official and an NGO representative. The goal is that both migrants and long-term residents get to know each other personally which facilitates better integration and improved mutual understanding.

In Luton, the City Council works with its local football club to engage ‘hard-to-reach’ residents, recognising the importance of football to Luton’s ‘identity’ and the credibility and influence the club therefore holds among local residents. The City of Liège (Belgium) has also partnered with its local football club but to address racism amongst its fanbase, organising trips to concentration camps to educate them on the real and long-term impacts of such hate. Further, the City has partnered with a local youth theatre to develop a play about violent extremism, which is performed in schools and followed with dialogue and debate among the actors, teachers and students, ultimately using performing arts as a way to raise awareness of hate and extremism among young people.

Similarly, through its Espace Egalité, the City of Strasbourg uses role-playing and simulations to broach the topic of hate and discrimination with children as young as six. The Espace serves as an education centre on discrimination, teaching visitors the 20+ characteristics that are considered protected in French law, the impacts of discrimination and the steps victims and witnesses of discrimination can take to seek justice. It also humanises the experiences of migrants and refugees by taking children through the typical journey of an asylum seeker, while also teaching children to think critically through games and puzzles that seek to raise awareness about (unconscious) biases.

Dallow Cares: Neighbourhood-Specific Multi-Actor Collaboration

Context: Dallow is a neighbourhood in Luton that has historically lacked engagement with the local government and struggled with high levels of social polarisation. To address this, the City Council has invested in a long-term relationship-building initiative called ‘Dallow Cares’ (the name was proposed by children within Dallow, providing the local community with a sense of ownership over the initiative).

Approach: The initiative started with a series of community consultations to strengthen the City’s understanding of the needs of residents in Dallow specifically. Through these consultations, the City identified six key areas it will work on with community partners:

  • Violence against women and girls
  • Crime
  • Youth support
  • Parenting support
  • Environment, and
  • Digital and social media.

Impact: By holding intensive consultations and consolidating findings into six defined priority areas, the City has given local partners shared and agreed goals and values to measure their work against, creating a more strategic and collaborative approach to addressing key local needs, as identified by community members. Further, involving communities throughout the initiative, as Luton City Council has done, creates a sense unity in addressing residents’ most pressing concerns. This, in turn, strengthens community cohesion and feelings of having a shared local identity.

The workshop also highlighted practices that cities can implement to foster diversity and inclusion. For example, Assistant Deputy Mayor Louis Molina shared that New York City’s Breaking Bread, Building Bonds initiative (B4) celebrates the City’s multicultural demography through empowering “everyday New Yorkers to host dinners and break down silos between communities”. Community members can apply to host a dinner through the B4 website and, if successful, are provided with funds, training and coaching to enable them to convene at least 10-12 diverse New Yorkers to lead constructive conversations that build understanding of and appreciation for cultural, religious, ethnic and other differences.

To strengthen inclusivity and demonstrate its commitment to serving all its residents equitably, the City of Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) developed an anti-racism strategy following numerous attacks targeting Black Muslim women in the early 2020s. The strategy was co-created with community members and outlines actions to address hate, racism and discrimination in society and in the local government. For example, it lists several objectives to combat systemic inequality and biases within the local administration, such as ensuring that Edmonston’s diversity is reflected in City management roles and that the city’s grant programmes are equitable for Indigenous and racialised organisations. A High Office for Anti-Racism and Reconciliation has been established within the local government to oversee the strategy’s implementation.

In Athens (Ohio), US, the City Council invests in diversity and inclusion through its Community Relations Commission, which is committed to “promot[ing] tolerance and goodwill, and to ensur[ing] equality of treatment and of opportunity of all person regardless of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ancestry, marital or familial status, religious belief, age, or disability”. The Commission meets monthly to discuss discrimination reports and that status of diversity and inclusion in Athens more broadly.

The question of diversity and inclusion was also raised in the context of women leadership. For example, Lori Curtis, City Manager, City of Overland Park and Katerina Prentza, Planning and Operations Officer, City of Kordelio-Evosmos (Greece) commented on the importance of local governments investing in having a gender balance across its departments and that mayors and other city officials should actively encourage women residents to get involved in local governance. Claire Hart, Vice President, Mediterranean Metropole of Montepellier, added that creating a public code of conduct, which clearly states that any form of harassment or discrimination, including targeting women, will not be condoned by the mayor or city staff, can help local governments demonstrate their commitment to gender equality and diversity more broadly. It also puts in place a policy against which they can be held accountable for upholding values of tolerance and inclusivity.

The Fuenlabrada Mode

Context: Soledad Martín, Deputy Mayor, City of Fuenlabrada (Spain) shared several practices her City has implemented to integrate its significant migrant population.

Approach: The City Council has established a citizen participation body called Mesa de la Convivencia (“Coexistence Board”) that brings together organisations like trade unions, cultural groups and local NGOs to promote social cohesion, integration and coexistence among the Municipality’s diverse communities. The body:

  • Fosters dialogue through creating a platform for open and constructive conversation among different cultural, ethnic, and social groups about their lives in the city.
  • Promotes integration through developing activities (e.g., cultural expositions) that facilitate the integration of immigrants and other minority groups into the broader community.
  • Implements anti-discrimination measures and promotes equal opportunities for all residents.
  • Encourages citizen participation by engaging community members in local government decision-making processes.

Further, the City has partnered with the Fuenlabrada Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on a Migrants Labour Integration Model based on Acculturation initiative, which supports migrants with enhancing and/or adapting their professional qualifications to support them with finding employment in the local job market.

Like the City of Edmonton, Fuenlabrada has also taken steps to address structural discrimination within municipal services. The Citizen Auditors and Municipal Services against Structural Discrimination projectempowers citizens to monitor and report on discriminatory practices by the City itself. The project aims to create a more inclusive and equitable environment, focusing on supporting vulnerable groups, such as immigrants and minorities, by empowering them to voice their concerns and participate in the auditing process. Additionally, the project involves training sessions and awareness campaigns for residents so they feel confident and able to identify and report incidents of discrimination.

City officials highlighted several ways they are navigating online harms. For example, Deputy Mayor Veronique Bertholle shared that the City of Strasbourg delivers workshops in local schools focused on online risks. These sessions cover hate, extremism as well as broader issues such as cyberbullying and the importance of proper online conduct (or “digital citizenship”). Further, the City has encouraged employees to take part in the National Government’s Webwalker project, which equips social workers with the tools and knowledge they need to provide social services via the internet. Eric Poinsot, the City’s Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism Coordinator, noted that what cities need to do is not necessarily create dedicated positions to address the online threat landscape, but to equip existing professionals and city staff with the confidence, tools and techniques to fulfil their mandates online as well as offline.

Deputy Mayor Bataille-Bennetz shared that the City of Dijon has local digital counsellors, which are partially funded by the state. They provide trainings for residents on identifying fake news and fact-checking, with a focus on reaching people in marginalised neighbourhoods. Importantly, the project targets youth as well as adults, including elderly residents, recognising that older generations are often less comfortable navigating social media and other online platforms and are therefore particularly vulnerable to harmful content online. The Municipality of The Hague similarly invests in enhancing digital resilience amongst its residents, collaborating with schools to provide students with digital literacy and online safety training.

While these are promising city-led practices for addressing online harms, participants pointed out that these are the exceptions. In fact, many cities, particularly small cities that barely have sufficient resources to provide basic public services, lack the capacity to implement such practices without training or additional resources to do so. In this context, participants commended the commitment by Strong Cities to collate practices for and create guidance on digital resilience-building initiatives, including by drawing on lessons from strategic partners such as Foundation for A Path Forward, a Vancouver (Canada)-based organisation that brings communities together against racism and provides support and training on online hate.

I am leaving here with a strong sense that I’m not alone… that we’re not alone. This is the first step for us [as Overland Park] to grow our global partnerships. I have such gratitude for all participants of this workshop and what they’ve shared. We’re formalising our prevention efforts and need these international partnerships and examples to learn how best to do that. This was the first step in that direction.

Lori Curtis Luther, City Manager, City of Overland Park

The dialogue introduced multiple French cities, such as Cernay, Dijon, Mittelhausbergen and Montpellier, as well as other European cities, such as Kalamaria and Kordelio-Evosmos in Greece and Murcia in Spain, to the Strong Cities Network, with several expressing interest to stay involved and participate in future city-city learning opportunities.

Further, key findings from this workshop will inform upcoming transatlantic dialogues such as Columbus (Ohio), United States in September 2024, as well as Strong Cities’ Fifth Global Summit in Cape Town (South Africa) in December 2024.

Practices that were shared at the workshop and captured in this event report will also be integrated into Strong Cities’ Resource Hub, a living library of guides and toolkits to on mayoral leadership and city-led action to prevent and respond to hate, extremism and polarisation. In addition, to build on the Resource Hub’s growing City Spotlights Library, city officials from the workshop will be partnered with to create spotlights capturing their own inspiring and innovative prevention efforts.

Finally, in line with Strong Cities’ commitment to respond to the needs of cities as shared directly by cities, findings from the workshop will be used to drive forward a) the upcoming Women’s Leadership Caucus, placing the spotlight on women leadership, and b) two new anticipated resources: one on digital literacy and digital resilience-building and the other on how cities can prevent and respond to hate speech.

As an elected official, the geopolitical upheaval creates a climate of fear that feeds into violence and polarization on a daily basis. Debates are becoming more and more difficult. Officials get attacked, physically and verbally. Mayors are experiencing this as well. Talking about fighting all forms of hate, extremism and polarisation is now more important than ever.

Jeanne Barseghian, Mayor, City of Strasbourg

For more information about this event and the Strong Cities’ Transatlantic Dialogue Initiative, please contact Strong Cities at [email protected].