“This is the quietest day I’ve had since I was appointed,” says Femke Halsema (52), as she cheerfully opens the door to her office at the Amsterdam City Hall. First an interview with the Uitkrant, later a meeting with her staff, and this afternoon she’ll be unveiling a memorial plaque on a house in Lange Leidsedwarstraat to mark the birth of the cartoon characters Fokke and Sukke 25 years ago. “A tough job,” she says, laughing. It’s her first plaque-unveiling as mayor.
Halsema prefers to be exploring the city without the bells and whistles that come with professional ribbon-cutting; in her first two months, she’s toured the whole of Amsterdam, and expressly not just the city centre. In her acceptance speech in July, she promised to be a ‘Mayor for all Amsterdammers’, and yes, that includes the members of the right-wing Forum for Democracy party who were horrified at the thought of a left-wing mayor. So, this mayor heads off on a late-night tour of the Red Light District with the popular daily De Telegraaf, takes her place on a boat in the Pride Amsterdam canal parade, stops off at a music school in Amsterdam Noord, and to a meeting place for refugees and residents, “and I’ve still got a long list of places I want to visit”.
Every evening, you could go to any number of openings, galas and concerts. How do you make a choice?
“Yes, there’s an incredible choice of things I can do, and it’s tempting to do something every evening. On Sunday evening I was at the opening of the Master Pianists Series at the Royal Concertgebouw. Then on Monday I said to the staff, I’d actually like to go through the entire cultural programme for the season and choose what I’d like to see. At the moment, I’m just picking things at random, but I’d rather take a more structured approach.”
Do you see that as homework?
“Partly I’m doing it just because I’d like to, but I also want to know what’s going on in the city culturally.”
You’ve been living in Amsterdam for 20 years; what do you see as the most striking change in the cultural landscape?
“The increase in the number of festivals. But there’s another thing… I read an interview today in Volkskrant Magazine with the designer Anthon Beeke, who died recently. I once went to see him, to ask if he would design a poster for GroenLinks. If you look at his work from the 1980s [for example, bare buttocks harnessed like a horse], you see that the Amsterdam of today is less provocative. Cultural life, for which someone like Beeke is a medium, is less visible in the city. The posters, the rawness and provocativeness, the nudity – you see a bit less of that now.”
Do you think that’s a shame?
“I do if it’s the effect of commercialisation. If it’s being pushed out by commerce, and that’s making it impossible. But if Amsterdammers aren’t so worried about it, and there’s no demand for it, then I’m not going to impose it on people. But the question is whether that’s the case.”
In a street like Spuistraat, you can certainly say that things have been pushed out by commerce. The ‘Slangenpand’ squat has made way for apartments, and the Bungehuis university building is now a hotel.
“The Soho hotel? Yes, but you could also say that’s a new cultural venue. Albeit somewhat commercial. And expensive.”
You’re not a member?
“No, I’m not a member," she laughs. "Not yet.”
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the field of culture?
“I think ensuring that the variety is maintained, that there’s still space for small-scale initiatives. Of course, that’s primarily the responsibility of the alderperson for culture, but I agree with her that Amsterdam has a fantastic and rich cultural life which we can be proud of. Our Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is apparently at a higher level than the New York Philharmonic. The big cultural institutions that establish the city’s international allure also deserve to be protected. Festivals that are innovative, like Holland Festival, as well. And we should also embrace new initiatives, such as the Biennale, which was in Palermo this year, and which in a few years could perhaps be held in Amsterdam.”
“At the same time, we also have to make sure that small galleries and creative spaces have enough room to develop. For years I’ve chaired the board of the theatre company directed by Adelheid Roosen. Her WijkSafari [‘neighbourhood safari’, a community theatre concept] has also attracted groups that would never normally come into contact with art and culture. She also set up the WijkJury [‘neighbourhood jury’]: alongside the prestigious professional juries, women from the Bijlmer saw performances and gave them a rating. Amsterdam should also continue to offer opportunities for this kind of art, focusing on local communities.”
You’ve now toured the whole city. Do you already feel like saying, 'I’m going to curl up under a blanket on the sofa at home'?
“Of course I have those moments. What I found hard to get used to at first is that when you have a meeting, everyone’s looking at you all day. And they expect you to say something and come up with the solutions. There are times that this gets very tiring and you’d like to get away from it all. It’s good for your own wellbeing to make yourself scarce sometimes. Then I go home and watch Netflix.”
What will Halsema miss about her old neighbourhood? “The cafés where I hang out with friends, the shopping streets, Pretoriusstraat. And my neighbours, whom I’ve got to know well over the 12 years. In the centre I’ll be living amongst businesses, in an apartment at the top of the building. It’s going to take some getting used to.”
And there are some Amsterdammers who still have to get used to the idea of Halsema as mayor. When she put herself forward as a candidate after an eight-year absence from politics, there were those on the right who effortlessly dredged up the old labels of ‘pushy woman’ and ‘school ma’am’. ‘Too left wing, too elitist, too woman’ is how the national daily de Volksrant summed up the noises from the opposing camp. And there’s also another group that thinks the left-liberal Halsema isn’t actually left wing enough. There was even a petition to keep her out of City Hall (albeit signed by less than one percent of the population). What’s more, Halsema’s predecessor was Eberhaard van der Laan, who has virtually been declared a saint. All in all, quite a challenge.
When you received so much criticism for your candidature as mayor, you said it would set a bad example for women if it made you give up. If you meet with opposition, does it just make you try harder? Does it make you want to prove yourself?
“Yes, it does a bit. In the run-up to becoming a candidate, I sometimes thought, compared to my own 15-year-old daughter and many other young women, I’ve been through a lot, I can’t come to much harm. I’ve become independent over the years. I think it’s important that young women see that there are women who can hold their own in the face of opposition.”
“Look, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: I’ve simply got to show that I’m a good mayor, in the course of time. Being a woman doesn’t play a role. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t miss the chance as mayor to stand up for young women if I can, to help them achieve their rights.”
What are the issues that are closest to your heart?
“I sometimes worry about popular culture among young people, as I see it with my own children, at ordinary Amsterdam secondary schools. I find it very hard and unpleasant; women are constantly being called bitches. And under the influence of Instagram and American pop culture, there’s a huge emphasis on appearance.”
“When I was 14 or 15, I thought I was ugly just in general, as any average 14-year-old did. Now girls judge every square centimetre of their bodies, and the verdicts are brutal. The fact that I’ve been able to achieve this is thanks to the emancipation of my mother [who was an alderperson for the Dutch Labour Party in Enschede]. She freed herself from small-minded cultural ideas on what was permissible for women and what they were capable of, and what was respectable. But now I sometimes get the feeling that young girls are again suffering from a more restrictive moral attitude to what constitutes decent behaviour for a girl. It’s important for young women that they are able to resist this, and be proud of who they are, and of their bodies. That there’s no body shaming, you can wear what you want, whatever you choose to put on.”
“It’s important that there are leaders in all shapes and sizes, also in the cultural world. In the first place, women in music and theatre, because young women like to follow them as role models, but also in government and business.”
In your autobiography Pluche [‘Plush’], you say that early in your career you learnt to make speeches differently, with a firm attitude and tone. To be successful in politics, is it necessary to assume characteristics that we associate with masculinity?
“Yes, and that’s very annoying. If you raise the tone of your voice as a woman, you lose authority, but if a man gets agitated, his voice drops and his authority increases. Recently, after I’d made a serious argument in the council, the newspaper described me as ‘snappy Halsema’. That’s a word they’d never use about a male mayor. Certainly at first, I was careful about speaking in a high voice.”
You’ve been in the job for two months. As a party leader, you had strong views, enjoyed an argument and made a lot of interventions during parliamentary speeches. Is it hard for you to be politically neutral now?
“No, that’s actually what I really like about this position. My reason for leaving politics had to do with the fact that I’d simply had enough of giving opinions. I couldn’t bear the sound of my own voice. Now I can use the position I’ve gained, the fact that I’m well known and also have a certain authority, to teach or communicate things.”
“It calls for creativity. The problems in the Red Light District, for example, are extremely complex, so you can’t solve them in an afternoon. You might think it’s too crowded, that there’s a monoculture and the other cultural aspects of Amsterdam are being trampled, but you can’t close the city to tourists. And being allowed to get drunk and have a party now and again is also a very important freedom.”
“In bringing the parties together, I do need to draw on aspects of my previous activities, forming opinions, but there’s also something new: I see to it that knowledge is gathered and provides the basis for solutions.”
And what’s more, you can do it with a left-wing council.
“Yes, but actually that doesn’t make much difference to me. I don’t know what the election results will be in four years’ time, and I hope I’ll still be mayor then, whatever the political colour of the council. You know, one of the things I really like about local politics is that people operate pragmatically. I know that here in the council they behave as if the differences are huge, but compared to national politics, I feel that people agree on a lot of things. That’s because the problems are right in front of your nose. You can’t talk in the abstract like you can in parliament in The Hague. [Klaas] Dijkhoff [parliamentary leader of the conservative-liberal VVD] can call for higher sentences for offenders who commit crimes in problem neighbourhoods, but I’m sure that here in Amsterdam, Annabel Nanninga [councillor for the right-wing Forum for Democracy] and the VVD would say that’s total nonsense if you know what a neighbourhood in Amsterdam is like.”
“When I say I think it’s important to include people who live in the outskirts of the city, I’m certain that it’s an opinion that will be shared from left to right in the council. That it’s not actually political. That’s something I really like. There’s less polarisation here; what dominates is the desire to come up with solutions instead of boosting yourself at each other’s expense. If I look at the debate in parliament over the past two weeks, the shouting and coarseness…” (shakes her head) “In The Hague, they should follow the example of Amsterdam’s city council.”
The CV and background of Femke Halsema
1966: Born in Haarlem
1983: Completes senior general secondary education (HAVO) at Kottenpark College, Enschede
1985: Teacher training in Dutch and History in Utrecht (not completed)
1988: Degree in General Social Sciences, Utrecht University
1993: Works for the Wiardi Beckman Foundation (WBS), the Dutch Labour Party think tank
1995: Writes Ontspoord. Opstellen over criminaliteit & rechtshandhaving (‘Off the rails. Essays on Crime and Law Enforcement’) for the WBS
1997: Leaves the Labour Party
1997: Works at the political and cultural centre De Balie, and as a columnist for Amsterdam-based daily Het Parool
1998: Becomes a member of parliament for the left-wing green party GroenLinks (‘Green Left’)
2002-2010: As GroenLinks party leader, Halsema makes a name for herself in fierce debates with then prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende
2010: Leaves politics
2010-2018: Works for various civil organisations and sits on the board of charities, makes the series Seks en de Zonde (‘Sex and Sin’) with journalist and writer Hassnae Bouazza about the position of women in the Islamic world; writes and produces the TV drama series De Fractie (‘The Parliamentary Party’) in collaboration with Gijs van de Westelaken
2016: Publishes her political memoirs, Pluche (‘Plush’)
12 July 2018: Inaugurated as mayor of Amsterdam