In this article, I set out to explain cross–national variations between styles of ethnic minority incorporation in the conventional political systems of British and French cities. To this aim, I draw inspiration from, and refine, institutionalist approaches to minority participation. I focus on a comparison of two cases, Birmingham (England) and Lille (France). I construct a parsimonious explanatory framework focused on three institutional factors: central–local relations in each country and local party politics and styles of local government in each city. I argue that these elements combine in different ways in each country to produce different local political environments for the politics of ethnic minorities, thereby shaping patterns of participation and conditioning their success, or absence thereof, in the electoral process of cities. Because of local specificities, my two cases are not entirely representative of other cities, but they provide an illustration of the political processes at work in most cities. In Birmingham, minorities participate successfully in Labour party politics, while in Lille, they are submitted to persistent political exclusion at the hands of a powerful Socialist party machine.