Weird science

According to some Muslim scholars, everything from genetics to robotics and space travel is described in the Quran. What nonsense.


Science has acquired a new meaning in certain Muslim circles. When classical Muslim scholars declared that "whosoever does not know astronomy or anatomy is deficient in the knowledge of God", they were emphasising the importance of the scientific spirit in Islam and encouraging the pursuit of empirical science. But today, to a significant section of Muslims, science includes the discovery of "scientific miracles" in the Quran.

The Quran does contain many verses that point towards nature, and constantly asks its readers to reflect on the wonders of the cosmos. "Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being" (29:20) is a piece of advice we frequently find in the Muslim sacred text. "Behold," we read elsewhere, "in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding . . ." (3:190).

But these verses do not have any specific scientific content - they simply urge believers to study nature and reflect on the awe-inspiring diversity and complexity of the universe. The emphasis in many of these verses, such as "The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed; and the stars and the trees both prostrate in adoration; and the heavens He has raised high, and He has set up the balance" (55:5-7), is on the general predictability of physical phenomena.

It requires considerable mental gymnastics and distortions to find scientific facts or theories in these verses. Yet, this height of folly is a global craze in Muslim societies, as is a popular literature known as ijaz, or "scientific miracles of the Quran". Islamic bookshops are littered with this literature, television preachers talk endlessly about how many different scientific theories can be found in the Quran, and numerous websites are devoted to explaining the phenomenon. It can seem as if ijaz literature has taken total control of the Muslim imagination.

"Almost everything, from relativity, quantum mechanics, Big Bang theory, black holes and pulsars, genetics, embryology, modern geology, thermodynamics, even the laser and hydrogen fuel cells, have been 'found' in the Quran," says Nidhal Guessoum, professor of astrophysics at the American University of Sharjah. Whereas centuries ago, Muslim mathematicians discovered algebra (and led the world in countless fields of knowledge), some of today's believers look to the Quran for equations to yield the value of the speed of light or the age of the universe, and other bewildering feats.

The tendency to read science in the Quran has a long history. In the 1950s, for example, when the US and the Soviet Union were competing to put a man in space, pamphlets appeared in India and Pakistan in which Quranic verses on the all-powerful nature of God were quoted to "prove" that manned space flight would never happen. However, for the current manifestation of ijaz, we need to thank not writers from the madrasas of the Middle East, but two western professors - neither man a Muslim.

It began in 1976, with the publication of The Bible, the Quran and Science by Maurice Bucaille, a French surgeon who had served the Saudi monarchy and acquired his basic knowledge of the Quran in the kingdom. He set out to examine "the holy scriptures in the light of modern knowledge", focusing on astronomy, the earth, and the animal and vegetable kingdoms. His conclusion was that "it is impossible not to admit the existence of scientific errors in the Bible". In contrast: "The Quran most definitely did not contain a single proposition at variance with the most firmly established modern knowledge." Many Muslims embraced Bucaille's thesis as proof of the divine origins of the Quran.

Ijaz literature received a further boost almost a decade later with the publication of the paper Highlights of Human Embryology in the Quran and the Hadith by Keith Moore, a Canadian professor of anatomy who was then teaching in Saudi Arabia. Moore illustrated certain verses from the Quran with clinical drawings and textbook descriptions. For example, the verse "We created man from a drop of mingled fluid" (76:2) is explained by Moore as referring to the mixture of a small quantity of sperm with the oocyte and its follicular fluid.

He was quite a performer, and stunned the gathering at the seventh Saudi Medical Meeting, held in 1982 in Dam mam. He read out the Quranic verses: "We have created man from the essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place, then We made that drop into a clinging form, and made the form into a lump of flesh, and We made the lump into bones, and We clothed these bones with flesh, and We made him into other forms . . ." (23:12-14).

Moore then shaped some Plasticine to resemble an embryo at 28 days and dug his teeth into it. The chewed Plasticine, he claimed, was an exact copy of the embryo, with his teeth marks resembling the embryo's somites (the vertebral column and musculature). He displayed photographs to show that bones begin to form in the embryo at six weeks, and muscles attach to them. By the seventh week, the bones give a human shape to the embryo; ears and eyes begin to form by the fourth week and are visible by the sixth. All these developments, Moore claimed, fit the Quranic description exactly.

Both Bucaille and Moore played on the inferiority complex of influential Saudis, suggesting that the Quran was a scientific treatise and proof that Muslims were modern long before the modern world and modern science. The Saudi government poured millions into ijaz literature. The Commission on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah was established. The first international conference on the subject was held in Islamabad, in 1987. Moore's paper was included in an illustrated study: Human Development As Described in the Quran and Sunnah. The field has been growing exponentially ever since.

Guessoum, who is about to publish a book on ijaz literature, says that most works on scientific miracles follow a set pattern. They start with a verse of the Quran and look for concordance between scientific results and Quranic statements. For example, one would start from the verse "So verily I swear by the stars that run and hide . . ." (81:15-16) and quickly declare that it refers to black holes, or take the verse "[I swear by] the Moon in her fullness; that ye shall journey on from stage to stage" (84:18-19) and decide it refers to space travel. And so on. "What is meant to be allegorical and poetic is transformed into products of science," Guessoum says.

These days, the biggest propagator of ijaz literature is Harun Yahya (real name Adnan Oktar), a Turkish creationist. He has published scores of pamphlets and books that are heavily subsidised and sold very cheaply. The latest, Miracles of the Quran, explains the verses of the Quran "in such a way as to leave no room for doubt or question marks". The author suggests that the verse "We have sent down iron in which there lies great force and which has many uses for mankind" (57:25) is a "significant scientific miracle", because "modern astronomical findings have disclosed that iron found in our world has come from the giant stars in outer space". The verse "Glory be to Him Who created all the pair of things that the earth produces" (36:36) is claimed to predict anti-matter.

But these inanities are not limited to crackpots. "Even respected university professors believe this nonsense," Guessoum says. "In my own university, around 70 per cent of science professors subscribe to the view that the Quran is full of scientific content, facts as well as theories." Indeed, many respected scientists have contributed to the literature. Prime among these is The Geological Concepts of Mountains in the Quran (1991). Written by the Egyptian scientist Zaghloul el-Naggar, who held the chair of geology at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the book has gone through numerous editions. It was so successful that el-Naggar gave up teaching to become the chair of the Committee of Scientific Notions in the Glorious Quran, established by the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Cairo. Today, he lectures on "geology in the Quran" and CDs of his talks sell out.

The latest tome on the subject is The Computer Universe: a Scientific Rendering of the Holy Quran by P A Wahid, the former dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Kerala Agricultural University. In the book, he develops a model of science in the Quran and purports to explain the existence of angels ("intelligent robots in Allah's kingdom"), the Divine Master Plan, and how the Quran predicted the advent of chemistry and biology. Ehsan Masood, who writes on science in developing countries for Nature, recounts how he "once met a former chief scientist to a defence ministry who told me excitedly he was refining a research paper that would use mathematics to prove the existence of angels".


All their own creation


The underlying message of these books is that all the science you need is in the Quran - no need to get your hands dirty in a lab or work within mainstream theories. But there is an overt message, too: works such as those of Wahid and el-Naggar are aggressively anti-evolution. Many more Muslim scientists, says Guessoum, are "scientists by day and creationists by night".

Creationism is not at all a natural Muslim position. In the early 10th century, Muhammad al-Nakhshabi wrote in The Book of the Yield: "While man has sprung from sentient creatures, these have sprung from plants, and these in turn from combined substances." In Life of Hai by the 12th-century Andalusian philosopher ibn Tufayl, evolution is strongly emphasised. Hai is "spontaneously generated", emerges from the slime, evolves through various stages and discovers the power of reason to shape his world and to understand the universe. In contrast, creationism has taken hold over the past decade in Muslim societies - Turkey, for example, came last, just behind the US, in a recent survey of 34 countries on public acceptance of evolution.

Ijaz literature goes hand in hand with creationism, though Masood says that Muslim creationists are strongly influenced by their American Christian counterparts: "The two groups genuinely believe that the destiny of Islam and Christianity is to work together to defeat evolution and that this alliance is the answer to the clash of civilisations."

Yahya's lavishly illustrated tome Atlas of Creation is widely distributed. In Turkey, it anonymously turned up in numerous schools and libraries. Last year, it was sent unsolicited to schools across France, prompting the education ministry to proscribe the volume. The Atlas blames everything, from Nazism to terrorism, on evolution. "It contains lie upon lie upon lie," says Jean Staune, visiting lecturer in philosophy of sciences at the HEC School of Management in Paris, who has made a special study of Harun Yahya's works. "It denigrates the faith which it purports to support."

And we can say the same about all literature, popular or academic, that purports to discover "scientific miracles" in the Quran.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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The French fracture

A social thinker illuminates his country's populist divides.

The property market in any sophis­ticated city reflects deep aspirations and fears. If you had a feel for its ups and downs – if you understood, say, why young parents were picking this neighbourhood and drunks wound up relegated to that one – you could make a killing in property, but you also might be able to pronounce on how society was evolving more generally. In 2016, a real-estate developer even sought – and won – the presidency of the United States.

In France, a property expert has done something almost as improbable. Christophe Guilluy calls himself a geographer. But he has spent decades, as a housing consultant in various rapidly changing neighbourhoods north of Paris, studying gentrification, among other things. And he has crafted a convincing narrative tying together France’s various social problems – immigration tensions, inequality, deindustrialisation, economic decline, ethnic conflict and the rise of populist parties. Such an analysis had previously eluded the Parisian caste of philosophers, political scientists, literary journalists, government-funded researchers and party ideologues.

Guilluy is none of these. Yet in a French political system that is as polarised as the American, both the outgoing Socialist president, François Hollande, and his Gaullist predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy sought his counsel. Marine Le Pen, whose Front National dismisses both major parties as part of a corrupt establishment, is equally enthusiastic about his work.

Guilluy has published three books, as yet untranslated, since 2010, with the newest, Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut (roughly: “Twilight of the French Elite”), ­arriving in bookshops last autumn. The volumes focus closely on French circumstances, institutions and laws, so they might not be translated any time soon. But they give the best ground-level look available at the economic, residential and democratic consequences of globalisation in France. They also give an explanation for the rise of the Front National that goes beyond the usual imputation of stupidity or bigotry to its voters.

Guilluy’s work thus tells us something important about British voters’ decision to withdraw from the European Union and the astonishing rise of Donald Trump – two phenomena that have drawn on similar grievances.


At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalisation. Internationalising the division of labour has brought significant economic efficiencies. But it has also brought inequalities unseen for a century, demographic upheaval and cultural disruption. Now we face the question of what – if anything – we should do about it.

A process that Guilluy calls métropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyons, Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s leading educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals – the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts”, as Robert Reich once called them – who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions and renew its prestige.

Cheap labour, tariff-free consumer goods and new markets of billions of people have made globalisation a windfall for such ­prosperous places. But globalisation has had no such galvanising effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years – Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers – are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified”, haunted by the empty shopfronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.

Guilluy doubts that any place exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve previously understood them. Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city.

Yet economic opportunities for those unable to prosper in Paris are lacking elsewhere in France. Journalists and politicians assume that the stratification of France’s flourishing metropoles results from a glitch in the workings of globalisation. Somehow, the rich parts of France have failed to impart their magical formula to the poor ones. Fixing the problem, at least for certain politicians and policy experts, involves coming up with a clever short cut: perhaps, say, if Romorantin had free wifi, its citizens would soon find themselves wealthy, too. Guilluy disagrees. For him, there is no reason to expect that Paris (and France’s other dynamic spots) will generate a new middle class, or to assume that broad-based ­prosperity will develop elsewhere in the country (which happens to be where the majority of the population live). If he is right, we can understand why every major Western country has seen the rise of political movements taking aim at the present system.


In our day, the urban property market is a pitiless sorting machine. Rich people and up-and-comers buy the private housing stock in desirable cities and thereby bid up its cost. Guilluy notes that one estate agent on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris now sells “lofts” of three square metres, or about 30 square feet, for €50,000 (£42,000). The situation resembles that in London, where, according to Le Monde, the average monthly rent (£2,580) now exceeds the average monthly salary (£2,300).

The laid-off, the less educated, the mistrained – all must rebuild their lives in what Guilluy calls (in the title of his second book) la France périphérique. This is the key term in Guilluy’s sociological vocabulary, and is much misunderstood in France, so it is worth clarifying: it is neither a synonym for the boondocks nor a measure of distance from the city centre. (Most of France’s small cities, in fact, are in la France périphérique.) Rather, the term measures distance from the functioning parts of the global economy. France’s best-performing urban nodes have arguably never been richer or better stocked with cultural and retail amenities. But too few such places exist to carry a national economy. When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants.

After the mid-20th century, the French state built a vast stock – about five million units – of public housing, which now ­accounts for a sixth of the country’s households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it’s all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa, starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today. In the rough northern suburb of Aubervilliers, for instance, three-quarters of the young people are of immigrant background. Again, Paris’s future seems visible in contemporary London. Between 2001 and 2011, the population of white Londoners fell by 600,000, even as the city grew by one million: from 58 per cent white British at the turn of the century, London is currently 45 per cent white.

While rich Parisians may not miss the presence of the middle class, they do need people to serve tables, trim shrubbery, watch babies and change bedpans. Immi­grants – not native French workers – do most of these jobs. Why this should be so is an economic controversy. Perhaps migrants will do certain tasks that French people will not – at least not on the prevailing wage. Perhaps employers don’t relish paying €10 an hour to a native Frenchman who, ten years earlier, was making €20 in his old position and has resentments to match. Perhaps the current situation is an example of the economic law named after the 18th-/19th-century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say: a huge supply of menial labour from the developing world has created its own demand.

This is not Guilluy’s subject, though. He aims only to show that, even if French people were willing to do the work that gets offered in these prosperous urban centres, there would be no way for them to do it, ­because there is no longer any place for them to live. As a new bourgeoisie has taken over the private housing stock, poor foreigners have taken over the public – which thus serves the metropolitan rich as a kind of taxpayer-subsidised servants’ quarters. Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim.


At the opening of his new book, Guilluy describes 21st-century France as “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural”. It’s a controversial premise – that inequality and racial diversity are linked as part of the same (American-type) system and that they progress or decline together. Though this premise has been confirmed in much of the West for half a century, the assertion will shock many Americans, conditioned to place “inequality” (bad) and “diversity” (good) at opposite poles of a Manichaean moral order. This disconnect is a key reason American political discussions have turned so illogical and rancorous. Certain arguments – for instance, that raising the incomes of American workers requires limiting immigration – can be cast as either sensible or superstitious, legitimate or illegitimate, good or evil, depending on whether the person making them is deemed to be doing so on the grounds of economics or identity.

At a practical level, considerations of economics and ethnicity are getting harder to disentangle. Guilluy has spent years in and out of buildings in northern Paris (his sisters live in public housing), and he is sensitive to the way this works in France. A public-housing development is a community, yes, and one can wish that it be more diverse. But it is also an economic resource that, more and more, is getting fought over tribally. An ethnic Frenchman moving into a heavily North African housing project finds himself threatening a piece of property that members of “the community” think of as theirs. Guilluy speaks of a “battle of the eyes” fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other – the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son – will drop his gaze to the floor first.

Most places where migrant and native French cultures mix, Guilluy expects, will evolve as did the northern Paris suburbs where he works. Twenty years ago, these neighbourhoods remained a hub of Parisian Jewish life; nowadays, they’re heavily Arab. The young men living in them feel a burning solidarity with their Muslim brethren in the Middle East and often a loathing for Israel. Jews have faced steady intimidation in northern Paris since at least 2002, when the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks overlapped with the Palestinian “second intifada”.

Violence is rising. July 2014 saw a wave of attacks on Jewish businesses and synagogues in the suburb of Sarcelles. Jews have evacuated some municipalities north of Paris where, until recently, they were an integral part: Saint-Denis, La Courneuve, Aubervilliers, Stains, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, Trappes, Aulnay-sous-Bois and Le Blanc-Mesnil. Many Jews still live safely and well in France, of course, but they cluster together in a smaller number of secure neighbourhoods, several of them on Paris’s western edge. Departures of French Jews to Israel run to about 7,000 a year, according to the Jewish Agency of France. The leavers are disproportionately young.

Guilluy has written much about how little contact the abstract doctrines of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” make with this morally complex world. In the neighbourhoods, well-meaning people of all backgrounds “need to manage, day in, day out, a thousand and one ethnocultural questions while trying not to get caught up in hatred and violence”. Last winter, he told the magazine Causeur:

“Unlike our parents in the 1960s, we live in a multicultural society, a society in which ‘the other’ doesn’t become ‘somebody like yourself’. And when ‘the other’ doesn’t become ‘somebody like yourself’, you constantly need to ask yourself how many of the other there are – whether in your neighbourhood or your apartment building. Because nobody wants to be a minority.”

Thus, when 70 per cent of Frenchmen tell pollsters, as they have for years now, that “too many foreigners” live in France, they are not necessarily being racist; but they are not necessarily not being racist, either. It’s a complicated sentiment, and identifying “good” and “bad” strands of it – the better to draw them apart – is getting harder to do.

France’s most dangerous political battles play out against this backdrop. The central fact is the 70 per cent that we just spoke of: they oppose immigration and are worried, we can safely assume, about the prospects for a multi-ethnic society. Their wishes are consistent, their passions high; and a demo­cracy is supposed to translate the wishes and passions of the people into government action. Yet that hasn’t happened in France.

Guilluy breaks down public opinion on immigration by class. Top executives (at 54 per cent) are content with the current number of migrants in France. But only 38 per cent of mid-level professionals, 27 per cent of labourers and 23 per cent of clerical workers feel similarly. As for the ­migrants themselves (whose views are seldom taken into account in French immi­gration discussions), living in Paris instead of Bamako is a windfall even under the worst of circumstances.

In certain respects, migrants actually have it better than natives, Guilluy stresses. He is not referring to affirmative action. Inhabitants of government-designated “sensitive urban zones” (ZUSs) do receive special benefits these days. But because the French cherish equality of citizenship as a political ideal, racial preferences in hiring and education took much longer to be imposed than in other countries. They’ve been operational for little more than a decade. A more important advantage, as the geographer Guilluy sees it, is that immigrants living in the urban slums, despite appearances, remain “in the arena”. They are near public transportation, schools, and a real job market that might have hundreds of thousands of vacancies. At a time when rural France is  getting more sedentary, the ZUSs are the places in France that enjoy the most residential mobility: it’s better in the banlieue.

In France, the Parti Socialiste (PS), like the Democratic Party in the US or Labour in Britain, has remade itself based on a recognition of this new demographic and political reality. François Hollande built his 2012 presidential victory on a strategy outlined in October 2011 by Bruno Jeanbart and the late Olivier Ferrand of the socialist think tank Terra Nova. Largely because of cultural questions, the authors warned, the working class no longer voted for the left. The consultants suggested a replacement coalition of ethnic minorities, people with advanced degrees (usually prospering in new-economy
jobs), women, youths and non-Catholics – a French version of the Obama bloc. It did not make up, in itself, an electoral majority, but it possessed sufficient cultural power to attract one.


Guilluy came to the attention of many French readers at the turn of the millennium, through the pages of the leftist Paris daily Libération, where he promoted the American journalist David Brooks’s book Bobos in Paradise. Guilluy was fascinated by the figure of the “bobo”, an acronym combining “bourgeois” and “bohemian”, which described the new sort of upper-middle-class person who had emerged in the late-1990s tech-bubble economy. The word may have faded from the memory of English-language readers, but it stuck in France. You can find bobo in any good French dictionary, alongside bébédada and tutu.

For Brooks, “Bobo” was a term of endearment. Our nouveaux riches differed from those of yesteryear in being more sensitive and cultured, the kind of folk who shopped at Restoration Hardware for the vintage 1950s Christmas lights that reminded them of their childhoods. For Guilluy, as for most French intellectuals, “bobo” is a slur. These nouveaux riches differed from their predecessors in being more predatory and less troubled by conscience. They chased the working-class population
from neighbourhoods it had spent years building up – and then expected the country to thank them.

In France, as in America, the bobos were both cause and effect of a huge cultural shift. The nation’s cultural institutions – from its universities to its television studios to its comedy clubs to (this being France) its government – remain where they were. But the sociology of the community that surrounds them has been transformed. The culture industry now sits in territory that is 100 per cent occupied by the beneficiaries of globalisation. No equivalent exists any more of Madame Vauquer’s boarding house in Balzac’s Père Goriot, where the upwardly mobile Rastignac had to rub shoulders with those who had few prospects of advancement. In most parts of Paris, working-class Frenchmen are just gone, priced out of even the football stadiums that were a bastion of French proledom until the country’s World Cup victory in 1998. The national culture has changed.

So has French politics. Since the age of ­social democracy, we have assumed that contentious political issues inevitably pit “the rich” against “the poor” and that the fortunes of one group must be wrested from the other. But the metropolitan bourgeoisie no longer live cheek-by-jowl with native French people of lesser means and different values. In Paris and other cities of Guilluy’s fortunate France, one often encounters an appearance of civility, even consensus, where once there was class conflict. But this is an illusion: one side has been driven from the field.

The old bourgeoisie hasn’t been supplanted; it has been supplemented by a second bourgeoisie that occupies the previously non-bourgeois housing stock. For every old-economy banker in an inherited high-ceilinged Second Empire apartment off the Champs-Élysées, there is a new-economy television anchor or hi-tech patent attorney living in some exorbitantly remodelled mews house in the Marais. A New Yorker might see these two bourgeoisies as analogous to residents of the Upper East and Upper West sides. They have arrived through different routes, and they might once have held different political opinions, but they don’t now. Guilluy notes that the conservative former French prime minister Alain Juppé, now the mayor of Bordeaux, and Gérard Collomb, the Socialist running Lyons, pursue identical policies. As Paris has become not just the richest city in France but the richest city in the history of France, its residents have come to describe their politics as “on the left” – a judgement that tomorrow’s historians might dispute. Most often, Parisians mean what Guilluy calls la gauche hashtag, or what we might call the “glass-ceiling left”, preoccupied with redistribution among, not from, elites: “We may have done nothing for the poor, but we did appoint the first disabled lesbian parking commissioner.”

Upwardly mobile urbanites, observes Guilluy, call Paris “the land of possibilities”, the “ideapolis”. One is reminded of Richard Florida and other extollers of the “Creative Class”. The good fortune of Creative Class members appears (to them) to have nothing to do with any kind of capitalist struggle. Never have conditions been more favourable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them. The immigrants with whom the creatives share the city are dazzlingly different, exotic, even frightening, but on the central question of our time – whether the global economic system is working or failing – they see eye to eye. “Our immigrants, our strength”, was the ­title of a New York Times op-ed signed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, after September’s terrorist bomb blasts in New York. This estrangement is why electoral results around the world last year – from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump – proved so difficult to anticipate. Those outside the city gates in la France périphérique are invisible, their wishes incomprehensible. It’s as if they didn’t exist. But they do.


People used to think of the economy as congruent with society – it was the earning-and-spending ­aspect of the nation just living its life. All citizens inhabited the same economic system (which isn’t to say that all took an equal share from it). As Guilluy describes it, the new economy is more like a private utility: it provides money and goods the way, say, a power company provides electricity. If you’ve always had electricity in your house, what’s the worry? But it’s quite possible to get cut off.

For those cut off from France’s new-economy citadels, the misfortunes are serious. They’re stuck economically. Three years after finishing their studies, three-quarters of French university graduates are living on their own; by contrast, three-quarters of their contemporaries without university degrees still live with their parents. And they’re dying early. In January 2016, the national statistical institute Insee announced that life expectancy had fallen for both sexes in France for the first time since the Second World War, and it’s the native French working class that is likely driving the decline. The French outsiders are failing not just in income and longevity but also in family formation, mental health and education. Their political alienation is striking. Less than 2 per cent of legislators in France’s National Assembly today come from the working class, as opposed to 20 per cent just after the Second World War.

Unlike their parents in Cold War France, the excluded have lost faith in efforts to distribute society’s goods more equitably. Political plans still abound to fight the “system”, ranging from the 2017 Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon’s proposals for a guaranteed minimum income to those of his rival Emmanuel Macron, the former economics minister, to make labour markets more flexible. But these programmes are seen by their intended beneficiaries as further proof of a rigged system. The welfare state is now distrusted by those whom it is meant to help. France’s expenditure on the heavily immigrant banlieue is already vast, in this view; to provide yet more public housing would be to widen the invitation to unwanted immigrants. To build any large public-works project is to do the same. To invest in education, in turn, is to offer more advantages to the rich, who are best positioned to benefit from it. In a society as divided as Guilluy describes, traditional politics can find no purchase.

With its opposition to free trade, open immigration and the European Union, the Front National has established itself as the main voice of the anti-globalisers. At regional elections in 2015, it took 55 per cent of workers’ votes. The Socialists, Républicains, Greens and the hard left took 18 per cent among them. In an effort to ward off the Front National, the traditional parties now collude as often as they compete. In the second round of those regional elections, the Socialists withdrew in favour of their Républicains rivals, seeking to create a barrage républicain against the FN. The banding together of establishment parties to defend the system against anti-system parties is happening all over the world. Germany has a “grand coalition” of its two largest parties, and Spain may have one soon. In the US, the Trump and the Sanders candidacies both gained much of their support from voters worried that the two main parties were offering essentially the same package.

Guilluy has tried to clarify French politics with an original theory of political correctness. The dominance of metropolitan elites has made it hard even to describe the most important conflicts in France, except in terms that conform to their way of viewing the world. In the last decade of the 20th century, Western statesmen sang the praises of the free market. In our own time, they defend the “open society” – a wider concept that embraces not just the free market but also the welcoming and promotion of people of different races, religions and sexualities. The result, in terms of policy, is a number of what Guilluy calls “top-down social movements”. He doesn’t specify them, but they would surely include the Hollande government’s legalisation of gay marriage, which in 2013 and 2014 brought millions of protesters opposing the measure on to the streets of Paris – one of the largest demonstrations in the country since the Second World War.

French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency. Doing so allows them to “present the losers of globalisation as embittered people who have problems with diversity”, says Guilluy. It’s not our privilege that the French “deplorables” resent, the elites claim; it’s the colour of some of our employees’ skin. French elites have a thesaurus full of colourful vocabulary for those who resist the open society: repli (“reaction”), crispation identitaire (“ethnic tension”) and populisme (an accusation equivalent to fascism which somehow does not require an equivalent level of proof). One need not say anything racist or hateful to be denounced as a member of “white, xenophobic France” or even as a “fascist”. To express mere discontent with the political system is dangerous enough. It is to faire le jeu de (“to play the game of”) the Front National.


In France, political correctness is more than a ridiculous set of opinions; it’s also – and primarily – a tool of government coercion. Not only does it tilt any political discussion in favour of one set of arguments; it also gives the ruling class a doubt-expelling myth that provides a constant boost to morale and esprit de corps, much as class systems did in the days before democracy. People tend to snicker when the question of political correctness is raised: its practitioners because no one wants to be thought politically correct; and its targets because no one wants to admit to being coerced. But it determines the current polarity in French politics. Where you stand depends largely on whether you believe that anti-racism is a sincere response to a genuine upsurge of public hatred or an ­opportunistic posture for elites seeking to justify their rule.

Guilluy is ambivalent on the question. He sees deep historical and economic processes at work behind the evolution of France’s residential spaces. “There has been no plan to ‘expel the poor’, no conspiracy,” he writes. “Just a strict application of market principles.” But he is moving towards a more politically engaged view: that the rhetoric of an “open society” is “a smokescreen meant to hide the emergence of a closed society, walled off for the benefit of the upper classes”.

It would be wrong, though, to see Guilluy as the partisan of any political project, let alone “playing the game” of one. Ideologically and intellectually, he is difficult to place. Sometimes he sounds like Paul Mason, author of the 2015 book PostCapitalism. That is, he looks at the destruction of working-class sources of power (from trade unions to industrial jobs) not as unfortunate collateral damage of the past thirty years of economic policy but as the overarching goal of it. He is more interested in how people act (where they move, the jobs they take, the way they form families) than in the opinions they spout. In a French context, he would be seen as among those in left-wing circles on whom certain civilisational truths once considered “conservative” have dawned. These include the novelist Michel Houellebecq, the philosopher Michel Onfray and the political philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, who has been heavily influenced by the American historian Christopher Lasch. Guilluy, too, acknow­ledges Lasch’s influence, and one hears it when he writes, in La France périphérique, of family and community as constituting “the capital of the poor”.

Guilluy’s work is the most successful attempt to tow French political sociology out of the rut that it has been mired in since the Cold War and to direct it towards the pressing matters of our day. The “American” society that Guilluy describes – unequal and multicultural – can appear quite stable, but signs abound that it is in crisis. For one thing, it requires for its own replication a growing economy.

Since Tocqueville, we have understood that our democratic societies are emulative. Nobody wants to be thought a bigot if the membership board of the country club takes pride in its multiculturalism. But as the prospect of rising in the world is hampered or extinguished, the inducements to ideological conformism weaken. Dissent appears. Political correctness grows more draconian. Finally the ruling class reaches a dangerous stage, in which it begins to lose not only its
legitimacy, but also a sense of what its legitimacy rested on in the first place. l

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. This article was first published in the quarterly magazine City Journal

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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