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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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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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