There is no satisfactory noun in English to convey the French transfuge de classe – “social climber” implies malice; “defector” is too strong. So, although we are talking in English, Édouard Louis decides to insist on the French: “Let’s impose this word,” he says, with a smile and a slight accent. “To change social classes, from one to another.”
Louis startled France in 2014 with the raw honesty of his bestselling debut, The End of Eddy, an autobiographical novel about his childhood in a post-industrial village in Picardy, where his family lived on €700 (£615) a month. “I grew up in extreme poverty, precarity and social exclusion,” the 26-year-old tells me matter-of-factly and without anger. The book describes the hunger when money ran out and his family would “eat milk”; schoolmates bullying a gay, effeminate boy in a world that fetishises physical strength; rampant racism and homophobia; and the desperation of a child who “tried everything to fit in” and failed. Everyone else in his family had stopped school by 15, but Louis – then still going by his birth name, Eddy Bellegueule – “escaped”. He studied, moved to Paris, came out.
“Like Julien Sorel in [Stendhal’s] Le Rouge et le Noir, I did everything in order to change myself,” Louis says, sipping on a tomato juice in a buzzing café in Paris’s Left Bank. “My name, my way of thinking, of walking. I trained in front of the mirror to laugh differently, to get rid of the accent from my childhood.” He became a transfuge. Today, with his blond curls skilfully arranged on his forehead and his fashionable sneakers, nothing sets Louis’s slender silhouette apart from born and bred Parisians.
Dialogue with his family gradually dried up. His father is described in Eddy as a “tough guy” who voted for the far right, punched the walls when drunk and declared that gays deserved the death penalty. “Everything was difficult. He would ask: ‘Why do you talk like a bourgeois, do you pretend you are better than us?’” By the time Louis became a literary sensation – he has been translated into 30 languages – they had stopped talking. It was after his second novel, History of Violence, that his father called.
“He said: ‘You don’t realise how proud I am of you,’” Louis recalls. “I was deeply moved. It was so unexpected.” His father, immobilised by a broken back after a factory incident but deemed “fit to work” as a street sweeper, had distributed 20 copies of each of Louis’s books among his colleagues. When they met again, Louis felt the distance between them: “There was a gap between us, between our bodies. It was the violence of the social class system.”
His new book, Who Killed My Father, grapples with a society that erases men injured or made sick by precarious jobs, “killing” them symbolically (his father is still alive): “You can’t have a shower or go to work, except at great risk,” Louis writes (in the English translation by Lorin Stein). “You’re barely 50 years old. You belong to the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” Most of the book is written as an address to his father, whose name is never mentioned. He is simply “you”, as Louis tries to make sense of how little he knows about him.
To Louis, politics is a question of life and death. His list of the people and institutions who “killed” his father ranges from French presidents Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron to the “murderous” impact of a benefits systems that declare sick men fit to work. The “humiliation by the ruling class” is reflected in language – such as Macron calling the poor “lazy” – that broke his father’s back “all over again”. Louis tells me he was shocked by the obliviousness of the bourgeoisie in Paris: “They don’t give a damn! At a level that you can’t even imagine when you come from a poor milieu.”
Louis sees what the younger Eddy and his peers could not see. His mother didn’t understand why he described them as poor in The End of Eddy, he says, nor did his sister, who in History of Violence claims “she can’t complain” despite having lived through poverty and domestic abuse. For Louis, the unequal society is itself an act of violence. “I write to fight all this violence that surrounds our bodies and that we end up not seeing, because it’s reproduced so systematically, through generations, through bodies and people.” That’s what Simone de Beauvoir did with The Second Sex, he adds: exposing violence against women as a social violence. “When you have violence, you have silence, and I want to undo this, to pulverise this silence.”
To understand society, he says, we must see the gulf “between people who are exposed to a premature death and the people whose lives and bodies are protected”. Louis, whose body now belongs to the second group, cites figures that mark out privileges in modern France: working-class people are 15 per cent more likely to die before 65. LGBT people are 7 per cent more likely to die by suicide. About one person of colour is killed by the police in France each month. “What is more important than being able to live?” he says.
Louis explored both class and racism in History of Violence, the true story of his rape by an Algerian man that questions the social violence of their backgrounds. The book, entirely free of judgement, is a meticulous analysis of the event: a night of consensual sex leads to Louis being threatened by a gun, then raped after he confronts his lover, who has stolen from him. Racism comes up at the police station (“for them Arab didn’t refer to someone’s geographical origins, it meant scum, criminal, thug”), but what is striking is the frankness of the writer facing his own prejudice. After the rape, Louis writes, he was suddenly “full of racism”:
I lowered my eyes if a man who was black or Arab… came anywhere near me – because it was always men, and this was another feature of the racist fantasy that colonised my being: the danger always came in the shape of a man. I would lower my eyes or turn my head and silently beg: Don’t attack me, don’t attack me.
A disciple of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Louis admires his thought on working-class bodies: “Society takes everything from poor people: access to the school system, to culture, to travel… The only thing left is their body,” he explains. “So it’s not surprising that you end up building an ideology of the body, of strength and masculinity. My father was like that.” In Who Killed My Father, Louis unravels his father’s class and gender identities. To be manly meant not only eating big platters of food and never crossing one’s legs but also not submitting to discipline – which meant that his father left school and took the hard factory work that eventually destroyed his health.
All Louis’s books tackle inequalities, but none has felt so timely. As he speaks, the gilets jaunes or yellow vests movement, opposing Macron’s neoliberal policies and demanding greater fiscal justice, is entering its 12th continuous week of protests. Readers have asked whether Who Killed My Father is the “manifesto of the gilets jaunes”. Although it was completed long before the first roundabout blockades, Louis agrees the book was prescient. He has been an early supporter of the movement, marching in Paris with fellow members of the Adama committee, an anti-racist group fighting police violence named after Adama Traoré, who died in custody in 2016.
When yellow vests bloomed across France, Louis was brought to tears by their faces and voices appearing in the public sphere: “It’s so rare. They said: ‘I can’t feel my child, I can’t pay for my car,’ and for me these sentences were much more political than all the usual technocratic vocabulary…Finally, the emergence of truth.”
The gilets jaunes have been accused of racism, homophobia and extremism. Louis, who tweeted that he felt “personally attacked” by the criticism, saw this discrediting of the movement as a whole as a “counteroffensive from the bourgeoisie” silencing the working class. “It was kind of funny”, he says, “because when I wrote books about homophobia and racism in the working class, the bourgeoisie was saying ‘How dare he say the working class is homophobic, they are authentic people,’ and when the working classes speak, they call them homophobic and racist.”
The gilets jaunes, he argues, are “objectively left-wing”, because they are fighting against inequality. Whether their struggle develops a left-wing vocabulary is up to activists such as Louis. “We have to find a way for people to say: I suffer because of Macron and the ruling classes, and not because of the migrants, women’s rights or gay people.”
Were they justified, though, in burning cars and graffitiing historical monuments? Louis connects the violence of the oppressed to the political violence of the ruling-class oppressors, which ruined his father’s health, welfare cut after welfare cut. He cites Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which a slave slits her baby’s throat to save her from a life of slavery: doesn’t the brutality of her act stem from that of the slave owners? “It’s the same violence that continues, that crosses the bodies like an electric current.”
But the ruling class never understands that “the life of dominated people is a life of fear”, he says. “Am I going to eat? Am I going to pay my rent? Am I going to be able to buy food? Am I going to lose my house, to lose my job because factories are closing? The fear of bailiffs haunted our lives.” Now the government will think twice before each decision because, when cars burned in Paris, “finally, the ruling class were scared”. “We could say that Macron should be punished for every single burned car in Paris, because he put that violence in people’s bodies.”
Macron, Louis tells me, crystallised class tensions by calling the less fortunate “those who are nothing” and “slackers”, telling them that “the only way to pay for a suit is to work”. For Louis, this is the embodiment of “the end of shame”: after decades of progressive movements making it shameful to mock the less fortunate, comments such as Macron’s – but also Donald Trump’s or Theresa May’s, he notes – mark the end of this shame. Macron’s predecessor François Hollande reportedly called the working class “the toothless” in private but, Louis says, it was only revealed because his ex-partner wrote a book. “Now we don’t even need a whistle-blower, because Macron just says it, every day.”
Who Killed My Father ends with his dad concluding “what we need is a revolution”. After years of failure to understand each other, it is clear Louis agrees. He has carved a place for himself, somewhere between the class he left and the one he never fully joined. The power of transfuges lies in their rejection by the bourgeoisie: “They will always remind you that you are not like them.”
He has the degrees, the money and the Parisian flat, yet newspapers still sometimes call him Eddy Bellegueule and wonder how he “deals” with his international success. This is his best weapon. “I will still talk about inequalities, about the violence that they are creating. Objectively, I am part of the dominant class.” He laughs. “But at least, subjectively, I can dedicate my work to destroying them.”
Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels.
“Who Killed my Father” is published by Harvill Secker on 21 February