France’s civil war, the magic of McIlvanney and a haunting glimpse of Anne Frank

According to a new book, France has become an inegalitarian Americanised society where the elites have imposed an economic model that no one has chosen. 

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Emmanuel Macron can seem terribly smug, even triumphalist, when commenting on the Brexit debacle. But all is not well in France, of course, as the rebellion of the gilets jaunes and the enduring popularity and resilience of the National Rally (formerly Front) demonstrates.

So, what exactly is wrong? Christophe Guilluy, a geographer, thinks he has the answer. France, he says, has become an inegalitarian Americanised society and the elites there have “embraced globalisation”, imposing an economic model on the country that “no one, and especially not the working class”, has chosen. For Guilluy, whose latest book is No Society, France is two countries, what he calls in an earlier work, Twilight of the Elites (which is now available in English from Yale University Press), Higher and Lower France.

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Higher France is the country of the big cosmopolitan cities from which the working class have been relentlessly excluded by ever-rising rents and property prices. The “self-segregating” political and cultural elites thrive in the cities. They promote the doctrine of multiculturalism, while rejecting it in their personal lives. Paris, he writes, is “home… to the highest stage of the new capitalism, a ‘cool’ capitalism that offers all the advantages of a market economy without any of the inconvenience of class struggle”. (For a British comparison, consider the cool, tech-savvy capitalism of the Shoreditch or King’s Cross hipster.)

Lower France is the country of the “periphery”, of the small cities and towns, and of those who have rejected or been rejected by what Guilluy calls the “alliance of economic liberalism and cultural liberalism, which is at the heart of the phenomenon of metropolitisation”. He goes on: “From San Francisco to Paris, the new upper classes that promote the ideal of an open society practice self-segregation and the time-honoured techniques of bourgeois co-optation.” They go to the same few universities, marry one another, send their children to the same selective schools and assiduously maintain their class positon. They advocate diversity, Guilluy says, while protecting themselves from it. But a reckoning is coming. Higher and Lower France do not just misunderstand each other: they are at war. “The existing order will finally break down not as the result of some decisive event; it will break down as the result of a slow process of social and cultural disaffiliation on the part of the working class.”

And here’s something to consider: for Guilluy, there’s one European city that is even more divided and inegalitarian than Paris. And that’s London, “the quintessential example of the citadel city in an age of metropolitisation”.

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I have been reading some of the tributes to Hugh McIlvanney, the celebrated Scottish sportswriter who has died aged 84. As a boy, I became interested in journalism because of my all-consuming interest in sport. I worked as a paperboy, rising early to do my morning round before school began, and though it was a slog to do seven days a week, the compensation was having the chance to read the sports reports in the various papers I delivered.

Back then the most esteemed sportswriter of all was McIlvanney of the Observer. This was during an era before satellite, subscription and pay-per-view TV, when the big sporting events were accessible to all and as a consequence were an essential part of the national conversation. Who now apart from diehard fans pays to watch televised boxing? But I remember gathering with my parents around our black and white television to watch the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa – the so-called Rumble in the Jungle – and then talking about it most of the next day with whomever I encountered.

McIlvanney, the son of an Ayrshire miner, was ringside in Kinshasa that night – alongside Norman Mailer and George Plimpton – and he wrote particularly well about boxing, about what AJ Liebling called the “sweet science”. He admired the courage of fighters and wrote in resonant, muscular, precise, multi-clause sentences about their victories and defeats, their struggles and setbacks. His late style, when he wrote a column in the Sunday Times, was perhaps too verbose for contemporary tastes; but at his best, writing under the pressure of tight deadlines, he conveyed the dramatic intensity and the grandeur of the sporting life at a time when he and his colleagues knew and mixed with those they wrote about. He was the opposite of a hack: he was a stylist, and beware anyone who attempted to mess with his syntax.

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I especially admired The Football Men, the trilogy of BBC Arena films he wrote and presented about three great working-class Scottish football managers, Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, all born within a few miles of each other in the west of Scotland coalfield. The films combine social history, reportage and compelling sporting narratives. They are also elegies for a lost, more cohesive working-class culture. Today football, at the highest level, is an engine of let-it-rip, winner-takes-all global capitalism, the plaything of plutocrats and autocrats. The on-field play can be spectacular, but something important has been lost amid the rush to embrace the money madness, and McIlvanney, at his most elegiac, mourned its passing.  

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Jonny Geller, a literary agent, tweeted something remarkable at the weekend; what he described as “the only footage of Anne Frank, from 1941”. And there she is in a brief, flickering, haunting film clip, a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl peering out expectantly from a second-floor balcony of an apartment block. Geller offered no explanation or context. He merely wrote: “She would have been 89. #Holocaust MemorialDay.”

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail