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The French elites against the working class

Christophe Guilluy writes from the left but has been acclaimed by the right. He believes that France, with its citadels of globalised wealth, is becoming like America but reserves his greatest contempt for bohemian liberals.

A standard taxi ride from my flat in southern Paris to Place de la République in the north usually takes no more than 20 minutes. But on this unexceptional early summer morning every corner and junction seems to be blocked by traffic. So I arrive 90 minutes late for my meeting with Christophe Guilluy, sweating and cursing myself for not taking the Métro (which, in fairness, is still functioning fairly well these days).

I finally catch up with Guilluy on the terrace of a distinctly downmarket café called Le Déjazet, at the junction of Boulevard du Temple and Place de la République. He has been nursing a black coffee and a packet of full-strength cigarettes, scrolling down on his smartphone, for the past hour or so. But he is remarkably friendly and relaxed as I apologise for being so late. “Nobody ever arrives on time in Paris any more if you use the roads,” he says. “It’s quite impossible, unless you are just walking to the corner shops.”

Guilluy lives close by in the rapidly gentrifying quartier of Belleville. “You have to go slow in Paris,” he says. “Stay in your own area as much as you can. Otherwise travel in the city these days is a nightmare.”

 The policy of the Paris government, led by its mayor Anne Hidalgo, is to make the city into a green paradise of bike lanes and trams within the next few years – preferably by the time of the Olympic Games of 2024 – Guilluy says. The aim is to eradicate all “unnecessary” car traffic from the city, including commuters coming in from the suburbs. The problem, however, is that, as roads are being dug up to create two-way cycle lanes or new routes, the city is in chaos. Whether you are in a car, bus, taxi or on a bike, it’s now practically impossible to move around by any logical or familiar routes; as every Parisian taxi driver will tell you, every journey is a leap into the unknown, or at best into a traffic jam.

Guilluy illustrates this point by waving a fag at the traffic circling slowly around the Place de la République – these days less a noble monument to the glory of the Republic than a heaving, bellowing and horribly polluted Circus of Death. I don’t normally smoke these days but take a cigarette in self-defence as much as anything else. We could have met in any number of the chic cafés just down the road in the Marais, but Guilluy has brought me here for a reason. “Here you can see that with bad urban planning it is always the ordinary people who suffer – workers on their way to work in their cars, commuters from out of town, where the Métro doesn’t reach – choking in traffic jams in places like this. Yes, Paris has its beautiful chic quartiers like the Marais, with cobbled streets and quaint shops, but no one who has an ordinary salary can afford to live there.”

This is broadly the theme of Guilluy’s first book, La France Périphérique, comment on a sacrifié les classes populaires (Peripheral France and How We’ve Sold Out the Working Classes), published in 2014. It made him properly famous in France, a bestseller even. This was all the more extraordinary given that Guilluy was an academic whose ideas were usually outside the public arena. One of his most influential essays, “on the recomposition” of French politics, appeared for example in the specialist journal Outre-Terre, Revue de Européenne Géopolitique. Unsurprisingly, however, it was the academic community that turned on Guilluy when his work became well known and was favourably reviewed in conservative journals such as the newspaper Le Figaro. He is now also the object of fierce debate and criticism in leftist papers, such as Libération, which have suddenly realised that it is their world-view that he is attacking.

Guilluy refuses to speak to or debate with academics (but made an exception for me because I didn’t sound or look like an academic, or speak “the usual meaningless jargon”). He does speak, however, to people “who are doing a job”, whether they are politicians in power or those in the civil service – the people who “don’t have time to theorise but have to make change happen”.

At first, Peripheral France seems to be simply yet another book about gentrification, an issue which is not new and hardly unique to France. Moreover, city governments generally welcome gentrification, which brings in its wake jobs and money as well as higher house prices.

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However, the originality of Guilluy’s argument, or rather his critique, about gentrification, is that in France it does not merely concern house prices, but rather a wholescale restructuring of society. More precisely, the stable geographical unity of France – from the traditional quartiers of the big cities to the small towns and villages of La France Profonde (the mythologised “deep France” dear to the French sense of identity) has been broken up, which has impacted political life as well as the economic landscape.

“Until now France has always been like a family, divided between right and left, who might hate each other but everyone knows their place in society because it has a structure,” Guilluy says. “But now, as the cities change shape, the old structures have disappeared – literally cafés and markets, where local people lived and worked together have gone. Now, it’s about who can afford to live in a city and those who can’t. So instead of class structures within the city you have something which is more like America – a country of ‘winners and losers’, or ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.”

This is also broadly what he means by “Peripheral France” – places outside the affluent city centres whose distance from those centres is not to be measured by kilometres but by access to jobs, medical services, good schools, basic transport infrastructure and cultural events. The mirror image of the gentrification of the French cities has been the “desertificaton” of much of the rest of the country. Not a day goes by without a news story on the main French TV channel TF1 about the lack of doctors or the closure of schools; intriguingly, this is happening not just in remote rural areas but in medium-sized towns and larger villages whose only bad luck is to be cut off from the thriving metropolitan economies.

Guilluy is by training a geographer whose speciality is the economics of real estate. He makes a living in his day job by acting as a consultant to regional French towns and cities on how to develop housing projects.

He has seen at first hand, therefore, how very little thought has gone into the development of French cities, and how most development has been “sauvage” – unplanned and driven by a free market in real estate prices. The problem, says Guilluy, is that this kind of urban development is subject to its own economic laws, which lie beyond the control and reach of French government, either at local or national level. Instead, they are governed by global market forces. He emphasises the lack of planning, that there has been no great conspiracy to move the working class out of the cities. But it has happened all the same, and it is still happening. Put simply, many ordinary French people have been priced out of their own communities and no longer have any control over where they live.

The rhetoric on the extreme right is that this displacement is a deliberate evacuation, part of “the great replacement” of a white European population by either immigrants or a globalised elite (a notion that surfaced in the manifesto of the Christchurch mass killer). The theory of grand remplacement has been attributed to the right-wing thinker Renaud Camus, who first used the term in 2010. Camus is an eccentric – a militantly gay dandy who is also a supporter of Marine Le Pen. Extremists inspired by his ideas argue that what is taking place in Europe right now, in the form of mass immigration, is no less than a “white genocide”.

Guilluy dismisses the theory as paranoid propaganda. The truth is that French politics has lost its way and stumbled into a vacuum. “This is our version of Brexit,” he told me, “and that is why we are losing faith in democracy… it is an irony that Brexit seems to be led by people like Nigel Farage, obviously from the moneyed classes, when Brexit is really a kind of class confrontation. The people who voted for Brexit are not stupid. If anything they are democrats who have created this democratic confrontation between the working class and the middle classes. But it is democratic and it is those who seek to reverse the referendum who are anti-democratic.”

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Guilluy’s most recent book published in English is Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France, in which he argues that class divisions in France have been hardened by geography as well as economics. He identifies 16 towns and cities, including Lyon, Bordeaux and especially Paris, which forged ahead into globalised economic success. He calls them the “New Citadels”, where wealth and power are guarded from the world outside, as if they were medieval fortresses. These places can also seem “like panic rooms”, he says, when riots take place and real violence seems to threaten their stability.

Most controversially, Guilluy makes the point that many jobs that would have formerly been performed by the white working-class in these cities are now being done at lower rates by immigrants. Guilluy insists, however, on his own working-class credentials. “I am from a working-class family,” he says.

He was born in the solidly communist Paris suburb of Montrueil. His father worked in low-level factories or was unemployed. He went to an ordinary state school in the 20th arrondissement, but says that his real education was in the French Communist Party, which he joined when he was 20. “I’m talking about old-school communists,” he says, “not the cringing leftism of nowadays. These were men and women who were hard-nuts and believed in class warfare, and that the working class had to win. In some ways these are still the values I have now.”

These are also the values that have made figures such as the novelist Michel Houellebecq great fans of Guilluy, quoting him approvingly on television. They met once but although Guilluy is no stranger to having a few jars, he found Houellebecq too drunk to make any sense. Guilluy has also been praised by Eric Zemmour, a professional controversialist of the right. “Houellebecq is a great writer,” says Guilluy. “Zemmour is just a troublemaker obsessed with Islam.” That Guilluy is the object of such debate proves that he has hit a popular nerve and understands something important, which is why so many on the left have pushed back against him.

The writer and psychiatrist Guy Maruani, a veteran of the unrest of May 1968 and an admirer of Guilluy, describes this process in the following terms: “I agree with most of Christophe Guilluy’s assertions and what seems very relevant to me in his works is the way he imports former Marxist concepts of class struggle into a non-partisan collective memory. He describes how the real left has disappeared, converting to the ideology of a non-class egalitarian society.”

By this Maruani means that class conflict has been replaced by identity politics, which is in fact all about the self and not the collective. This is a very old-fashioned French communist view, but is obviously still alive in France, especially in the movement of the gilets jaunes – the equivalent, says Guilluy, of the Brexit movement.

There is an echo too in the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, previously the Front National. Guilluy insists, however, that he is very much writing from the left and has had no approach or contact with Le Pen or indeed her niece Marion Maréchal, the rising star of the French far right. But he does know that they read his work and sometimes approve of it.

“The problem is that I am saying what many on the left, or so-called left, do not dare to say, often because many of them have never met a real white working-class person in their lives, at least not socially or as equals. They think of them as ploucs.”

This an old Breton word still used by Parisian hipsters to describe gormless outsiders to the city. Guilluy goes on: “This is what most Parisians think of the gilets jaunes when they come to Paris. That is why nobody in the Macron government seems to take them seriously. The gilets jaunes are just ploucs with no ideology or ideas beyond smashing a few heads.”

Guilluy despises the extreme right but reserves his greatest contempt for a new kind of class which, he says, has evolved in the “New Citadels”. He uses the word “Bobo” to describe them. This term was popularised by the American conservative commentator David Brooks at the turn of the century to describe the urban yuppies who have since mutated into the contemporary hipster. It is an abbreviation of “bourgeois bohemian” or “bourgeois bohème”.

For Guilluy this group is more of a political caucus encompassing the professional classes – academics, journalists, media workers and so on – who think of themselves as liberal-left but who are entitled and superior in manner. “These are the people who voted for Macron,” says Guilluy. “And they are arrogant enough not only to believe that you should think like them, but that they are always morally superior and always right.”

Guilluy also describes the Bobos as “La Gauche Hashtag”. He says their policies do nothing for the working class – whose problems are low wages, job insecurity and poor social housing – and that instead they revel in virtue-signalling of the crassest kind. He cites Anne Hidalgo’s Paris administration as a prime example of a Bobo government, which is endlessly congratulating itself on its cycle lanes, its “myths of diversity” and social media activism, which Guilluy renames “clicktivism” – the art of looking like an activist while doing nothing much at all.

It is this virtue-signalling, he says, which explains the recent popularity of the novelist Edouard Louis, who is young, gay and a working-class northerner. His books are essentially misery memoirs that depict the French white working class as mainly violent, racist, homophobic alcoholics. “This is why Louis has become such a hero of the Bobo left: he confirms every metropolitan prejudice about the brutish ploucs, whose lifestyle and manners the Bobos despise.”

Louis, who was interviewed in the New Statesman in February 2019, is also a supporter of the gilets jaunes. But Guilluy is not convinced of his credentials and adds that the Parisian gilets jaunes are different – more Bobo – than their provincial counterparts, with whom Guilluy has been spending a lot of time.

I suggest to Guilluy, who is an admirer of George Orwell, that it would be harder to find better proof than Edouard Louis of Orwell’s criticism of the metropolitan left of his day – that it is perfectly possible to be at the same time a snob and a revolutionary. He agrees.

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Guilluy’s latest book, until now published only in France, is No Society (the English title is a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement of 1987 that “there is no such thing as society”). Guilluy is no admirer of Thatcher but believes her remark was prophetic. “I was going to call the book No Future,” says Guilluy, who is an ardent post-punk fan and impressed that I saw Joy Division in their earliest days. “I decided that it was too obvious. But it is true, that society now has been smashed into tiny, atomised pieces – there is no class solidarity only ‘issues’ and ‘identity politics’. I never thought that I would see this in France, which has always resisted the Anglo-American model of individualism. The problem is, though, that even if there is no such thing as society as an abstract entity, there are still people – you can call them the working class, immigrants, the poor or whatever – and they are real and their suffering is real.”

Unsurprisingly, Guilluy is unequivocally on the side of the gilets jaunes. He concedes that there have been “excesses”, largely from well-organised anarchist groups but also from far-right extremists. “But this is like a football match,” Guilluy says. “When I was a supporter of Paris Saint-Germain, I would go to the Kop with the Boulogne Boys [the PSG ultras] and get involved. It is always exciting to fight the police. You are always going to get such confrontations. The extreme groups are not really what the gilet jaune movement is about. It is really a statement from the working class to say that we are here and we will not go away; the politics of the ‘New Citadels’ is not our politics and that has to change.”

He has also been spending time with the gilet jaune groups that have been occupying the roundabouts where the movement began. “The anger is still there,” he says. “The Macron government is built on an illusion – that the whole of France will one day look like a great shopping mall; this is the ‘society of the spectacle’ predicted by Guy Debord. But this will never happen. You can’t just wish away a whole group of people and their way of life, a whole class. The working class have to defy the dominant order by taking control of their own lives. That is what the gilets jaunes are saying: ‘We refuse to be invisible!’”

This sounds like old-fashioned Marxism, which in a sense it is. But it is also an analysis that has not yet been made by any leading French intellectuals, political scientists, academics or sociologists.

Christophe Guilluy is pessimistic about the future; like Orwell he believes in the “proles” but he does not see much hope there. Nor does he believe the European Union offers a solution: it is just a larger version of the technocracy that runs France and that has created the present discontent.

However, for all that Guilluy may be old-fashioned, in his musical tastes, his politics, his contempt for veganism (“totally un-French”) and even in his liking for full-strength fags, he may also turn out to be the first significant French thinker of the 21st century. 

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation