The Fracturing of France

Christophe Guilluy, who has just written a book about France, is not a political scientist but a geographer. Studying French society as a geographer led him to discover an important rupture that had escaped most of the political observers: that between the French metropolitans and those he calls “peripheral France.” He wrote a fascinating essay about La France périphérique in 2014 whose thesis was that the country is divided between globalization’s winners (upper class French who mostly live in the 16 main French metropolises) and its losers, languishing in the boonies, their jobs being “outsourced” to Eastern Europe or Asia, and their traditional place in society at risk due to the influx of immigrants.  

This essay raised a huge debate in France, and Guilluy has expanded it into several books including his latest, Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France, initially published as Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut in 2016, and now by Yale University Press with a translation by Malcolm DeBevoise. This strange expression, “France d’en haut,” means “elites” but comes from the political speech of the era of Jacques Chirac. President Chirac himself decried “social fracturing” during his 1995 campaign for France’s presidency, and in 2002, the then-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin distinguished “France d’en haut” (the upper class) and “France d’en bas” (the lower class).

The author’s expanded thesis is that the openness and opportunities touted by the vast majority of French politicians, intellectuals, and journalists is but a smoke screen behind which we can easily see new citadels of privilege. This thesis is both iconoclastic and perfectly true. It’s hard for the chattering classes to admit that lowering France’s national borders implies raising local walls in order to protect wealthy places and wealthy people from contact with poor peopleand especially with immigrants. More precisely, there are some contacts between wealthy people and immigrants, but these are not contacts between citizens. They are contacts of service, the new arrivals having replaced the French working at the service of the upper class. This has left “peripheral France,” generally speaking, in isolation from the elites, these open-minded people who are at the same time the beneficiaries of a new slave class.

Of course, we can discuss the provocative and exaggerated character of this analysis. Immigrants are not literally enslaved. But we cannot dismiss the fact of the fracture itself, nor of the elites’ construction of new protective citadels.

Published long before the “yellow vests” movement (about which I wrote for Law & Liberty in December) arose, Twilight of the Elites illuminates the reasons it came along. The elements of the social crisis that brought forth the gilets jaunes were already there. The main one, as I wrote, was the effects of globalization. But almost as important has been that political analyses questioning globalization, and the class conflict it has undergirded, have been ruled out of bounds.

Globalization wasn’t questioned because both the center-Left and the center-Right, in their duet of alternately holding political power, while not being very distinct in ideological terms, enforced censorship in a time of “the end of ideologies.” Guilluy, a man of the Left, and the gilets jaunes activists dare to break the taboo. Is the removal of borders for trade, for money, or for people a goodand if so, for whom? For the upper classes, certainly; for the country and society, debatable; for the working classes, certainly not.

From this perspective, Guilluy’s book is, like his 2014 book, very convincing. But as usual, a single, simple thesis cannot explain all of reality. I’m far from sure that the rift between “metropolitan winners” and “peripheral losers” is the only social or political cleavage. I’m especially far from certain that the difference between right-wing and left-wing, or between liberals and conservatives, is no longer relevant. This, of course, is an idea urged by the far-right and the far-left alike, and also by President Emmanuel Macron (if for a different reason). All would have us see political debate in France as having only two faces. President Macron would style it a division between responsibility and the ability to govern, on the one hand, versus chaos on the other. From Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s or Marine Le Pen’s perspective, the divide is between the French people and a financially prosperous and unrooted oligarchy.

Let us not forget, though, two additional rifts: the Right versus the Left, and also what is called Français de souche (“the French strain,” that is, French people whose forefathers were French) versus immigrants and the children of immigrants.

Guilluy correctly points out that the working classes and and immigrants live often in the same areas. But do they live together? Guilluy is correct that the right-wing bourgeoisie voted massively for the center-left candidate Macron during the second round of the 2017 presidential election. But does this right-wing bourgeoisie support his social program (for example, in vitro fertilization for lesbian couples, European federalism, massive immigration)? Hardly. Even the Macron economic program is not one that the traditional right-wing bourgeoisie would go for. Many applauded the 2017 repeal of the French version of the wealth tax (called ISF, “impôt sur la fortune”), but very few noticed that this was done only for financial inheritances not for real estate – and, hence, it didn’t benefit the traditional provincial middle class. Generally speaking, the right-wing upper class has a patrimony with a large proportion of real estate.

France seems to be dividing in more ways than Guilly takes account of, so it may be worse off than even he thinks. And it isn’t only French society that is ailing. French workers or retired people who cannot make ends meet, the gilets jaunes, are protesting against the oligarchy in France but this can be seen in many other Western countries. How else to explain the victory of Donald Trump in 2016, or (at least in part) the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, or the improbable alliance between the Five Stars movement and the League in Italy?

Finally, a word on Guilluy’s title, which refers not only to two opposed social classes, but to the beginning-of-the-end for one of them. Why “twilight”? Because of the slow discovery on the part of the lower classes that, as mentioned, the public rhetoric of fairness and opportunity was a lie used to maintain the advantaged in their advantaged position. In fact, the “twilight of the elites” is not the end of the story. For the question remains: How can we put a nation back together again from such opposed constituent parts? Neither Christophe Guilluy nor anybody else has the answer to that question.