A week or so before the election in May 2017 that brought Emmanuel Macron to power, I interviewed a senior academic at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, wishing to understand where Macron would be taking France if he won. The response from the professor was gloomy. This was, he said, first because people would be voting for Macron out of fear – at this stage the spectre of a victory for the Front National was still very much on the cards – and not any real belief in his policies. His would therefore be a government elected in bad faith.
Secondly, he went on, Macron severely underestimated how fiercely French people would resist his stated ambition to bring the French economy into a less regulated state and expose it to a globalised environment. For all of these reasons, Macron was bound to fail. And when he did, the Front National (now renamed the Rassemblement National) was waiting to step into the political vacuum that he had opened up. This was, the professor explained, the long-term strategy of the French far Right. He concluded that this political disaster was entirely the responsibility of the French Left, which over the past decade or so had abandoned its core voters, leaving them homeless and stranded, ready to express their alienation in violence and disaffection.
This bleak scenario is very similar to the central argument made by the academic Christophe Guilluy in his book Twilight of the Elites, which was first published in France in 2016. In the past few years the word ‘elite’ has of course become ubiquitous: it is the dreaded elites of London and Washington that have been blamed for the twin political surprises of Brexit and Trump’s election. The elites treat the ‘real’ people of Britain and the United States with contempt, so the argument runs, and are indeed so separate from the ‘ordinary people’ they live among that they can hardly complain when the ordinary people, despised and humiliated, turn against them and vote for Brexit or Trump.
The great merit of this book is that it puts discussion about the role of elites into a French context. France is very different from the English-speaking world, and is if anything far more bitterly divided. Guilluy is a geographer by trade; in this book he has simply drawn a map of 21st-century France and directed our attention to the front lines of contemporary conflicts across the country. He is not a theorist but has based his research on his own experiences as a housing consultant who has spent decades studying shifting social patterns in northern Paris and, in particular, the rise and significance of gentrification.
He begins this book by describing the massive and apparently unbreachable distance between rural or small-town France and the great metropolises – he identifies sixteen of these, including Lyon, Bordeaux and especially Paris – which have become gentrified and globalised and where the ordinary ‘working poor’ have been priced out of existence. He calls these cities the ‘New Citadels’, comparing them to medieval fortresses where ‘wealth, jobs, and political and cultural power have been unobtrusively seized’. The divisions in France today are, then, not just economic or political, but also in the most literal sense about borders between rich and poor. These may be invisible but are nonetheless real.
Guilluy also argues that in recent years a new kind of elite has evolved in these cities, displacing the traditional hierarchy of specialist civil servants and politicians trained in the same schools and universities. This new elite, he says, belongs to the ‘Bobo’ (an abbreviation of the term ‘bourgeois bohème’) Left. This is an upper middle class that thinks of itself as left-wing and has formed a political caucus in the big cities that has excluded the traditional working classes far more effectively than any right-wing government.
This new leftism is not real, however – or at least, says Guilluy, it does not belong to any traditional French models. He argues that there will soon be no longer a Left–Right split in France but instead a kind of ‘American society’, divided between winners and losers. He calls the losers ‘La France périphérique’, a new social class that is cut off from the benefits of 21st-century globalisation and seethes with the resentments and humiliations associated with older, more violent forms of class struggle.
Interestingly, Guilluy’s work has been praised in France and invoked by figures at opposite ends of the political spectrum, including members of the Rassemblement National. Guilluy himself claims that he has no political affiliation and, as an academic and researcher, seeks only to describe the evidence in front of his eyes. He is particularly fearless and lucid when he tackles the contentious issue of immigration in the big cities. He points out how hard it can be for white working-class people to live in urban social housing in which an immigrant ‘community’ predominates and where cultural differences can very quickly harden into political hatreds.
The recent violent protests by the Gilets Jaunes movement make it hard to disagree with Guilluy’s analysis, even if you don’t accept all of his arguments. This is indeed a remarkably prescient and powerful work, which not only is a frightening and accurate analysis of what seems to be happening right now in France, but also may well be an insight into what happens next.