In City Journal, Christopher Caldwell has a superbly written piece on “The French, Coming Apart”, in which he looks at the dire situation in France through the work of Christophe Guilluy (hat tip: S. Sailer):
[I]n a French political system that is as polarized as the American, both the outgoing Socialist president François Hollande and his Gaullist predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy sought his counsel. Marine Le Pen, whose National Front dismisses both major parties as part of a corrupt establishment, is equally enthusiastic about his work. Guilluy has published three books, as yet untranslated, since 2010, with the newest, Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut (roughly: “The Twilight of the French Elite”), arriving in bookstores last fall. The volumes focus closely on French circumstances, institutions, and laws, so they might not be translated anytime soon. But they give the best ground-level look available at the economic, residential, and democratic consequences of globalization in France. They also give an explanation for the rise of the National Front that goes beyond the usual imputation of stupidity or bigotry to its voters. Guilluy’s work thus tells us something important about British voters’ decision to withdraw from the European Union and the astonishing rise of Donald Trump—two phenomena that have drawn on similar grievances.
At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalization. Internationalizing the division of labor has brought significant economic efficiencies. But it has also brought inequalities unseen for a century, demographic upheaval, and cultural disruption. Now we face the question of what—if anything—we should do about it.
A process that Guilluy calls métropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens, and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals—the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them—who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years—Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers—are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified,” haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.
Guilluy doubts that anyplace exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city.
Of the ‘deplorables’ in France:
The laid-off, the less educated, the mistrained—all must rebuild their lives in what Guilluy calls (in the title of his second book) La France périphérique. This is the key term in Guilluy’s sociological vocabulary, and much misunderstood in France, so it is worth clarifying: it is neither a synonym for the boondocks nor a measure of distance from the city center. (Most of France’s small cities, in fact, are in la France périphérique.) Rather, the term measures distance from the functioning parts of the global economy. France’s best-performing urban nodes have arguably never been richer or better-stocked with cultural and retail amenities. But too few such places exist to carry a national economy. When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age, and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants.
After the mid-twentieth century, the French state built a vast stock—about 5 million units—of public housing, which now accounts for a sixth of the country’s households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it’s all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today. In the rough northern suburb of Aubervilliers, for instance, three-quarters of the young people are of immigrant background. Again, Paris’s future seems visible in contemporary London. Between 2001 and 2011, the population of white Londoners fell by 600,000, even as the city grew by 1 million people: from 58 percent white British at the turn of the century, London is currently 45 percent white.
More on public-housing as territorial rent-seeking on the part of Muslim tribalism:
Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim…
At the opening of his new book, Guilluy describes twenty-first-century France as “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural.” It’s a controversial premise—that inequality and racial diversity are linked as part of the same (American-type) system and that they progress or decline together. Though this premise has been confirmed in much of the West for half a century, the assertion will shock many Americans, conditioned to place “inequality” (bad) and “diversity” (good) at opposite poles of a Manichean moral order. This disconnect is a key reason American political discussions have turned so illogical and rancorous. Certain arguments—for instance, that raising the incomes of American workers requires limiting immigration—can be cast as either sensible or superstitious, legitimate or illegitimate, good or evil, depending on whether the person making them is deemed to be doing so on the grounds of economics or identity.
At a practical level, considerations of economics and ethnicity are getting harder to disentangle. Guilluy has spent years in and out of buildings in northern Paris (his sisters live in public housing), and he is sensitive to the way this works in France. A public-housing development is a community, yes, and one can wish that it be more diverse. But it is also an economic resource that, more and more, is getting fought over tribally. An ethnic Frenchman moving into a heavily North African housing project finds himself threatening a piece of property that members of “the community” think of as theirs. Guilluy speaks of a “battle of the eyes” fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other—the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son—will drop his gaze to the floor first.
Caldwell provides this quote from Guilluy about the inherent logic of the ‘multicultural model’, probably the best single quote I’ve ever encountered on the subject:
Unlike our parents in the 1960s, we live in a multicultural society, a society in which “the other” doesn’t become “somebody like yourself.” And when “the other” doesn’t become “somebody like yourself,” you constantly need to ask yourself how many of the other there are—whether in your neighborhood or your apartment building. Because nobody wants to be a minority.
We learn that the Left in France is very much in parallel with the Democratic Party in the U.S., that is, having quadrupled down on identity politics:
In France, the Parti Socialiste, like the Democratic Party in the U.S. or Labour in Britain, has remade itself based on a recognition of this new demographic and political reality. François Hollande built his 2012 presidential victory on a strategy outlined in October 2011 by Bruno Jeanbart and the late Olivier Ferrand of the Socialist think tank Terra Nova. Largely because of cultural questions, the authors warned, the working class no longer voted for the Left. The consultants suggested a replacement coalition of ethnic minorities, people with advanced degrees (usually prospering in new-economy jobs), women, youths, and non-Catholics—a French version of the Obama bloc.
Of the creative class that advances the cause of globalism and unlimited immigration:
Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them. The immigrants with whom the creatives share the city are dazzlingly different, exotic, even frightening, but on the central question of our time—whether the global economic system is working or failing—they see eye to eye. “Our Immigrants, Our Strength,” was the title of a New York Times op-ed signed by London mayor Sadiq Khan, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo after September’s terrorist bomb blasts in New York. This estrangement is why electoral results around the world last year—from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump—proved so difficult to anticipate
Of the indigenous Frenche ‘deplorables’:
For those cut off from France’s new-economy citadels, the misfortunes are serious. They’re stuck economically. Three years after finishing their studies, three-quarters of French university graduates are living on their own; by contrast, three-quarters of their contemporaries without university degrees still live with their parents. And they’re dying early. In January 2016, the national statistical institute Insée announced that life expectancy had fallen for both sexes in France for the first time since World War II, and it’s the native French working class that is likely driving the decline. In fact, the French outsiders are looking a lot like the poor Americans Charles Murray described in Coming Apart, failing not just in income and longevity but also in family formation, mental health, and education. Their political alienation is striking. Fewer than 2 percent of legislators in France’s National Assembly today come from the working class, as opposed to 20 percent just after World War II.
This alienation from the political system, the sheer non-representation of them in government, is leading, much as we are seeing in the U.S. and elsewhere, a reorientation from politics as ‘Left vs. Right’ to ‘Top vs. Bottom’:
The two traditional French parties—the Republicans, who once followed a conservative program elaborated by Charles de Gaulle; and the Socialists, who once followed socialism—still compete for votes, but along an ever-narrowing spectrum of issues. The real divide is no longer between the “Right” and the “Left” but between the metropoles and the peripheries. The traditional parties thrive in the former. The National Front (FN) is the party of the outside.
Indeed, with its opposition to free trade, open immigration, and the European Union, the FN has established itself as the main voice of the anti-globalizers. At regional elections in 2015, it took 55 percent of workers’ votes. The Socialists, Republicans, Greens, and the hard Left took 18 percent among them. In an effort to ward off the FN, the traditional parties now collude as often as they compete. In the second round of those regional elections, the Socialists withdrew in favor of their Republican rivals, seeking to create a barrage républicain against the FN. The banding together of establishment parties to defend the system against anti-system parties is happening all over the world. Germany has a “grand coalition” of its two largest parties, and Spain may have one soon. In the U.S., the Trump and the Sanders candidacies both gained much of their support from voters worried that the two major parties were offering essentially the same package.
Guilluy has tried to clarify French politics with an original theory of political correctness. The dominance of metropolitan elites has made it hard even to describe the most important conflicts in France, except in terms that conform to their way of viewing the world. In the last decade of the twentieth century, Western statesmen sang the praises of the free market. In our own time, they defend the “open society”—a wider concept that embraces not just the free market but also the welcoming and promotion of people of different races, religions, and sexualities. The result, in terms of policy, is a number of what Guilluy calls “top-down social movements.” He doesn’t specify them, but they would surely include the Hollande government’s legalization of gay marriage, which in 2013 and 2014 brought millions of protesters opposing the measure onto the streets of Paris—the largest demonstrations in the country since World War II.
French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency. Doing so allows them to “present the losers of globalization as embittered people who have problems with diversity,” says Guilluy. It’s not our privilege that the French deplorables resent, the elites claim; it’s the color of some of our employees’ skin. French elites have a thesaurus full of colorful vocabulary for those who resist the open society: repli (“reaction”), crispation identitaire (“ethnic tension”), and populisme (an accusation equivalent to fascism, which somehow does not require an equivalent level of proof). One need not say anything racist or hateful to be denounced as a member of “white, xenophobic France,” or even as a “fascist.” To express mere discontent with the political system is dangerous enough. It is to faire le jeu de (“play the game of”) the National Front.
Caldwell discusses the role of Political Correctness in France, and one can see how the creeping suppression of free speech there is a harbinger of things to come in the U.S. As the Left (and RINO right) become more and more frustrated with (and terrified of) the ‘fascist’ beliefs of The Deplorables, attempts to stifle populist dissent will become more radical:
No American will read Guilluy’s survey of contemporary France without seeing parallels to the United States. In one respect, France’s difficulties are, for now, more serious. When Guilluy writes of the “criminalization of criticism of the dominant model,” he is not speaking metaphorically. France’s antiracist Pleven law, which can punish speech, passed in 1972. In 1990, the Gayssot law criminalized denial or “minimization” of the Holocaust and repealed parts of France’s Law of July 29, 1881, on Freedom of the Press. Both laws are landmarks in Europe’s retreat from defending free speech. Suits against novelists, philosophers, and historians have proliferated.
In France, political correctness is more than a ridiculous set of opinions; it’s also—and primarily—a tool of government coercion. Not only does it tilt any political discussion in favor of one set of arguments; it also gives the ruling class a doubt-expelling myth that provides a constant boost to morale and esprit de corps, much as class systems did in the days before democracy. People tend to snicker when the question of political correctness is raised: its practitioners because no one wants to be thought politically correct; and its targets because no one wants to admit to being coerced. But it determines the current polarity in French politics. Where you stand depends largely on whether you believe that antiracism is a sincere response to a genuine upsurge of public hatred or an opportunistic posture for elites seeking to justify their rule.
In France, there is something of a vibrant Alt-Left, something we don’t yet have here in the U.S.:
It would be wrong, though, to see Guilluy as the partisan of any political project, let alone “playing the game” of one. Ideologically and intellectually, he is difficult to place. Sometimes he sounds like the English radical Paul Mason, author of the 2016 book Post-Capitalism. That is, he looks at the destruction of working-class sources of power (from trade unions to industrial jobs) not as unfortunate collateral damage of the last 30 years of economic policy but as the overarching goal of it. His perspective on political change will remind City Journal readers of Joel Kotkin, in that he is more interested in how people act (where they move, the jobs they take, the way they form families) than in the opinions they spout. In a French context, he would be seen as among those in left-wing circles on whom certain civilizational truths once considered “conservative” have dawned. These include the novelist Michel Houellebecq, the philosopher Michel Onfray, and the political philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, who has been heavily influenced by American historian Christopher Lasch. Guilluy, too, acknowledges Lasch’s influence, and one hears it when he writes, in La France périphérique, of family and community as constituting “the capital of the poor.”
Caldwell ends his piece with this quite plausible prediction:
Since Tocqueville, we have understood that our democratic societies are emulative. Nobody wants to be thought a bigot if the membership board of the country club takes pride in its multiculturalism. But as the prospect of rising in the world is hampered or extinguished, the inducements to ideological conformism weaken. Dissent appears. Political correctness grows more draconian. Finally the ruling class reaches a dangerous stage, in which it begins to lose not only its legitimacy but also a sense of what its legitimacy rested on in the first place.
So much rides on this Sunday’s elections in France.
In a country where 70% of French citizens believes there are too many immigrants, are the polls under representing La Pen’s support, much as the polls here under represented Trump?
We shall see.