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Month February 2017

Review: Christophe Guilluy, Le crepuscule de la France d’en haut (2016)

Christophe Guilluy is an independent (non-academic) French geographer who has been working on social geography since the 1990s. His books (Fractures francaises, La France périphérique) have made him known to a wide readership (myself included) since 2010. His latest book, Le crepuscule de la France d’en haut (2016; roughly, The Eclipse of Top-down France), attacks that part of the French middle class which has prospered with globalization over the past 30 years, and which has led to the impoverishment of the popular classes.

His book should be situated in the context of the growing critique of the French Socialist Party (SP), of its betrayals since the 1980s under Mitterand, culminating in the “social-liberal” political line (the “I am not a socialist” of Lionel Jospin, Prime Minister in 2002), or its further development in the liberal-statist presidency of Francois Hollande. The impending primary elections for the leadership of the SP underscore this fracture between the liberal and statist currents within it.

Christophe Guilluy does not take over the critiques of this evolution as they have been made by the left wing of the SP, but rather attacks the entirety of both the left and the right. He shows the rising power of a new bourgeoisie, liberal on cultural issues and pro-market on economic issues, and one which is also a rival to the traditional bourgeoisie, the latter being, in Guilluy’s view, more conservative. This new bourgeoisie includes that part of the upper class which, while not itself consisting of rich capitalists, has gone along with all the reforms of the ruling class in the liberalization of the economy, in globalization and in European policy, and which has benefited the most from globalization. We find in this grouping top-level managers of both the right and the left, media and cultural workers, and university graduates in general, who, taken together, constitute what are generally now known as “les bobos” (bourgeois-bohemians, yuppies in the United States context).

Guilluy reminds us how the bobos have taken over the neighborhoods previously the preserve of the popular classes, how this transformation has pushed those popular classes out of the large cities and has led to the gentrification of all the major cities, giving rise to what he calls “peripheral France,” those areas far from the centers of jobs and of the most dynamic public services. This is not rural France. We find in such areas different popular strata which were previously at odds and which now have a common lived experience: workers, employees of both the private and public sectors, peasants, the retired, and their children. It is this “peripheral France,” a majority in France, which suffers the most from globalization and which, more and more, votes for the National Front (FN).

Guilluy wants to show how this gigantic transformation and marginalization of the popular classes could never have taken place without the complicity of this new bourgeoisie, not yet entirely in power, but which advances in a masked fashion. It wishes to be called middle, not upper class. Guilluy rightly shows how the question of the banlieues monopolizes the media, helping to render the working class, both white and immigrant, invisible. According to Guilluy, the SP knowingly, in the 1980s, instrumentalized anti-racism and focused media attention on the banlieues (the ghettoized “dormitory cities” around the big metropolitan areas) to such an extent that for many people in France, the banlieues are the entirety of the popular classes. He underscores the hypocrisy of people on the left who want to build a multicultural world, and who praise social and cultural mixing and “living together,” but who protect themselves and their children from it whenever possible.

The author welcomes (and we do as well) the return of class struggle. The latter appears, for the moment, in the form of a geographical separatism between metropolitan France and peripheral France and of a “flight”[1] of the popular classes who are breaking with traditional party alignments (that is, if I understand the author, from all parties except the National Front). Opinion polls often show that the popular classes, taken as a whole, have opinions quite different from those of top-level managers and of the liberal professions, in particular on the questions of globalization, Europe, on immigration and its effects.

I warmly encourage you to read this book, whose arguments are often right on target. It is not every day that one reads a book, written for a wide audience, which says that class struggle, or at least tensions between the classes, have returned, and which affirms that return, while giving several reasons to be hopeful about this evolution of the popular classes.

Even if the author often repeats himself and does not always offer proof for what he is putting forth, he presents an overview which meshes with our daily experience: the disappearance of the popular classes in the media, and the “subtilization”[2] of working-class culture by sociologists and other academics. Guilluy has obviously chosen his side, that of the popular classes. And even if he talks a lot about the question of identity, his overall balance sheet of course focuses on the return of confrontation between the popular and the upper classes.

Guilluy also has several blind spots and several curious aspects. The author presents this evolution, as do many others in France, as one of the “Americanization” of French society. One might think, reading him, that an earlier France did not know such conflicts in its past, ones either idealized or passed over in silence. The old French bourgeoisie, according to Guilluy, would seem to have been less opposed, at least on the cultural level, to the French people as a whole, than is this new bourgeoisie. It is troubling for the left, or for the left of the left, but one finds in Guilluy scarcely a critical remark, or even any concern, about the National Front. There is no reference to any recent struggles, and the question of the “popular classes”[3] is considered independently of any question of struggle.

Even if there is, in Guilluy’s vision and in his arguments, a whole “imaginary” which, in my opinion, belongs to the traditional French right and not to the communist movement, this author is interesting and his analysis strikes a real chord, especially since the election in the United States of Donald Trump, who was able to connect with a similar peripheral America.

  1. [1] “Marronage” in French refers to the Maroons of the eighteenth century who fled from enslavement to refuges in the Caribbean countryside.
  2. [2] “Subtilization”: one of Guilluy’s arguments I found striking; it is almost no longer possible to organize discussions about the working class, its struggles, etc., without inviting some high-flying academic to make a presentation on the question. The working class no longer express themselves directly; it is this new rising bourgeoisie which has appropriated the historical legacy for its own purposes, which it uses for its own battles in social struggles which Guilluy sees as perfectly integrated into the system.
  3. [3] I would add that Guilluy’s “popular classes” are not classes in struggle, but rather classes in “flight,” in secession, from top-down France.