There are many conclusions to be drawn from the last seven months in France, but one seems unavoidable: a great many people—a majority, perhaps: silent, moral or whatever you want to call it—just don’t like Emmanuel Macron and the world he stands for. It’s only partially misleading to speak of this majority in the aggregate. There are certainly those who want to recreate the cultural makeup of some bygone France. Some of them hate immigrants and others are anti-Semitic. Still others just don’t like the cocky cosmopolitanism of a supposedly new type of elite that casts itself as modern and tolerant and is all the more self-assured because of it. But these are the shadow actors seeking to exploit a far more legitimate and widespread anger. One doesn’t need to be a pollster to pick apart what it really means when, in late December, 70 percent of people in a modern society supported a movement that for several consecutive weekends was rampaging through France’s well-off metropolitan centers and blocking critical road junctures, demanding more economic justice, redistribution, investment in public infrastructure and social services.
If it was once possible to think that Macron represented the revival of the French political class, the story now looks quite different. Under attack from all sides, by a right-wing nationalist movement and left-populist disenchantment from the Socialist Party’s abandonment of the country’s social model over the last forty years, Macron has sought to unify the mainlines of the old political guard whose loyalties were once divided between the formerly monopolistic center-left and center-right parties. But this feat now appears just as much a sign of weakness as of strength. Macron represents a new bunker mentality that has overtaken portions of the French elite, horrified at the prospect of a political scene slipping from its grasp.
In mid-March, Macron hosted over sixty sociologists, historians, economists and intellectuals at the Elysée Palace for an eight-hour-long discussion on the Yellow Vest crisis. The first speaker was the bitterly aging “New Philosopher” Pascal Bruckner, and his question to the president is so symptomatic of the mentality underpinning the revolt of the elites that it deserves to be quoted at length:
Can we have in France, today in 2019, a week without strikes, a week without marches in the street, a week without protests, without burnt cars, pillaged banks, and destroyed stores? When anarchy reigns in a country it’s order that comes to seem completely abnormal … and so my question, Mr. President, is that against this state of affairs, state power seems impotent. When I hear Mr. Castaner [the interior minister] and the Prime Minister respond to these events, all I hear is “that’s no good.” Obviously, this isn’t good, but we need to be considering a firmer reaction. So my question is, firstly, are you going to finally outlaw the Saturday protests? Will Paris, finally, be freed from the Yellow Vests? How do we respond to this growing anarchy that has turned France into a country in a state of quasi-civil war?
The commentariat would brush the Yellow Vest revolt off as a case of mass hysteria gone wild and uncontrollable. France, the refrain goes, is a country suffering from a deficit of firm disciple and “republican order.” A rather perverse form of discipline does seem to underlie Macron’s project. He has called those dependent on government welfare “lazy.” He pokes fun at those unable to buy a suit, saying that if only they would work, they could afford one. He has spoken of his wish that more young people in his country would aspire to be billionaires.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the worldview behind these jabs cuts against some justifiably ingrained notions of right and wrong. In late January I went to the first assembly of assemblies of local Yellow Vest groups, held in a town in eastern France. Some four hundred delegates had travelled from throughout the country for two days of political organization and reflection. They talked about what their groups were doing in their hometowns, how they were reaching out to people, the roundabouts they were occupying, makeshift soup kitchens and “houses of the people” that had been formed out of abandoned buildings. I spoke with one organizer who put in perfectly concrete terms what the Yellow Vests meant for him: “I think we’ve all been rediscovering some fundamental values: we want to be able to eat well, to house ourselves, to work decently. We want to make politics about concrete things.”
Our prudishness towards these needs has long fascinated and enraged Édouard Louis. In 2013, he was a young transplant from working-class Picardy studying among the philosopher-kings of Paris’s ultra-elite École Normale Supérieure. His writing career got an early boost when he had the opportunity to edit a collection of essays by leading French writers and intellectuals on the legacy of Pierre Bourdieu. For a 2016 edition of the collection Louis wrote an essay called “What Life Does to Politics.”
In the essay as in his novels, a confessional style courses through his writing: “For a long time, I thought that politics was the word for a scourge. A scourge that came down upon the poor, on the little people like we said in my family, generation after generation…” We hear his aunt’s stories about how things were better for poor people like them when François Mitterand was president. “At least under Mitterand we all had a beefsteak on our plates.” The announcement of a rare new welfare program leads to the chorus: “That’ll put more butter in the spinach.” Politics oozed through daily life. He resurrects from his childhood a relationship to politics grounded in the day-to-day.
But this was something that Louis discovered only after coming face-to-face with what politics meant throughout the elite world of his education:
If I try to stitch together what I remember of my first political discussions, at the beginning of my studies, I recall, for the most part, the very impossibility of an exchange since I did not speak the same language as my classmates with whom I “debated,” who for the large part were children of the bourgeoisie. People reproached me for being too vehement, for losing control of my temper too quickly and too easily. But it was precisely because I saw too well to what point what they were saying were merely words without any connection to lived experience, because this was in all actuality the case for them, which gets to the heart of the problem. What for them amounted to a political style signified, for others, the possibility or not to feed oneself, to be protected, to move freely, to live (I’m thinking about immigrants). I saw only too clearly to what point the bourgeoisie sucked the life out of politics just as one empties an egg by piercing a hole on its end.
Louis was unsurprisingly one of the first writers to come out in support of the movement when it began to take form in late November. When many still dismissed the Yellow Vests as a resentful middle class tax revolt, he wrote in early December, “The media like to talk about the “growl” of the Yellow Vests: the lower classes don’t revolt, no, they growl, like beasts. I heard people talk about the “violence of the movement” when a car had been burnt or a window shattered, a statue degraded. … one must really never have known misery to be able to think that a bit of graffiti on a historical monument is worse than the inability to afford healthcare, to pay for housing, to feed oneself or one’s family.”
Louis concluded: “each person who insults a Yellow Vest is insulting my father.” Louis’s father looms large in his writing. In his 2014 debut novel, The End of Eddy, he is the alcoholic, racist and homophobic tyrant of Louis’s childhood, the vulgar symbol of everything that Louis wanted to escape in his impoverished hometown so that he could live his life as a gay man. But he’s now the subject of Louis’s new book Who Killed My Father, which came out in France in the spring of 2018. The essay arrives for English readers, in Lorin Stein’s capable translation, as a denunciation of the French elite characteristic of the Yellow Vest era.
This timing is in no way a distortion. Who Killed My Father should be read as the call to arms that it is. The French elite’s long attempt to roll back the French welfare state and weaken labor laws in pursuit of higher profit margins is spelling hardship and misery for swaths of the population. The entanglement of abstractions that they hide behind to wage an economic civil war has ushered in a crisis in public morality—we’re losing contact with the vital reality of politics. Reversing the erosion of democratic life, Louis urges, requires an emancipatory, radical moral politics.
In reading Who Killed My Father, I imagined Louis reliving the tempo of those first political discussions with the students he encountered on his rise to the top of the French educational system. He wants to destabilize the fossilized language that the French elite would use to turn politics away from the reality of lived experience. In this short book, he does this by rewriting the story of his relationship with his father, a man condemned to a “premature” physical and spiritual death. His father is not dead, and the text is addressed to him, but the dime-a-dozen formulations that are the common currency of France’s pro-business counter-revolution—“favorable business climate,” “disruption,” “flexibility” and the rest—take the concrete form in this book of a man whose life has been stolen from his own hands.
We first meet Louis’s father in one of the apartments he has moved into since being kicked out of Louis’s childhood home by his mother, exhausted by years of his alcoholism and violence. Like the generations before him, he worked in a factory until an accident—a piece of heavy machinery fell on him and crushed his back—left him bedridden and unable to work for years, until he was forced to take up a part-time job as a street-sweeper thanks to reforms to social assistance. Louis writes in “What Life Does to Politics” that elite culture serves “as a machine to produce amnesia, to steal the life from politics.” It’s hard not to think that he had this in mind when he thrusts before readers the sight of his father’s body:
You told me that you suffer from an acute form of diabetes and from high cholesterol, that you could have a heart attack at any moment. As you were telling me all this, you ran out of breath. Your chest emptied of air as though it had sprung a leak. Even talking required too intense, too great an effort. I saw you struggling with your body, but I pretended not to. The week before, you’d had an operation for what the doctors call a ventral hernia—I’d never heard of it. Your body has grown too heavy for itself. Your belly stretches towards the floor. It is overstretched, so badly overstretched that it has ruptured your abdominal lining. Your belly has been torn apart by its own weight, its own mass.
A common and misplaced critique holds that Louis—a disciple of Bourdieu—is hostage to a rigid social determinism, which would turn his characters into puppets of a social world beyond their control. Louis no doubt affirms that we as individuals are in large part formed and molded by forces bigger than us—who, seriously, could deny this? And the tragic power of his writing revolves around the concession that when it comes to much in our life, we have no control. But many equally remarkable moments come precisely when he arrives at the limits of determination, when his characters momentarily break free and show a spiritual and moral autonomy that so much in their life would destroy.
We find Louis trying to celebrate the life that his father tried to live, all while running up against the social conditions of his existence as a working-class Frenchman. He often comes across these glimpses of his father’s buried past by accident or through second-hand sources—peering into the living room, an off-hand remark from his mother. Rummaging through some old family photos, Louis finds a picture of his father dressed like a cheerleader. “I pored over those images all night long,” Louis writes, “your body, your body in a skirt, the wig on your head, the lipstick on your mouth, the fake breasts under your tee shirt.”
Louis recalls one day as a child when he was dancing in his bedroom. His mother walks in, letting out that Louis reminded her of her husband. “Dad used to dance? I asked. Hearing that your body had done something so free, so beautiful, and so at odds with your obsession with masculinity, it dawned on me that you might once have been a different person. My mother nodded. Your father was always dancing! Everywhere he went. And when he danced, everybody watched. I was so proud to have a man like that!”
The End of Eddy began with the declaration that “from my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.” Louis explores many of the same memories in Who Killed My Father, but his project is different: he wants to puncture holes in this all-consuming system. He writes of his father as a potentially free-spirited, hopeful and decent man that he never knew, cut down by the destruction and violence of working-class life.
Louis’s life and much of his father’s straddle the long, painstaking unwinding of the French welfare state. One of the bittersweet stories from his childhood concerns the expansion of the ARS, a back-to-school subsidy for poor families who struggle to pay for school supplies. What many might whisk off as a minor news item was, for Louis’s family, the occasion for celebration. With the announcement of this new policy his father bursts out: “We’re going to the beach!” His family piles into the car, and Louis particularly savors the memory of having to cram himself in the trunk, “like a hostage in a spy film.”
But moments like these are an exception. “The history of your body stands as an accusation against political history,” Louis writes in the text’s concluding chapter, where he lists and denounces the political figures and policies responsible for participating in the decimation of his father’s health. In 2006, Jacques Chirac’s government removed a series of medications from the list of government subsidies: “because you’d had to spend your days lying flat since your accident, and because you had bad nutrition, digestive problems were a constant for you. Buying medicine to relieve them became more and more difficult. Jacques Chirac and Xavier Bertrand destroyed your intestines.”
In 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government transformed the RMI, a welfare program for people who would not qualify for other forms of unemployment benefits, into the RSA. What this meant for Louis’s father was that in order to receive the subsidy he would have to seek part-time work as a street-sweeper, all while suffering the pain from his shattered back. “If you didn’t take the jobs they offered—or rather, forced on you—you would lose your right to welfare. … Nicolas Sarkozy and Martin Hirsch were breaking your back.” In 2017, Emmanuel Macron announced the cancellation of a five-euro-per-month subsidy designed to cover last-minute expenses for the country’s poorest. “The same day, or a day or two later, the government announces a tax cut for the wealthiest … Emmanuel Macron is taking the bread out of your mouth.” We’re closing our eyes if we chalk all of this up to bad policy—the French elite has committed a moral crime, and it’s time they be punished.
Who Killed My Father arrived amid a growing chorus of reactionary anti-elitism in French letters. One of the primary interpretive frames to make sense of Yellow Vests has drawn on the work of the geographer Christophe Guilluy. Guilluy’s books The Twilight of the Elites and La France Péripherique tell the story of the long transformation of the geographical and sociological face of France. The transition towards the modern information economy has led effectively to the creation of two distinct societies. In the first, bankers and bobos regale in a climate of conspicuous consumption. They dream of turning Paris and other globalized French cities into start-up hubs, with just the right number of multicultural neighborhoods to be able to indulge in their taste for cultural exoticism. By gentrifying the urban centers of Paris, Lyon, Lille and Bordeaux, they’re pushing the working and lower-middle classes further and further from economic opportunity. The masses of “peripheral France,” on the contrary, speak an entirely different cultural language: they seem to like national holidays, find value in a hard day’s work and are unenthusiastic about straying from conservative morality.
The Yellow Vests seemed to confirm Guilluy’s telling of the irremediable rupture between peripheral and elite France, which has now become a ready narrative relayed by media and politicians alike. The peripheral France thesis, and the rapaciousness with which it has been recycled ad nauseum in the press, has the advantage of reducing the popular rejection of the elite to a tale of solely cultural resentment. Macron’s government has eagerly exploited this opening, delivering mea culpas to a damaged French national identity and the supposedly conservative nature of the masses. (One recent event that symbolized the government’s lurch to the right was the participation of Economy and Finance minister Bruno Le Maire at a conference on European “values” and “civilization” hosted by the hard-right weekly magazine Valeurs actuelles.).
The cult philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa tells Guilluy’s story even more fantastically as nothing short of the impending breakdown of liberal civilization. Since the late 1990s, Michéa has penned a slew of sinuous, polemical essays that recall the conservative democratic radicalism of writers like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Christopher Lasch, two of his idols. A veteran of the communist left, Michéa’s writings all make the same broad argument: there is no such thing as a democracy ungrounded in staunchly traditional moral values. The cultural emancipation carried by the liberal project, he has declared time and time again, is intimately tied up with the spread of capitalism, the ultimate destroyer of tradition, to every corner of society. The failure of us moderns to make strong moral claims, to declare some activities and comportments fundamentally good and others fundamentally evil, is the mental makeup that leads directly to Emmanuel Macron. Our modern malaise is that we live under the “realm of lesser evil,” unwilling to assert a positive conception of the good life as we hide behind a meek tolerance that empties public life of a necessary moral content.
What these rouge-brun (red-brown) writers offer is a seductive history of socialism’s rise and fall throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which has proved appealing to many radicals in the context of the French left’s retreat since the 1980s. La France insoumise, France’s left-wing populist party, is partially in thrall to a conservative fraction suspicious of “communitarianism” and eager to eat into Marine Le Pen’s support among conservative lower-class voters.The strong sense of moral common decency (Michéa is also a disciple of Orwell) that courses through lower-class life has time and time again been betrayed by the intellectuals and academics who’ve claimed the mantle of working-class struggle, all while ultimately cringing at the old-fashioned conservatism of the masses. The rouge-brun Catholic “review of integral ecology,” Limite—which fuses environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and Christian morality—published Michéa’s defense of the Yellow Vests as a resurgence of a properly conservative democratic radicalism, against all those pesky leftists seeking to intrude on the movement.
What Louis shares with a writer like Michéa is a lingering faith in some form of common decency. His exchange with his father is an attempt to uncover a genuinely popular morality from beneath the layers of xenophobia and homophobia to which his personal dispossession has condemned him. Of the Yellow Vests, Louis wrote in December that “a social movement is precisely the moment when the possibility that those who are suffering might no longer say: ‘I’m suffering because of immigration and because of my neighbor who relies on welfare,’ but rather ‘I’m suffering because of those who govern. I’m suffering because of the weight of the system, because of Emmanuel Macron and Edouard Philippe.’ Social movements are moments to subvert language, a moment where our old languages can finally give way. This is what’s happening today.”
Louis’s common decency, however, is intimately tied up with just the sort of emancipatory project that the rouge-bruns would claim is hopeless—or always in danger of being corrupted by an elitist, cosmopolitan liberalism. Who Killed My Father begins with the appeal to situate his father’s suffering in relation to the other struggles that divide France. “When asked what the word racism means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death,” Louis writes, continuing:
The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class—to social and political oppression of all kinds. If we look at politics as the government of some living people by other living people, as well as the existence of individuals within communities not of their choosing, then politics is what separates some populations, whose lives are supported, nurtured, protected, from other populations, who are exposed to death, to persecution, to murder.
One of the few public figures to speak out against the specific forms of oppression that fall on France’s non-white communities, Louis is a vocal supporter, for example, of the Comité Adama, which has led a campaign against police violence since the black man Adama Traoré’s death in 2016 in police custody. This is largely anathema in a French media scene in which references to racism go ignored as an unwanted “communitarianism” threatening to republican universalism.
Who Killed My Father is ultimately a conversion story. “You’ve changed these past few years. You’ve become a different person,” Louis writes in the essay’s final pages. “You used to say the problem with France was the foreigners and the homosexuals, and now you criticize French racism. You ask me to tell you about the man I love.” But it’s also likely Louis has experienced some form of conversion himself. A good Bourdieusian might want to reduce social life to a pure clash of objective interests, in which different forms of capital spar for domination. His father’s odyssey reveals that something else might be going on: political engagement through the collective articulation of values can overcome supposedly ossified ideas and the seemingly all-powerful forces that determine them.
Louis might cringe at the thought of being called a moralist—for Bourdieu “morality” was just another term for symbolic capital, or the power to justify oneself—but that’s just what he’s become. We need to re-appropriate the language of moral condemnation from its abuse in the hands of a sham populism. Common decency can be reduced to a caricature of old-fashioned, pre-1960s morality—and rammed down people’s throats until they ignore all the real evil-doers in this world. It can also be built from the ground up, out of the concrete needs and lived experiences of actual people in 2019. Louis’s faith in this common decency is a welcome sign.
Photo credit: Olivier Ortelpa (CC / BY Flickr)