The following poems are from our June/July 2019 issue, which you can buy here

Houman Barekat

Winners & Losers

Who Killed My Father, Édouard Louis (trans. Lorin Stein), Harvill Secker, 2019, 96pp (Hardcover)
Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France, Christophe Guilluy, Yale University Press, 2019, 224pp (Hardcover)

In a 2017 New York Times article entitled ‘Why My Father Votes for Le Pen’, the French novelist Édouard Louis accused France’s centre-left politicians of handing the political initiative to the far right by abandoning their core voters. ‘To persuade my family not to vote for Marine Le Pen’, he wrote, ‘it’s  not enough to show that she is racist and dangerous . . .   we have to fight for the powerless, for a language that gives a place to   the most invisible people – people like my father’. Louis, who grew up in a small working-class village in northern France, is the author of two autobiographical novels exploring questions of masculinity and social class, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014) and Histoire de la violence (2016). His father looms large in his work: he was in certain respects an old-fashioned chauvinist, and they fell out over Louis’s homosexuality. Speaking at the launch of the English edition of his new memoir, Qui a tué mon père, Louis elicited chortles from the audience when he quipped that the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ sounded strange to him, because the adjective ‘toxic’ was surely redundant.

Louis’s father had worked in a factory for many years before a back injury sustained in an industrial accident forced him to quit; he subsequently eked out a living doing menial labour. Louis, who left his hometown to attend university in Paris before embarking on a literary career, believes this father’s life chances were limited by his deference to heteronormative cultural attitudes: because it was considered  unmanly in working-class culture to study hard at school, his father – and many others like him – dropped out early: ‘For you’, he writes in Who Killed My Father, ‘constructing a masculine body meant resisting the school system. [….] constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money’. He elaborated on this point at the launch, speculating that the macho disparagement of effete intellectuals is grounded in feelings of shame and inferiority.

Who Killed My Father begins with a series of autobiographical vignettes from the author’s childhood. We are taken back to a winter’s evening in 2001 when Louis, then aged nine, performs in a dance act with some fellow children from the neighbourhood. It’s a choreographed tribute to the cheesy pop band Aqua, in which Louis plays the role of the female singer, Lene. He hopes for his father’s approval, but the old man is mortified and eventually walks out. A couple of years earlier he had exasperated his father by asking for a VHS of Titanic for Christmas. (Santa duly obliged him; he also threw in an expensive model of the ship.) Addressing his father in the second person, Louis’s tone in these passages is a blend of reproach and affection. There are scenes of domestic conflict, most notably when his brother, a delinquent booze-hound, violently attacks his father after a heated row. His mother ‘kept trying to hide my eyes, but I contemplated the scene from between her fingers. I saw the crimson bloodstains on the yellow tiles’. These unhappy memories are interspersed with recollections of occasional moments of conspiratorial intimacy between father and son, which Louis has held onto and cherished.

Following years of estrangement, Louis’s father made contact with him after reading his novels. Louis was upset to find him aged beyond his years, his body ravaged by poverty. At this point in the book, roughly two-thirds of the way through, the narrative pans away from memoir and out to capital-P politics. Louis enumerates a succession government reforms of the French welfare state which he believes bear some responsibility for his father’s plight. Welfare cuts under Jacques Chiraq in 2006 meant certain medical prescriptions – among them the medication Louis’s father needed for his digestive problems – would not longer be covered by the state; a welfare reform carried out under Nicholas Sarkozy required anyone applying for unemployment benefits to take any available work within a large radius, with the consequence that Louis’s father was required – despite his back injury – to take a manual job in a town 40km away,  and later took a job  as a street sweeper; the El Khomri law – named after then labour minister Myriam El Ekhomri – passed under Francois Hollande’s premiership in 2016 allowed business to increase the working week by several hours; and in 2017, the government of Emmanuel Macron reduced housing subsidies for some of the poorest people in France by five euros per month.

These material attacks were compounded by rhetorical ones. Sarkozy once famously declared that living on state handouts was no better than theft; more recently, Macron has been filmed lecturing homeless person about how easy it would be for him to find a job, if only he would pull his finger out. The latter intervention calls to mind a scene in American Psycho where the eponymous protagonist, a coddled investment  banker  born into privilege, berates a homeless man for being too lazy to work, before murdering him. Macron hasn’t personally killed anyone, but the broad gist of this understatedly powerful j’accuse is that the polices of the French state over decades of neoliberalism have amounted, cumulatively, to an act of state violence against the most vulnerable people in society. For those at the bottom of the socio-economic food chain, politics is quite literally ‘a question of life or death’. The book ends with the author’s father, who had always been wary of his son’s leftist politics, finally conceding: ‘You’re right – what we need is a revolution’.

Like Louis’s memoir, Christophe Guilluy’s Crépuscule de la France d’en haut was written prior to the rise of the Gilets Jaunes movement, but its publication in English translation at the start of this year could not have been more timely. Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France is an impassioned tirade against what the author sees as France’s two-tier society. Guilluy avers that the ‘real divide’ in modern France ‘has been between . . . the winners in the contest of globalization and the losers, between the great cities and peripheral France’. A geographer by occupation, he examines class politics through the prism of demography and the built environment. He asserts that the much-vaunted egalitarianism of neoliberal cosmopolitanism is belied by a reality of invisible borders: the romantic idea of the diverse and welcoming ‘open city’ is a lie, ‘a smoke screen devised to conceal the emergence of a closed and isolated society’.

Guilluy laments that ‘The virtual disappearing of private housing for low-income persons and the rise in the price of land have now effectively consigned a majority of the French people to the periphery’. This has coincided with the emergence of a new class of ‘bobos’ – bourgeois Bohemians or hipsters – who have moved en masse into formerly working- class neighbourhoods whilst fetishising, in their consumer choices, all that is local and authentic. Bourgeois liberals ‘advocate diversity while doing their best to protect themselves from it’; their commitment to racial tolerance is less about human solidarity than about access to cheap labour. He notes a disconnect between the mainly middle-class online activists who campaigned against the El Khomri law and the working class most affected by it. What he calls ‘the gentrification of social struggles’ is partly a question of physical space: ‘for the first time in the nation’s history, the working class do not live where jobs and wealth are created’. Guilluy France’s radical tradition was premised on an alliance between the working class and leftwing sections of the middle-class; this alliance has fractured as mounting wealth inequality and gentrification have exacerbated class divisions.

Guilluy makes his case with a blunt forcefulness typical of many a swaggering French polemicist. It makes for an entertaining  read,  but there is something unattractively Alf Garnett-like about his rancorous proselytising, which frequently lapses into bitter snark.  Nothing  dates you quite like sneering about ‘hipsters’ – it was old-hat in 2007, let alone now – and picking an unwinnable fight with cosmopolitanism tout court seems a somewhat pigheaded rhetorical strategy: the disdain of the ‘elite’ for the provincial masses will not be meaningfully redressed by a politics of inverted snobbery. His pessimism about the impotence of contemporary political movements also seems a little exaggerated. Much has been made of the politically heterogeneous and seemingly non-hierarchical nature of the Gilets Jaunes movement, but it is in many ways an old-school type of mobilisation, which suggests that the tradition of French dissent is alive and well. The downfall of Macronism, if and when it happens, will be brought about by the mainstays of the supposedly moribund ‘old’ politics – the unions, young activists and politically engaged journalists – rallying together with the wider public.

Guilluy writes that today’s working class ‘have no choice but to defy the dominant order by taking back control of their own lives’. This may well be the case, but his conviction that the present wave of nativist populism – which he euphemistically calls ‘sovereignism’ – constitutes the authentic manifestation of that struggle is highly questionable. It is to this end that, in the spirit of internationalist solidarity, Guilluy engages in some embarrassingly enthusiastic pro-Brexit cheerleading. For an author so alert to the nuances of political economy, this reductive reading of the class dynamics at play in Brexit is surprisingly naive. The Brexit project was led by people who oppose the EU not because it is neoliberal, but because it isn’t neoliberal enough. What if ‘taking back control’ means agreeing  to something that will cause you to cede even more control? The myth of ‘sovereignty’ is a fetish of the nationalist right: there has never been any such thing as national sovereignty; only capital is truly sovereign, and this will become starkly apparent as the reality of Brexit unfolds. A right-wing Brexit – and this, let’s face it, is the only kind on offer – will only aggravate the social inequality against which Guilluy so rightly rails.

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