Protesters rally against pension reforms. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

La République’s Last, Best Hope

The French people can save France.

I live in a country that has to deploy its army to defend the schools of some citizens, who are Jewish, from potential attacks by other citizens, who are antisemites.

I live in a country that has sacrificed the idea of the common good while fanning the flames of sectarian conflict—a country where communities live side by side, yet alongside one another, despite continuous appeals to the values of a “single and indivisible ­République Française.”

I live in a country where a powerless ­president observes that multiculturalism has failed, and that suburban and rural communities have become vulnerable.

I live in a country where around 60 percent of the population is now lucky to have 10 euros left at the end of the month and where eight million people (that is, one working-age person in four) is jobless, underemployed, or in precarious work.

I live in a country where industrial production now represents just 12 percent of GDP—a lower percentage than in Greece.

I live in a country where jobs, businesses, and public services are vanishing in small- and medium-size towns; in a country where, every day, someone living in a rural area takes their own life.

I live in a country where the upper classes reside in citadel-style metropolises, which have become thought-bubbles subject to utter intellectual conformity.

I live in a country where the ruling class considers the opinion of the majority to be illegitimate; a country whose brilliant elites always seem to know what is best for the lower orders, yet know nothing of how radically their lives have changed.

Yet in the economic, social, and cultural chaos that is France today, there is one hope left. It is not a hope placed in politicians, or in intellectuals and certainly not in ideologues; rather, it is one founded on the majority’s instinct for survival—the majority being the working and middle classes. For, acting as a barrier against the atomization of society, it is ordinary people who are behind a hidden yet powerful movement of resistance against a destructive model.

This movement does not resemble any of the social groups that have gone before it in previous centuries. There is no party, no union, no leader at the head of the protest; rather, it is impelled by ordinary people. It cannot be understood using yesterday’s sociological or political models: some think it “social” in the sense of left-wing, hard-left, or even Marxist politics; others see it as right-wing, extreme-right, populist identity politics. Yet it cannot be labeled.

This is a people’s protest that no longer belongs to those who have forgotten the people, those who left them behind: it does not belong to politicians, to unionists, or cultural institutions; it does not belong to intellectuals; and it does not belong in any political camp—neither right nor left; at neither ideological extreme. It is not about class warfare, either, of the kind engendered by a conflict built on economic and cultural categories, which could be given political representation. No; there is simply no established sociological or ideological category for this protest movement.

This group is not carried on a wave of nostalgia, nor on revolutionary utopias to come. It is not predicated on ethnic identity either, but rather on the defense of a social and cultural model shared by the majority. This is an invisible majority that does not fit into the prevailing framework of a society that is reduced to the representation of minority groups and multinational corporations—a society reduced to representation by marketing. It is a central, diverse, multiethnic coalition—the same movement that occupied roundabouts in 2018, its members dressed in yellow vests, to try to remind everyone that they exist.

The movement doesn’t have a class consciousness but is aware of having been deprived of its rights, of having been gradually pushed aside. This sentiment is similarly felt in many other Western democracies, where the working and middle classes have a sense of having been robbed, both of what they had and of what they were.

Primarily this is about space, about location. Throughout the West the working and middle classes have been driven out of the major cities, out of the metropolises where jobs and wealth are concentrated. In France they have been pushed out to the periphery: they have lost their central place in the economy, and have shifted from being producers to being consumers (and, not infrequently, benefits claimants). Now this eviction of the poorest, emanating from the center of countries, is reaching its symbolic conclusion on the coasts, as property prices in Normandy and the Basque Country rise abruptly. Almost a century after the Popular Front coalition government of 1936–37 introduced paid leave, which allowed French workers to take seaside holidays, the working classes are now having their sea views taken from them.

This spatial eviction is simply the most visible aspect of the great repossession suffered by most ordinary people—one in which they are not just losing what they have, but, far worse, what they are. This dispossession is all the more brutal for being accompanied by the removal of political and cultural status.

It is this loss that is at the heart of the malaise from which many democracies are currently suffering—and it is this loss that explains the singular nature of the political, social, and cultural protests that have swept across the nations of the West over the past 20 years. In France, this fundamentally psychosocial movement has proven irrepressible, unstoppable, and always ready to resurface, to rearm, whenever the occasion arises (a reform, an election, a referendum).

Liberated from the constraints of the political left and right, this force takes hold of any protest going—joining it to invoke the inexorable return of power to the people.

The energy and confidence of this movement is rooted in its long-termism. Indeed, the deep strength it draws on—and this is what makes it different in the history of protest groups—is not of a material, but rather of an existential nature. It is its immaterial dimension that makes it so unstoppable and, from the point of view of ruling classes who have thus far managed to sort everything out in material terms (by writing checks), so undefeatable. For despite what the zeitgeist may suggest, this protest doesn’t distinguish between those who are concerned about making ends meet (ordinary people) and those worried about the end of the world (the intelligentsia).

Quite to the contrary, it sets up a fundamental distinction between those who feed a false narrative about a supposedly beneficial social model, while they go about protecting themselves from the worst of its effects, and those who confront the real divisions in a social system that produces ­inequality and vulnerability, and creates a cultural chasm, too.

So this new “social movement” is not a remake of Les Misérables. It isn’t simply a “peasant’s revolt” or a “workers’ uprising.” It isn’t a group agitating for an improved welfare state, either. And it isn’t about trying to bring about a “brave new world.” In fact, it’s about continuing the old one: the world where the majority of people were still at the “center” of the economy, of the political class’s considerations and of cultural life too.

What makes this revolt of the working and middle classes so unique is that it does not need any ideological foundation. It rests entirely on a strong, vital force stemming from the fundamental experience of existence, of the everyday struggle in which people confront real-world issues with energy, not with systems. It’s a movement founded on an act of rebellion—on saying “No!” to the prevailing narrative—and so cannot be reduced to the pigeonholes of technocratic analysis. Ignoring the moralism of our age, ordinary people have gone about setting their own cultural foundation, laying the groundwork on which to rebuild a model that makes sense to them.

The working and middle classes have been accused of falling victim to vicious passions and anti-elite populism. What this simplistic analysis obscures is the profound nature of this movement, which is not “against” anything but simply “elsewhere.” Ordinary people—who are impervious to the haranguing of those who seek to take things from them while telling them how they should live and behave—are no longer looking to elites for change, who they view as powerless, ridiculous even, but to society. And they are increasingly taking things into their own hands. The movement, carried forth by an instinct for survival, seeks to undermine the narrative of those who promised the best of all worlds, and instead has but one sole objective: to rebuild society around the social and cultural reality of everyday life.

Some experts predict Marine Le Pen will win the next presidential election in 2027. What they fail to explain, though, is that this surge of populism has nothing to do with the supposed talents of the leaders of the Rassemblement National—nor with the (nonexistent) efforts of a grassroots organization. Rather, it is an expression of the party’s ability to float on the currents, to glide with the winds of an existential movement that is not about politics, but of returning the working and middle classes to the center.

What is more, other leaders and other parties could benefit from this movement in the same manner if they agreed to respond to its aspirations. Yes, there is still time to change direction, to rebuild a model of society that returns to some form of transcendence and humanity. There is only one way to reach this objective—a path that, for decades now, the dispossessed, the majority of ordinary people, have been pointing to. This path is our last way out of the chaos.

This article was first published in the New Statesman and translated by Brian Melican. 

Christophe Guilluy is a French geographer and the author of Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France.

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