Uprising on the Periphery

On Nantucket off Cape Cod, one of my regular haunts, they’re talking about a local magazine piece by MSNBC pundit and island summer resident Chris Matthews where he says of the "yellow vest" protests sending shock waves throughout French society: "There's a huge story there that we in the media completely missed, and still don't understand."

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Just so; but one observer who didn't miss and does understand is France's Christophe Guilluy, author of  Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France. Translated from the French and just published by Yale, the book has won acclaim throughout the English-speaking world.

"Disturbing and affecting...something profound that extends well beyond the border of France," says the New York Times. “All the more prescient in light of the yellow vest protests" agrees the Wall Street Journal. "How the gulf between France's metropolitan elites and its working classes is tearing the country apart," says The Guardian.

Variously described as geographer, sociologist, or journalist, Guilluy (b.1964) is best known to English-speaking audiences via his articles in the Guardian’sinternational edition.  Like most French public intellectuals, his politics are historically left wing— but in his recent books where he developed the concept of "Peripheral France" he insists that the old dichotomy of liberal/conservative is no longer a meaningful description of politics in the West.

His thesis, in brief, is that globalization has created a new chasm in society, dividing those who are winners in the new economic order and those who are losers, thus "replacing a society founded on egalitarian ideals with a polarized society seething with tensions of every sort beneath a placid surface."

The elites of the book's title are not just the traditional upper classes, but also the professional classes that support them—without whom this social and economic transformation could not have occurred.

"The elites", Guilluy posits, are "agreed in placing the nation's economy on a new territorial basis— metropolization— that has the effect of banishing the least well-off members of society to the periphery, condemned to live out their lives as second class citizens."

Those elites, he goes on, "capture most of the benefits of offshore production and free trade" while workers in the developed countries are "excluded from the broader economy in which they have no place."

As the New York Timeshas pointed out, the forces that propel the revolt of peripheral France are at work in most other Western countries as well – witness Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.  Close analysis of elections further afield, from Sweden to Italy, clearly shows the growing alienation everywhere of the traditional working class from the ruling elites.

Guilluy is particularly strong in his economic and demographic analysis of who constitutes peripheral France.  He demonstrates that they are not a minority as many thought but actually a majority— 60% - of the country's population, a fact suggesting considerable political ramifications in the future.  Also surprising is that they are a younger population, owing to a higher birth rate than the elites who are having increasingly fewer children.

Guilluy is especially informative in explaining the collapse of France's traditional political parties and the recurring pattern of new presidents— Sarkozy, Hollande, and now Macron— entering office with high approval ratings which then swiftly nosedive as the populace perceives them as failing to deliver promised changes and actually propping up the status quo.

He also details the evolution of the volatile issue of immigration.  He describes the great dismay of the working class when they realized the elites were more sympathetic to illegal migrants than to ordinary citizens. Particularly infuriating was the fact that anyone questioning immigration policy was quickly demonized as a bigot, racist, or fascist.

Among the political class as well as cultural leaders, intellectuals, and journalists, he writes, there is a palpable sense of alarm that "a new form of class conflict long assumed not to exist, is now plain for all to see."

Guilluy does not offer any easy answers, but he persuasively advances a new paradigm, a different way of looking at the world.  His challenge goes to the heart of democracy, and even more basically our sense of personal and societal morality.

It is never easy to abandon or even question a conventional wisdom we have long been wedded to. However if we on this side of the Atlantic, in the age of Trump, ignore the realities— however uncomfortable— set out in Twilight of the Elites, we do so at our own peril.

“This book will make you fret and question your moral integrity,” warned the Financial Times.  For me it has done exactly that. And for you?

Bill Moloney covers national and international politics for the America blog.  His columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.

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