(First in a series of articles)
“This Book will make you Fret and question your moral integrity”
Financial Times (London)
(Nantucket) In a wide ranging public interview following a cover story for Nantucket magazine MSNBC pundit and long time island Summer resident Chris Matthews spoke of the explosive “Yellow Vest” protests that continue to send shock waves throughout French society: “There’s a huge story there that we in the media completely missed, and still don’t understand”.
One 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 published by Yale University Press in January the book has won wide acclaim throughout the English speaking world: “disturbing and affecting…something
profound that extends well beyond the border of France” (New York Times); “all the more prescient in light of the ‘yellow vest’ protests” (Wall St. Journal); “How the gulf between France’s metropolitan Elites and its working classes are tearing the country apart” (The Guardian).
Variously described as geographer, sociologist, or journalist Guilluy (b.1964) is best known to English speaking audiences via his articles in the International Edition of The Guardian. 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 Western World.
Basically his thesis 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”.
The Elites “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 Times pointed out the forces that propel the revolt of “peripheral” France are at work in most other Western countries as well (e.g. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump). Close analysis of elections from Sweden to Italy clearly shows the growing alienation of the traditional working class from the ruling elites.
Guilluy is particularly strong in his economic and demographic analysis of who constitutes “peripheral” France. Surprisingly 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 continuing pattern of new Presidents- Sarkozy, Hollande, Macronentering office with high approval ratings which 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 here 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 ignore the realities- however uncomfortable- set out in Twilight of the Elites we do so at our own peril.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.