The French, Coming Apart

The French, Coming Apart, by Christopher Caldwell. A long but important post, on the day the French go to the polls.

In France, a real-estate expert … has crafted a convincing narrative tying together France’s various social problems — immigration tensions, inequality, deindustrialization, economic decline, ethnic conflict, and the rise of populist parties. Such an analysis had previously eluded the Parisian caste of philosophers, political scientists, literary journalists, government-funded researchers, and party ideologues. …

Globalization has created winners who hog the spotlight, and a forgotten set of losers.

At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalization. Internationalizing the division of labor has brought significant economic efficiencies. …

A process … has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas …, the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals — the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them — who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places.

But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years … are now … haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.

Guilluy doubts that anyplace exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. Paris offers … a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city. … There’s no reason to expect that Paris (and France’s other dynamic spots) will generate a new middle class or to assume that broad-based prosperity will develop elsewhere in the country (which happens to be where the majority of the population live). …

Real estate reveals the new social reality:

The urban real-estate market is a pitiless sorting machine. Rich people and up-and-comers buy the private housing stock in desirable cities and thereby bid up its cost. Guilluy notes that one real-estate agent on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris now sells “lofts” of three square meters, or about 30 square feet, for €50,000. The situation resembles that in London, where, according to Le Monde, the average monthly rent (£2,580) now exceeds the average monthly salary (£2,300). …

The laid-off, the less educated, the mistrained — all must rebuild their lives in what Guilluy calls … La France périphérique. … The term measures distance from the functioning parts of the global economy. France’s best-performing urban nodes have arguably never been richer or better-stocked with cultural and retail amenities. But too few such places exist to carry a national economy. When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age, and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants.

Immigrants have replaced the native losers of globalization in the big cities. Many losers cannot even do the menial work, because, being unsubsidized, they can no longer live in the dynamic cities:

After the mid-twentieth century, the French state built a vast stock — about 5 million units — of public housing, which now accounts for a sixth of the country’s households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it’s all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today. In the rough northern suburb of Aubervilliers, for instance, three-quarters of the young people are of immigrant background. Again, Paris’s future seems visible in contemporary London. Between 2001 and 2011, the population of white Londoners fell by 600,000, even as the city grew by 1 million people: from 58 percent white British at the turn of the century, London is currently 45 percent white.

While rich Parisians may not miss the presence of the middle class, they do need people to bus tables, trim shrubbery, watch babies, and change bedpans. Immigrants — not native French workers — do most of these jobs. … Even if French people were willing to do the work that gets offered in these prosperous urban centers, there’d be no way for them to do it, because there is no longer any place for them to live. As a new bourgeoisie has taken over the private housing stock, poor foreigners have taken over the public — which thus serves the metropolitan rich as a kind of taxpayer-subsidized servants’ quarters. Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim. …

Public housing near jobs is a scarce economic resource, fought over by immigrants and natives:

A public-housing development is a community, yes, and one can wish that it be more diverse. But it is also an economic resource that, more and more, is getting fought over tribally. An ethnic Frenchman moving into a heavily North African housing project finds himself threatening a piece of property that members of “the community” think of as theirs. Guilluy speaks of a “battle of the eyes” fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other—the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son—will drop his gaze to the floor first. …

Racism? Not really, because the state fosters racism by treating people differently — so protesting appears like racism:

Departures of French Jews to Israel run to about 7,000 a year, according to the Jewish Agency of France. Others go to the U.S. and Canada. The leavers are disproportionately young. …

When 70 percent of Frenchmen tell pollsters, as they have for years now, that “too many foreigners” live in France, they’re not necessarily being racist; but they’re not necessarily not being racist, either. It’s a complicated sentiment, and identifying “good” and “bad” strands of it—the better to draw them apart—is getting harder to do.

France’s most dangerous political battles play out against this backdrop. The central fact is the 70 percent that we just spoke of: they oppose immigration and are worried, we can safely assume, about the prospects for a multiethnic society. Their wishes are consistent, their passions high; and a democracy is supposed to translate the wishes and passions of the people into government action. Yet that hasn’t happened in France. …

In certain respects, migrants actually have it better than natives … Immigrants living in the urban slums, despite appearances, remain “in the arena.” They are near public transportation, schools, and a real job market that might have hundreds of thousands of vacancies. …

The left are globalists, have abandoned the losers of globalization, and now lead a coalition of the fringes:

Largely because of cultural questions, … the working class no longer voted for the Left. The consultants suggested a replacement coalition of ethnic minorities, people with advanced degrees (usually prospering in new-economy jobs), women, youths, and non-Catholics — a French version of the Obama bloc. It did not make up, in itself, an electoral majority, but it possessed sufficient cultural power to attract one. …

Since the age of social democracy, we have assumed that contentious political issues inevitably pit “the rich” against “the poor” and that the fortunes of one group must be wrested from the other. But the metropolitan bourgeoisie no longer lives cheek-by-jowl with native French people of lesser means and different values. In Paris and other cities of Guilluy’s fortunate France, one often encounters an appearance of civility, even consensus, where once there was class conflict. But this is an illusion: one side has been driven from the field. …

Left versus right is increasingly irrelevant. The real divide is between the winners of globalization (including immigrants) and the masses of invisible natives:

As Paris has become not just the richest city in France but the richest city in the history of France, its residents have come to describe their politics as “on the left” — a judgment that tomorrow’s historians might dispute. Most often, Parisians mean what Guilluy calls la gauche hashtag, or what we might call the “glass-ceiling Left,” preoccupied with redistribution among, not from, elites: we may have done nothing for the poor, but we did appoint the first disabled lesbian parking commissioner. …

The good fortune of Creative Class members appears (to them) to have nothing to do with any kind of capitalist struggle. Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them. The immigrants with whom the creatives share the city are dazzlingly different, exotic, even frightening, but on the central question of our time — whether the global economic system is working or failing — they see eye to eye. “Our Immigrants, Our Strength,” was the title of a New York Times op-ed signed by London mayor Sadiq Khan, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo after September’s terrorist bomb blasts in New York.

This estrangement is why electoral results around the world last year — from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump — proved so difficult to anticipate. Those outside the city gates in la France périphérique are invisible, their wishes incomprehensible. It’s as if they don’t exist. But they do. … Their political alienation is striking. Fewer than 2 percent of legislators in France’s National Assembly today come from the working class, as opposed to 20 percent just after World War II. …

Losers from globalization are trapped in a poor cycle, excluded from the riches of the modern economy and forgotten:

People used to think of the economy as congruent with society — it was the earning-and-spending aspect of the nation just living its life. All citizens inhabited the same economic system (which isn’t to say that all took an equal share from it). As Guilluy describes it, the new economy is more like a private utility: it provides money and goods the way, say, the power company provides electricity. If you’ve always had electricity in your house, what’s the worry? But it’s quite possible to get cut off. …

Unlike their parents in Cold War France, the excluded have lost faith in efforts to distribute society’s goods more equitably. … The welfare state is now distrusted by those whom it is meant to help. France’s expenditure on the heavily immigrant banlieues is already vast, on this view; to provide yet more public housing would be to widen the invitation to unwanted immigrants. To build any large public-works project is to do the same. To invest in education, in turn, is to offer more advantages to the rich, who’re best positioned to benefit from it. In a society divided as Guilluy describes, traditional politics can find no purchase. …

Le Pen’s National Front is the party of the deplorables, the natives who are losing from globalization. All the other parties represent the globalists and their allies:

The real divide is no longer between the “Right” and the “Left” but between the metropoles and the peripheries. The traditional parties thrive in the former. The National Front (FN) is the party of the outside. … Indeed, with its opposition to free trade, open immigration, and the European Union, the FN has established itself as the main voice of the anti-globalizers. …At regional elections in 2015, it took 55 percent of workers’ votes. The Socialists, Republicans, Greens, and the hard Left took 18 percent among them. In an effort to ward off the FN, the traditional parties now collude as often as they compete. …

At regional elections in 2015, it took 55 percent of workers’ votes. The Socialists, Republicans, Greens, and the hard Left took 18 percent among them. In an effort to ward off the FN, the traditional parties now collude as often as they compete. …

The globalists live in a PC world of delusion where they ignore the existence of the deplorables. When the deplorables complain, it’s just “racism” and hate speech. Sure.

French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency. Doing so allows them to “present the losers of globalization as embittered people who have problems with diversity,” says Guilluy. It’s not our privilege that the French deplorables resent, the elites claim; it’s the color of some of our employees’ skin.

French elites have a thesaurus full of colorful vocabulary for those who resist the open society: repli (“reaction”), crispation identitaire (“ethnic tension”), and populisme (an accusation equivalent to fascism, which somehow does not require an equivalent level of proof). One need not say anything racist or hateful to be denounced as a member of “white, xenophobic France,” or even as a “fascist.” To express mere discontent with the political system is dangerous enough. It is to faire le jeu de (“play the game of”) the National Front. …

When Guilluy writes of the “criminalization of criticism of the dominant model,” he is not speaking metaphorically. France’s antiracist Pleven law, which can punish speech, passed in 1972. In 1990, the Gayssot law criminalized denial or “minimization” of the Holocaust and repealed parts of France’s Law of July 29, 1881, on Freedom of the Press. Both laws are landmarks in Europe’s retreat from defending free speech. Suits against novelists, philosophers, and historians have proliferated.

PC has emerged as a tool of class warfare and global governance:

In France, political correctness is more than a ridiculous set of opinions; it’s also — and primarily — a tool of government coercion. Not only does it tilt any political discussion in favor of one set of arguments; it also gives the ruling class a doubt-expelling myth that provides a constant boost to morale and esprit de corps, much as class systems did in the days before democracy. People tend to snicker when the question of political correctness is raised: its practitioners because no one wants to be thought politically correct; and its targets because no one wants to admit to being coerced. But it determines the current polarity in French politics. …

The rhetoric of an “open society” is “a smokescreen meant to hide the emergence of a closed society, walled off for the benefit of the upper classes.”

Nobody wants to be thought a bigot if the membership board of the country club takes pride in its multiculturalism. But as the prospect of rising in the world is hampered or extinguished, the inducements to ideological conformism weaken. Dissent appears. Political correctness grows more draconian. Finally the ruling class reaches a dangerous stage, in which it begins to lose not only its legitimacy but also a sense of what its legitimacy rested on in the first place.

All over the West, we are approaching that point.