The French, Coming Apart

The French, Coming Apart, by Christopher Cardwell.

Christophe Guilluy calls himself a geographer. But he has spent decades as a housing consultant in various rapidly changing neighborhoods north of Paris, studying gentrification, among other things. And he 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. …

As it has prospered, the [Paris] has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s 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.

Yet economic opportunities for those unable to prosper in Paris are lacking elsewhere in France. Journalists and politicians assume that the stratification of France’s flourishing metropoles results from a glitch in the workings of globalization. Somehow, the rich parts of France have failed to impart their magical formula to the poor ones. Fixing the problem, at least for certain politicians and policy experts, involves coming up with a clever shortcut: perhaps, say, if Romorantin had free wireless, its citizens would soon find themselves wealthy, too.

Picture: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Guilluy disagrees. For him, 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). If he is right, we can understand why every major Western country has seen the rise of political movements taking aim at the present system. …

It’s mostly about IQ/education, race, and immigration (which, in case you hadn’t noticed, are three subjects forbidden by the privileged people who control the public conversation):

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.

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 … Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim. …

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. Why this should be so is an economic controversy. Perhaps migrants will do certain tasks that French people will not — at least not at the prevailing wage. Perhaps employers don’t relish paying €10 an hour to a native Frenchman who, ten years earlier, was making €20 in his old position and has resentments to match.

Most places where migrant and native French cultures mix, Guilluy expects, will evolve as did the northern Paris suburbs where he works. Twenty years ago, these neighborhoods remained a hub of Parisian Jewish life; nowadays, they’re heavily Arab. The young men living in them feel a burning solidarity with their Muslim brethren in the Middle East and often a loathing for Israel. Jews have faced steady intimidation in northern Paris at least since 2002 … Violence is rising. … Many Jews still live safely and well in France, of course, but they cluster together in a smaller number of secure neighborhoods, several of them on Paris’s western edge. 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. …

Guilluy has written much about how little contact the abstract doctrines of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” make with this morally complex world. … Nobody wants to be a minority. …

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. …

Thus, 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. …

Political correctness is the tool of the elites to reinforce and excuse their economic privilege:

Guilluy has tried to clarify French politics with an original theory of political correctness. The dominance of metropolitan elites has made it hard even to describe the most important conflicts in France, except in terms that conform to their way of viewing the world. …

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. …

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. Where you stand depends largely on whether you believe that antiracism is a sincere response to a genuine upsurge of public hatred or an opportunistic posture for elites seeking to justify their rule.

Guilluy is ambivalent on the question. He sees deep historical and economic processes at work behind the evolution of France’s residential spaces. “There has been no plan to ‘expel the poor,’ no conspiracy,” he writes. “Just a strict application of market principles.” But he is moving toward a more politically engaged view that 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.”

Even more than California, France is probably at the forefront of trends that are sweeping the West. It would serve us well to pay attention.