FRANCE: A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
A string of terrorist attacks, insurgent Yellow Vests, disruptive strikes, gang violence in the banlieue – little has been spared the French executive in the past few years. It also hit back: with a state of emergency that lasted more than a year and a half, and with extremely repressive police action, especially during the prolonged protests of the Yellow Vests. Hundreds of protesters were injured by so-called flash ball grenades. More than thirty of them lost an eye
Traditionally, French political culture has not been characterised by solution-oriented consensus. But the past decade has been among the worst. The cracks in society became almost unbridgeable chasms. It characterises the oeuvre of Édouard Louis. Whether he writes about his childhood in a homophobic working-class environment in the impoverished French countryside, his rape by an Algerian immigrant in Paris or the ambivalent attitude towards his disabled father - concepts such as oppression and violence always predominate.
This can partly be explained by the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose ideas Louis was deeply influenced by. But it is certainly also a reflection of the social and political realities of contemporary France - and of the inequality, tension and uncertainty that characterise it. Inequality between large cities connected to globalisation and the countryside from which industry has gradually disappeared over the past decades; inequality between white French in the city centres and migrants and their descendants in the surrounding banlieues.
Tension and uncertainty between a part of the population that feels threatened in its way of life and another part that wants far-reaching reforms, economically or culturally, such as #MeToo, or the anti-racism movement. It is a dichotomy that one also sees elsewhere in Europe, but nowhere are things as close to the edge as in France. Pascal Perrineau, a leading populism specialist, told me that France sits "on a volcano."
Édouard Louis stands firmly in the reformist, or even revolutionary camp. He welcomed the Yellow Vests and is active in the Comité Adama, a group that fights against racism and police brutality in the banlieues. When I visited him a few years ago, in his two-room apartment near the Parc Montsouris in Paris, he told me that as a writer he was driven by shame; shame about all the different forms of violence and how easily we accept it.
“Every time I get behind my computer, I feel shame about it. How can you practice literature in such a cruel world?” he said. Louis emphatically does not mean that as a writer you should close your laptop and start handing out food to the homeless. No, he says you should keep that shame intact, nurture and cherish it. It feeds his indignation, his anger. Towards the world, and those who rule it.
Louis has nothing positive to say about the last three French presidents in his novels. “Sarkozy breaks your back, Hollande chokes you, Macron knocks the bread out of your mouth,” he wrote in Qui a tué mon père (2018). In this, his father, who for a long time voted for the far right National Front, calls for a left-wing revolution. But in today's France that is a long way off. The sentiment is that of order and reaction.
This was perhaps best interpreted by a group of ex-generals, who caused a sensation in the French media a year ago with a burning letter, in which they warned of a “civil war”. According to the ex-generals (most of them with ties to the far right), the banlieues had become centres of ethnic and religiously inspired violence, the police could no longer cope and the army should be deployed - if necessary while bypassing the government. The indignation from established politics was great; the top brass threatened with a court-martial. That the army should act outside the government was a “provocation”, Emmanuel de Richoufftz, one of the generals involved in the initiative, told me when I visited him in the south of France last summer. But he was fully behind the alarming analysis from the burning letter as it turned out. And nearly sixty percent of the French sided with him, so polls showed.
Radical right agitators like Éric Zemmour know what should be done. Zemmour ran a successful pre-campaign in which he called for a halt to immigration and the ban on the use of “Non-French” first names. He previously described the banlieues as “Islamic fortresses”, which had to be dealt with in the brutal manner with which Cardinal Richelieu dealt with the Huguenots of La Rochelle in the 17th century. In interviews, he called Islam "the enemy" and hinted at the deportation of millions of Muslims. Zemmour is demanding a ban on family reunification and propagates the theory of the Grand Replacement - a conspiracy theory that Western elites are trying to replace the native white population with Muslims and Blacks. All this to safeguard what he sees as the French identity.
Poor and poorly educated white French in the countryside, the environment in which Louis grew up, have often long ago turned away from left-wing parties. For instance, in Hallencourt, the Picardy village where Louis grew up, Marine Le Pen received no less than sixty percent of the vote in the previous presidential elections. It's something he tries to understand through his novels.
“First the left said to this group: “Your suffering is because of capitalism, we are going to fight it, replace it with a better system,” he says. But nothing more was heard of that.” In the radical right-wing story it is said that the suffering of the poor white rural population is due to foreigners and “Brussels”. “This gave my fellow villagers and family a vocabulary for their own suffering,” says Louis. A scapegoat. According to Louis, this problem is characteristic of today's France, and perhaps of the entire Western world marked by neoliberalism.
“There is always the appearance of individual choice, which means that people no longer question the oppressive system.”
By Marijn Kruk