Those who have been ignored for too long are the ones pulling populists strings, says author Christophe Guilluy
“Progressive politics is doomed if it exists only to promote the interests of the middle classes,” French president Emmanuel Macron recently warned a large group of parliamentarians and ministers from his centrist La République En Marche (LREM) party and the Mouvement Démocrate (Modem). In particular, he cited the issue of immigration. He said the subject “had to be faced” and explained that he saw an essential difference between the middle and working classes: the latter are in contact with immigration, the former are not. “We have no right to dodge this issue. The question is whether or not we want to be a middle-class party. The middle classes are not bothered by this [immigration]: it doesn’t impinge on them. The working classes have to live with it.” His statement blindsided the entire French intelligentsia, the political, cultural and literary classes, and recast a divisive question.
But Macron’s epiphany didn’t stop there; he appeared to be changing his mind about how France is organised territorially. With input from local policymakers, who he has previously disregarded, moves are afoot for a plan to address the concerns of rural areas and medium-sized towns, those bits of “peripheral” France that gave birth to the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) insurrection.
Why the change of heart? It was, of course, partly driven by electoral concerns, with local elections due next March. Mainly, however, it is because Macron realises that society cannot only be led from the front, and that big cities can’t on their own deliver prosperity to outlying areas. There can’t be an inclusive society without the working classes. The same calculation explains Macron’s recent caution about pushing through pension reforms that have provoked widespread anger. He knows that many retired people who voted for him in 2017 strongly support the gilets jaunes movement. Obviously, the continuing unrest has played a part in his rethink. In a recent interview in Time magazine, Macron admitted that the movement came as a shock to him, but added that “the gilets jaunes were very good for me”. He can see the limitations of an economic model that fails the majority of the population, but he is also questioning progressive thinking, not because he has any fundamental doubts, but because of the dangers inherent in a project supported only by the elite. After months of social and political upheaval, Macron can see that there is no future in an ideology that fuels mistrust between the ruling and working classes.
The president and his closest advisers are up against a surprising anthropological reality: while the working classes lack political, media or academic representation, they wield enough soft power to force on to the agenda the concerns their rulers would rather ignore. So a progressive ideology is not competing with a rival populist ideology; it is being held in check by working-class reluctance. This soft power has less to do with populist leaders than with the growing cultural independence of working people.
This cultural autonomy explains why the gilets jaunes revolt shows no signs of going away. Unlike conventional industrial action, the gilets jaunes are not represented by a party, trade union or leader. Their independence seems to mirror the estrangement of the elites. As power and wealth have concentrated in the big cities – the 21st-century equivalent of medieval citadels – so the most powerful classes have increasingly lost interest in the surrounding communities.
In France – and throughout the developed world – this elite distancing prompted a corresponding growth in the autonomy of those at the bottom of the economic pile. It is this cultural independence that partly explains the enduring nature and power of the populist wave. What we call “populism” is the political expression of a radical increase in the independence of the working classes.
In France, the working classes donned hi-vis vests to show they still existed. Their British counterparts seized on Brexit to send the City of London a wake-up call. All over the western world, globalisation’s losers are pulling the strings of populist leaders in order to raise their own visibility. Far from being all-powerful, or even political wizards, the likes of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage are little more than puppets of the working classes. The lowest socioeconomic groups may not realise they belong to a new proletariat, but they share a common understanding of the prevailing economic model. They are also convinced that they have been culturally and geographically sidelined; pushed out of the places where jobs and wealth are created. They haven’t been manipulated politically, they’ve reached an entirely rational diagnosis of the contemporary world.
The risk of a return to the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century is real, but the fundamental challenge of this century is the inclusion – economic and cultural – of ordinary people. That problem is the result of an economic model that concentrates wealth in the hands of the wealthiest urban dwellers. The big challenge for society and democracy is to reconcile Paris with peripheral France, London with Sheffield, New York with the rust belt, California with the flyover states. We simply have no choice.
Despite being on a different political and cultural wavelength, blue- and white-collar workers, job-seekers, pensioners and small farmers have pulled off a seemingly impossible feat: they have altered the agenda of the man who claimed to lead the world’s political progressives. The cultural independence of the working classes is forcing him to reassess this ideology, and to accept its limits. An Ipsos poll of French voters last month found that 61% believe a strong leader, capable of tearing up the existing rulebook, might improve their lot. Ahead of France’s next presidential election in 2022, Macron could well take on that role.
• Christophe Guilluy is the author of Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, Periphery and the Future of France
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