In search of the French working class and its voice

| Updated: 07 September, 2023 1:42 pm IST

A series of major protests have sullied French President Emmanuel Macron’s two presidencies. Social unrest keeps arising and has become part of the country’s public life. The example of France is a way to illustrate the challenges faced by Western liberal societies today.

The fault-lines in the French society
The French government faces a growing discontent of what can be roughly defined as the French ‘working class’, composed of workers and low-qualified employees. The gilets jaunes movement (‘yellow vests’) which emerged in November 2018 was the most emblematic of these protests. It sat in durably for more than a year, crippling the country until the Covid lockdowns curbed it. Apart from an obvious dissatisfaction with the government policies, it is interesting to note that this episode revealed a profound disconnection between a silent majority and the dominant classes. Whether it be political leaders or the media, most were taken by surprise and struggled to grasp the meaning of the phenomenon. Yet as much as 80% of the French people supported it when it started.

For some analysts, the roots were however obvious. From various angles, they underline a new type of fracture in French society. The categories they forged made their way into the public debate and are now part of the politicians’ rhetoric in the race for elections.

Jérôme Fourquet is an opinion pollster who works for the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop). In his book The French Archipelago, he portrays a highly divided country where several France coexist next to each other. His main observation is the ongoing extinction of the French middle-class and the rise of fragmented poorer classes. The main cause was deindustrialization and the subsequent shift from a production-based economy to consumerism, services and tourism. Employment overall deteriorated and polarized. To complete the picture, the rising costs of consumer products made them unaffordable for a growing part of the common workers, hence a sense of deprivation. In his eyes, the gilets jaunes were an expression of this endangered middle class. One of the main complaints was a lack of purchasing power – the movement was triggered by a rise in the cost of fuel.

In the end, the gilets jaunes never organized as a party. No party managed to make use of it either. But this shouldn’t cover the fact that the movement can be interpreted as being essentially political.

The French geographer Christophe Guilluy criticizes the notion of ‘archipelago’, which evokes a fractured society, negates the existence of a working class and the persistence of class struggle dynamics. What is the link between all these disparate people ? The answer lies in geography. Guilluy introduced the concepts of ‘central France’ and ‘peripheral France’. He focused on the watershed of the 1980-90s, when France faced two intertwined phenomena – liberalization and metropolization. The main cities naturally benefited from the major share of the newly generated wealths, leading to a pronounced spatial segregation on the basis of income. A deep territorial inequality set in, characterized by a concentration of employment and services in the main urban places. This resulted in an unprecedented disconnection between work and working classes, who for the first time don’t live where the wealth is generated. A common worker today cannot afford to buy property in the main cities and some cannot even live where they were born. This ‘peripheral’ environment suffered from the shutting down of public services – transportation, maternity wards, schools, doctor’s practices. According to Guilluy, the majority of the French people actually live in such an environment.

France continues to be shaken by social unrest. In January 2023, major protests emerged against the new pension reform which pushed back the age of retirement to 64.

An underlying cultural battle at stake
The yellow vest is worn by workers to signal their presence on the roads. The loss of visibility is another aspect of the unease. This failure is firstly political, as the high abstention rates show (28% in the last presidential elections). Not taking into account the 2005 referendum on the Constitution of the European Union was a milestone in a growing distrust towards the elites. The lack of representation is also socio-cultural, because the workers’ jobs were depreciated. A parallel can be drawn with the Trump supporters in the US. The reality these classes experience is at odds with the vision promoted by the main media and the propaganda spread by the world of advertising, which showcase the way of life of the urban globalized classes. The British journalist David Goodhart established this cultural distinction between the ‘people from somewhere’ and the ‘people from anywhere’. One must watch the French movies made until the 1970s, starring Jean Gabin, to realize the kind of noble working class figure that was displayed in the popular cinema.
The gap between the popular classes and the elites also reveals itself in the perception of immigration. Globalization and metropolization came with the multicultural model of society, which met with enthusiasm in the ruling class. But the experience is different for the common people who can’t protect themselves from an ever-changing environment and can feel culturally insecure. Moreover, Guilluy argues that a model which is not capable of integrating the majority can’t possibly integrate newcomers. The depreciated figure of the worker is no longer a reference for identification. The recent riots in the French suburbs revealed the lack of integration of a significant part of the immigrant population. As a matter of fact, controlling migration flows is one of the priorities for the majority, especially in the working class.

WATCH: Impact of Immigration on French Social Fabric | Analysis

Could the working class make a difference in the next presidential elections ?

In a pragmatic way, the political analyst Jérôme Sainte-Marie has focused on the voting habits of popular classes. He argues a majoritarian ‘popular bloc’ is opposed to an ‘elite bloc’. The notion refers to Gramsci’s idea of ‘historical bloc’ – the political crystallization of several classes around a common ideological project. Success is achieved when the classes constituting the bloc convince the majority that their own interest coincides with the general interest. The project becomes hegemonic. Which leader could be capable of gathering the popular bloc in France ?

The new left-wing coalition (NUPES) gathered around La France insoumise Party (LFI) claims to represent the ‘people’. Jean-Luc Mélenchon (the leader of LFI) still benefits from a significant share of the workers’ vote. But the party changing its stance on immigration was a breaking point, abandoning assimilation for some kind of hybridization. Mélenchon introduced the idea of ‘creolization’ – the term ‘créole’ refers to the new language which emerged as a mixing of European and indigenous influences in the French tropical colonies. Besides, Mélenchon is now aiming at capturing the Muslim vote. The NUPES overall joined up to an ‘intersectional’ conception of society – a permanent focus on societal issues, Islamophobia and minority rights. These issues appeal to the elite bloc, whose world-view is globalized, post-national and culturally liberal. Mélenchon’s line could actually work towards the fragmentation of the popular bloc in favor of the elites. The last election results support this concern. Mélenchon scored well in the gentrified neighborhoods of the main cities, as well as in the population of immigrant background living in the suburbs. He benefited from most of the Muslim votes. Besides, 42% of voters who chose Mélenchon in the first round finally gave their vote to Emmanuel Macron in the second round, revealing a significant intersection of the voter bases.

ALSO READ: INTERVIEW: ‘Muslim immigration destroyed French Working Class’

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement national Party (RN), actually began to talk about a ‘popular bloc’ during the last campaign in 2022. In the decisive second round, 67% of workers and 57% of employees chose her. The highest proportion of people who declared themselves part of the gilets jaunes was found in Marine Le Pen’s voters too. Immigration is a concern for her electorate (94% think it should be stopped). However, her image still suffers from her far-right background. The party lacks intellectuals and high-ranking officials in order to lead a proper ideological war and achieve hegemony.

Finally, the political commentator Éric Zemmour unexpectedly joined the game with his party Reconquête!. After an unexpected breakthrough, he ended up gathering only 7% of the votes. Zemmour chose to play on identity, on the anguish of the decline of civilization. He appealed mostly to educated conservatives but failed to gather a voter’s bloc, thinking the immigration issue would prevail on everything else.

In the end, Macron’s advantage lies in the vote of retired people, who still trust the elites for the time being. But they might be affected one day by the growing structural flaws. Besides, regular events like the recent riots resulted in an increase of voting intentions for Marine Le Pen. According to a poll conducted before the incidents, she is favored by 31% of the potential voters, before a possible new candidate of Renaissance (Macron’s party) at 28%, and Mélenchon at 17%.

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