In Search of Lost Time

By Liam Johnston


Class and the French literary elite: the backdrop to the French election.


Authentic accounts of class difference often require a complex effort to remember what has been deliberately left behind. In his memoir Returning to Reims, from his current perspective as a philosophy professor Didier Eribon reflects on the immense struggles of growing up as a gay adolescent in impoverished circumstances. He is not oblivious to the potential pitfalls of this process of reflection, nor naive about the almost insurmountable distance between the past and the present, especially when memory must not only traverse temporal boundaries, but also those of social class. Eribon, in his sociologically inflected memoir, notes that working-class communities are rarely written about, and if they are, it is often from the perspective of someone who grew up working class and is glad to have left that world behind as an adult. For Eribon, this position ironically often reproduces the very stigmatisation – the very sense of social illegitimacy – around the working classes that the writer is trying to denounce. Despite their best intentions, sympathy can often mask implicit scorn. And given that works by those who are no longer part of the working class are the primary way for these communities to become part of the cultural conversation, it seems inevitable that the way they are perceived will be coloured by the reconstruction of lived experience in memory.


Eribon puts his finger on exactly the double bind that a particular current in contemporary French literature has confronted. Writers like Eribon wish to authentically capture their experience on the margins of society whilst having to implicitly acknowledge that being in the position to write about it removes them, materially and culturally, from those margins. Beginning with Annie Ernaux and her short autobiographical works about the lives of her working-class parents, The Place (1983) and A Woman (1987), the trend for intensely personal literary recollections of deprived childhoods has accelerated in recent years with the rise of Edouard Louis, a student of Eribon. Louis has become one of the most successful and widely translated authors currently writing in French. His series of simultaneously vivid, tender, and excoriating autofictional novels, The End of Eddy, mainly draw on his experience of growing up as a gay teenager in a remote and destitute village in Northern France. Alienated and ostracised by an aggressively macho culture, Louis writes in his most recent novel, Changer : méthode, of a desire to take vengeance upon his upbringing: changing his name from the comically provincial-sounding Eddy Bellegueule (meaning something equivalent to ‘pretty mug’ in English); embarking on an academic and literary career; losing weight; and beginning to speak like a member of the Parisian bourgeoisie. But the narrative of revenge is always attenuated by a willingness to explain how the perpetrators of violence against him are themselves victims of an oppressive class structure. This ambiguity between subjects and objects of violence, on both an extremely intimate and a larger social scale, colours much of Louis’ writing. Louis was oppressed by the reactionary values of an insular society, but has now become part of a dominant cultural elite and, in this sense, has risen to a position of power within the class system. This transgression of a class boundary forces Louis to grapple with his position as victim on one scale of oppression and perpetrator on another. It is precisely this ambivalence, this clash between personal and political drives, which lies behind the paradox illustrated by his former teacher.


Working-class life is increasingly visible in French literary culture but, as it is often considered from a vertiginous height, its portrayal can be open to distortion. This is not to say that Eribon and Louis indulge in any of the more voyeuristic depictions of poverty that set out to bait public opinion and incite a sneering, supercilious form of hatred; they both write with a sincerity that neither lapses into gratuitous barbs nor allows for any condescending sympathy. Nonetheless, their personal trajectory away from the working classes inevitably leads to a degree of mythologising. In Returning to Reims, for instance, Eribon recalls how, having become involved in left-wing politics as a student in the 1980s, he created for himself an idealised Marxist image of a valiant working class powering historical change. This lionising, Eribon admits, was done in part to mask the revulsion he felt at his own family’s growing obsession for amassing consumer goods and their political lurch towards the far right. Likewise, in Changer : méthode, Louis locates his own motivation for joining leftist groups partly in his experience of poverty and his innate sympathy for the class of his birth, but also crucially in his hatred for the village, his father, and the far-right views he so resolutely espoused. Eribon and Louis maintain a revolutionary faith in a mythologised and heroic class while simultaneously loathing individual members of it.


The distance that separates Eribon and Louis from their former lives facilitates a malleable image of the working class. Both writers are poised between imagining this social group in line with their leftist politics and depicting a reactionary group of incorrigible racists and homophobes. The resounding, collective voice of Louis’ childhood village spits out depressing slogans like:


‘It’s not France here anymore, it’s Africa.’

‘My kids are well brought up. Not like the Algerians.’

‘We need some order in the country.’


And yet it is the exact same group of people who, in Eribon and Louis’ political imaginary, should be able to strive towards a more equitable society. These disparate images coexist with the tacit acknowledgement that the reality probably lies somewhere between the two. What might seem like a minor literary contradiction, however, mirrors and even plays into wider cultural and political constructions of a working-class identity.


Questions surrounding class identity have perhaps never been more politically relevant in France. The lingering concerns about the 2017 French presidential election — in which Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the National Front (since rechristened the Rassemblement National or National Rally), progressed to the second round of voting — have only become more pronounced over the last five years. Whilst the incumbent Emmanuel Macron remains relatively popular by French standards, his presidency so far has been eventful to say the least. Even before a pandemic that exacerbated structural inequality and gave the far right another conspiratorial stick to beat the government with, Macron had to contend with widespread Gilets Jaunes protests and a series of lengthy strikes provoked by the government’s plans to introduce highly unpopular pension reforms. The Gilets Jaunes movement was initially a reaction to rising fuel prices, but garnered widespread support as this diverse and often rudderless group quickly became a lightning rod for a common dissatisfaction with gaping economic inequality in France. Internationally, the Gilets Jaunes came to be seen as a demonstration of anger at a government that was ramping up the instability faced by the lowest earners in French society.


Despite the global attention given to the popular outrage that the Gilets Jaunes exhibited, with its notable amplification from Louis and Eribon, the protestors never really coalesced into a movement that could exert any force on the electoral stage. In a pattern that points to the central disjunct in Louis and Eribon’s literary renderings of the working class, the Gilets Jaunes were at once a radical, popularly supported movement whose demands echoed those traditionally heard on the left and a home for vicious racists and far-right fanatics. Just as in Louis’ novels, the potential for a politically heroic working class seemed to coexist with the undeniable presence of its more unsavoury elements. And, this uncomfortable nature of the Gilets Jaunes coalition consequently allowed the media to turn away from the very material problems they raised and back to a familiar trope from 2017: a reactionary working class and their support for far-right parties.


With two far-right candidates currently polling well ahead of the first round of voting in April — Le Pen has been joined by the highly controversial writer and broadcaster Eric Zemmour — media fixation with the far right’s success will only increase. Zemmour, whose politics are based on brazen culture warfare and aggressively neoliberal economics, has pitched his candidacy on the more extreme side of Le Pen, so the whole affair looks precipitously stacked towards the right. Whether Zemmour will eventually abandon the race, having garnered every possible ounce of self-promotion, and endorse Le Pen in the second round remains to be seen. Yet, to a certain extent this is irrelevant. Zemmour’s well-supported candidacy, not to mention Macron’s own creeping concessions to the far right, means that the election could well be fought primarily on issues like security, immigration, and national identity – all topics ripe for the media to portray as the ‘legitimate concerns’ of a serially ignored working class and all political priorities you could imagine coming from a character in The End of Eddy.


Whilst it is true that the National Front did receive the largest share of votes cast by skilled and unskilled workers at the last presidential election, the reasons for this are complex to say the least. A common way to explain the far right’s success is to point to the increasing economic precarity and the perception that the left has abandoned any notion of political responsibility towards the working class. This line of reasoning would, however, ignore the role that the media has played in making once fringe far-right concerns appear increasingly palatable to a wider social stratum. The cycle is a grimly familiar one that can be currently observed in almost every European country. The media first pick up on extreme, often racist views, especially if they are voiced by members of the working class. By consistently reporting on them, they then lend such views an air of legitimacy and respectability that they otherwise would have been denied. The perceived success of the far right is burnished, and the media feel able to congratulate themselves for giving the working class a voice — with the important caveat that to be considered truly authentic, this voice must be deemed sufficiently reactionary. Working-class communities come to be seen, rather unfairly, as right wing by default — even though at the last presidential election, French voters from the lowest income bracket were more likely to support a left-wing party than Le Pen’s National Front.


The question of what constitutes a legitimate and authentic expression of working-class experience, then, is highly contested and no less relevant when applied to literature. The public reaction to Louis’ The End of Eddy demonstrates this neatly. Beyond the expected pearl-clutching at the novel’s various violent episodes, many publishers and reviewers simply did not believe that this level of poverty and social disintegration could still exist in modern France. It was utterly beyond their comprehension that the events described in the novel could actually have taken place. That a child could be sent to the neighbours to beg for a packet of pasta to feed his family. That domestic violence could not only be ignored by a community but also, to some degree, expected and silently endured. Such apparently fantastical elements of Louis’ novel seemed to tip the scales of autofiction too far towards plain fiction. At the same time, the veracity of Louis’ novel was swiftly refuted by the village community and Louis was effectively disowned by former friends. In a now notorious feature on the novel in the Courrier Picard, the local newspaper, one claimed that Louis had exaggerated his suffering to aid sales of his book. Although the general atmosphere of deprivation and despondency that marks The End of Eddy came as no surprise to them, they took issue with the personal misery reported by Louis and their concomitant depiction as violent homophobes and virulently stubborn racists. In both cases, the challenge posed to Louis centred around his representation of working-class life and, more specifically, whether it was authentic or not. It is interesting to note, however, the different angles these challenges took. The press reaction did not take issue with the accuracy of Louis’ depiction of a community beset by violence, alcoholism, and racist attitudes. It was only the level of poverty described that somehow managed to breach their bounds of verisimilitude. The reviews of The End of Eddy epitomise a prevalent attitude within the media: complaints about immigration or liberal society in general are seen as ‘legitimate’ whereas any acknowledgement of a very real level of material scarcity, poverty, and deprivation must be fabricated and utterly fictional. A cultural space is open for working-class people as long as they are willing to perform the bigoted role so often required of them.


This brings us back to Eribon’s paradox. Writing about working-class life as someone who no longer lives it is a process littered with potentially deleterious consequences that can be brought about entirely unintentionally. Regardless of Louis’ stated desire to explain, not simply describe, the conditions in which society’s most economically disadvantaged groups live and to contextualise the racism, sexism, and homophobia that can exist in this milieu, he cannot shield himself from the highly selective approach that large swathes of the press take to his work. An approach which, analogous to the way the media reported on the Gilets Jaunes, fixes on unpalatable opinions at the expense of social deprivation. Louis’ work can serve as grist to a cultural mill that only takes an interest in working-class life when it is framed in a way amenable to the widely accepted worldview. It must be said, however, that the left-leaning, culturally ‘enlightened’ press is not necessarily immune to this selective approach. Too often, an oversimplified discourse can emerge which mechanistically excuses racism and support for the far right as the inevitable consequence of inequality. This view is as infantilising as it is misleading. After all, whilst there is a general historical correlation between widening economic inequality and the rise of fascism, far-right parties traditionally draw much of their support from socio-economic groups who do not bear the brunt of this inequality. Support for fascism has rarely been the exclusive preserve of working-class voters.


Perhaps this degree of distortion is simply an unavoidable effect of writing about marginalised groups in a political and media landscape that facilitates their very marginalisation. In any case, it is not so much an issue with what Louis himself has to say, but with the way literature – and especially literature which nails its political colours to the mast – is culturally consumed. That even radically inclined literature can be subsumed by and put to the service of capitalist domination was an aesthetic quandary addressed by the theorists of the Frankfurt School almost a century ago. As we approach the presidential election, media attention will once again return to the French working class in an attempt to elucidate why a significant proportion of them will opt for the far right. Maybe the only option in the face of an election that will likely alter little in French society is, as Louis and Eribon recommend, to go on explaining. Whatever use is made of their work, whatever difficulties they encounter in writing about working-class life, at least Eribon and Louis stay in town once the right-wing political circus has rolled away.


Liam Johnston is reading for a DPhil in German literature at New College. A fan of the letter ‘B’, his thesis is on Brecht and Barthes.


Art by Alex Knighton.