From the 1980s onwards, it was clear there was a price to be paid for western societies adapting to a new economic model and that price was sacrificing the European and American working class. No one thought the fallout would hit the bedrock of the lower-middle class, too. It’s obvious now, however, that the new model not only weakened the fringes of the proletariat but society as a whole.
The paradox is, this is not a result of the failure of the globalised economic model but of its success. In recent decades, the French economy, like the European and US economies, has continued to create wealth. It is thus, on average, richer. The problem is at the same time unemployment, insecurity and poverty have also increased. The central question, therefore, is not whether a globalised economy is efficient, but what to do with this model when it fails to create and nurture a coherent society?
The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities.
The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.
It is in this France périphérique that the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement was born. It is also in these peripheral regions that the western populist wave has its source.
Peripheral America brought Trump to the White House. Peripheral Italy – mezzogiorno, rural areas and small northern industrial towns – is the source of its populist wave. This protest is carried out by the classes who, in days gone by, were once the key reference point for a political and intellectual world that has forgotten them.
So if the hike in the price of fuel triggered the yellow vest movement, it was not the root cause. The anger runs deeper, the result of an economic and cultural relegation that began in the 80s.
At the same time, economic and land logics have locked up the elite world. This confinement is not only geographical but also intellectual.
The globalised metropolises are the new citadels of the 21st century – rich and unequal, where even the former lower-middle class no longer has a place.
Instead, large global cities work on a dual dynamic: gentrification and immigration. This is the paradox: the open society results in a world increasingly closed to the majority of working people.
The economic divide between peripheral France and the metropolises illustrates the separation of an elite and its popular hinterland. Western elites have gradually forgotten a people they no longer see.
The impact of the gilets jaunes, and their support in public opinion (eight out of 10 French people approve of their actions), has amazed politicians, trade unions and academics, as if they have discovered a new tribe in the Amazon.
The point, remember, of the gilet jaunes is to ensure its wearer is visible on the road. And whatever the outcome of this conflict, the gilets jaunes have won in terms of what really counts: the war of cultural representation. Working-class and lower middle-class people are visible again and, alongside them, the places where they live.
Their need in the first instance is to be respected, to no longer be thought of as “deplorable”. Michael Sandel is right when he points out the inability of the elites to take the aspirations of the poorest seriously. These aspirations are simple: the preservation of their social and cultural capital and work.
For this to be successful we must end the elite “secession” and adapt the political offers of left and right to their demands. This cultural revolution is a democratic and societal imperative – no system can remain if it does not integrate the majority of its poorest citizens.
Christophe Guilluy is the author of Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, Periphery and the Future of France
– The Guardian