The author Christophe Guilluy — who describes himself as a geographer, although he mostly served as a housing consultant after graduating from college in 1987 — has concerned himself with the growing cultural and economic fissures animating the recent protests. He has written four books on the topic since 2010, and the third of these, originally published in 2016, has just been translated by Yale University Press as “Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery and the Future of France.” Despite the hectoring tone, unfounded generalizations and conspiratorial allusions, the book still manages to provide an indispensable guide to understanding the fears and frustrations of an increasingly permanent underclass — not just in France, but throughout the world.
Mr. Guilluy’s ultimate put-down is the charge that “France had become an ‘American’ society like all the rest.” The defining characteristics of such societies: “inegalitarian and multicultural.” The underlying culprit, however, is globalization, and the villains are “those who gain from globalization or who are protected against its adverse consequences.” Much of “Twilight of the Elites” is dedicated to demonstrating that the core arguments supporting free markets and cultural diversity are a pretext for maintaining these exclusive benefits.
Take what Mr. Guilluy calls “the lie of the open society.” The elites have cloistered themselves in the cities that are financially out of reach for the rest and “demand greater social diversity” from a “position of moral superiority” as part of a “cynical strategy” to secure low-cost immigrant workers. “The discourse of openness … for people of different backgrounds may now be seen for what it is,” Mr. Guilluy writes, “a smokescreen devised to conceal the emergence of a closed and isolated society whose greatest beneficiaries are the upper classes.”
If one looks past the overblown rhetoric, the portrait of the bleak prospects of the diverse communities outside of France’s largest cities is disturbing and affecting. It also is reminiscent of the economic challenges faced by many living between the coasts of the United States.
While Mr. Guilluy is withering in his criticism of establishment politicians on both the left and right, he does not offer up anything concrete in their place. Besides observing that the working classes have abandoned their previous party attachments and “now count on themselves to build a countersociety that will provide a decent way of life,” he provides little in the way of policy proposals beyond exhorting the elites “to listen to the grievances of lower France and take them seriously.”