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Jan 22, 2019

Review: ‘Twilight of the Elites’ Looks at a France, and a World, Divided

5-7 minutes

Emmanuel Macron’s victory over the far-right National Front party in the French presidential election came only a few months after the ascension of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, and less than a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union. The outcome, installing a centrist leader, elicited a mixture of euphoria and relief from the establishment. A headline from the day captured this emotion: ”’Phew!’ World reacts as Macron becomes next French president.”
Those hoping that Mr. Macron’s election would reverse the tide of nationalist and authoritarian leaders coming to power were disappointed to learn that his domestic popularity was fleeting. Anyone still rooting for a Macron comeback was rudely awakened by the scale and ferocity of the Yellow Vest movement, whose mass demonstrations began in November. One of the few consistent demands of the protesters has been the resignation of President Macron.
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 presents contemporary France as divided between a thriving minority holed up in its 15 largest cities and everybody else. “Everybody else” includes not just the restless immigrant communities living on the outskirts of the “globalized metropolises,” but residents of the hollowed-out second-tier cities and impoverished rural communities. “The medieval citadels,” Mr. Guilluy asserts, “are back.”
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.”
Part of the challenge in listening to lower France — what Mr. Guilluy calls “the periphery” — as represented today by the Yellow Vests is that it lacks a unified leadership. The leaders it does have disagree with one another. For someone who is committed to listening as at least part of a solution, Mr. Guilluy has a reputation for refusing to engage with either academics or journalists — both professions are accused repeatedly in “Twilight of the Elites” of furthering the agenda of the traditional upper classes and “the new bourgeoisie that supports them.” This is particularly unfortunate given the urgency of the issues he raises. But one does not need to accept all of the elements of Mr. Guilluy’s diagnosis to sense that he has hit on something profound that extends well beyond the borders of France.
Jonathan A. Knee is professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School and a senior adviser at Evercore. His latest book is “Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education.”

Source: NYT

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