Excavating the roots of the yellow vest movement

Excavating the roots of the yellow vest movement A gilets jaunes protestor close to the Arcd de Triomphe in Paris. Photo: The Economist
En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule

by Édouard Louis (published in English as The End of Eddy)

 

The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland has become a staple of the international political agenda. It is a gathering of the great and good in the picturesque setting of the Alps and brings together the world of politics, technology and high finance.

For supporters, it is an occasion to see the world as an interconnected village where what happens in one place inevitably affects those elsewhere. On the other hand, critics describe it as an elitist meeting that is shrouded in secrecy and pushes a globalist agenda.

While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was amongst those participating this year, the French President Emmanuel Macron sat this year out due to political instability at home. France has been convulsed by protests from the so-called Mouvement des gilets jaunes.

The yellow vest demonstrations have often been marked by violence directed against both public and private property and has been described as an odd amalgam of the political far-right and extreme-left. The one thing they have in common is a widely-held dissatisfaction with the economic direction of Fifth Republic.

Landslide

Elected with a landslide in 2017 aged just 39, many people expected Monsieur Macron to be the leader that France had been waiting for. However, he has failed to embody l’esprit de la nation in the way his followers hoped.

The protests have ventilated long-held resentments and dissatisfaction felt by many French voters – particularly those in the regions.

The issue on which the French movement centred at first was the projected 2019 increase in fuel taxes, particularly on diesel fuel. The yellow vest became the symbol of the protests, as the French are required by law to have a yellow vest in their vehicles in case of road traffic accidents requiring people to leave their vehicles.

As President Macron struggled to get the budget deficit under control, protesters soon dubbed him the président des très riches, and his initial popularity is unlikely to easily be restored.

Ferocity

While the ferocity of the protests – 10 people have lost their lives – has surprised many outsiders, a deep unease has been bubbling under the surface in France for many decades.

One young literary voice who has given expression to this dissatisfaction is 26-year-old Édouard Louis. Born   and raised in the town of Hallencourt in the north of France, Mr Louis has lifted the lid on the effects of grinding poverty in many working class areas of France.

In his autobiographical novel En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule published in 2014, Mr Louis links poverty and violence and gives piercing insights into the lives of people who have been left behind by the decline in France’s manufacturing industry.

Looking at his own poverty-stricken childhood, Mr Louis reveals the lives of a class of former workers who now exist solely on welfare benefits. The height of sophistication is seen as choosing American-sounding Christian names for children and alcoholism, racism and prejudice is par for the course.

It is a brutal portrait where people feel forced to extract their own teeth with pliers and day turns into night in a haze of alcohol. The only whiff of fleeting pleasure is the thought of a drunken sexual fumble.

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Hallencourt, like hundreds of towns across France, suffers from post-industrial malaise that politicians seem unwilling or unable to do anything about.

To add to the distress, Mr Louis is gay in a culture where homosexuality is, at best, frowned upon. He recalls feeling made to suffer habitual shame and abuse.

Education proves to be his way out, and as a teenager when he manages to escape, so to speak, to the nearby city of Amiens he blossoms and changes his name to Édouard Louis, thus the death of Eddy Bellegueule.

Mr Louis holds up a mirror to modern-day France where he traces the rise of parties such as the Rassemblement national to the fact that working-class people have been all-but-abandoned by the establishment parties.

The scene is set in the opening lines of En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule – later published in English as The End of Eddy – when Mr Louis writes: “From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all of those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system”.

But, Mr Louis’ opening offering is much more than mere ‘misery lit’ or yet another tale of an unhappy childhood. It is a searing  insight to the world of des gilets jaunes.

Mr Louis argues that the rise in popularity of nationalist and right wing politicians among working class and poor voters in France was a result of changing priorities on the left.

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His portrait of his family is unflattering (they have disputed large parts of the account which Mr Louis insists is all true), but points to the way that poverty and neglect by the state has deformed their lives.

Of his mother, he writes of a woman “torn between an absolute submission to power and an enduring sense of revolt who stormed Versailles at the start of the French Revolution only to salute the King”.

His writing is a letter sent from a forgotten place. A place where the elites in Paris and the other large cities have little or no knowledge of. En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule has shaped the national conversation in France in a way that every writer dreams of. The fact that Mr Louis was only 22 when his first book was published makes the impact all the more remarkable.

His debut work was followed in 2016 by Histoire de la Violence and last year by Qui a tué mon Pere.

In the latter, he expands on the sense of abandonment many working-class French people feel through the deteriorating health of his father, who had been injured in an industrial accident, and the additional bodily harm he endures as a result of political decisions which have reduced his welfare support and forced him back to work.

The gilets jaunes consists, at least in part, of people like Mr Louis’s family and neighbours, who are sick, sore and tired with a government they think has forgotten and exploited them.

On Twitter recently, Mr Louis expressed frustration that the grievances of the gilets jaunes had been met with sensationalism by the press and disdain by politicians. “Something about the extreme violence and class contempt that is being unleashed on this movement paralyses me,” he wrote.

In the protesters, Mr Louis sees “very poor people, people like my mother, people like my father, exhausted people, extremely poor people.

“I was able to read it on their faces, because I know those people. I recognised, suddenly, a body, in the noblest sense of the term. A body that I’m not used to seeing in the media. And I felt that these images were crying out to me,” he told The New Yorker in a recent interview.

Expanding on the corporal theme, he sees the protests as “the body of social exclusion…it’s the body of poverty. It’s the body of people who are living in precarity, people from the north of France, or from the south of France, who don’t have money, who come from the kinds of families that haven’t gotten an education in five generations — families like mine. I grew up in a family of seven, and we had to live on €700 a month. Five kids and two adults. Maybe you have to really come from that world to immediately identify it”.

Impression

It was to make real in the eyes of society people like this that Mr Louis says he began to write. “I had the impression that these kinds of bodies were never depicted. And, when I was a kid, my parents, and especially my mother, always said, ‘No one is talking about us. No one cares about us.’ One of the most violent feelings we had was this feeling of not existing in the public discourse, in the eyes and voices of others. It was like an obsession.

“There was not one day where my mother didn’t say, ‘No one is talking about us. The whole world could care less.’ And so, for example, elections were the moment when she tried to fight against that kind of invisibility. Voilà.”

Voilà indeed, and Mr Louis’ writings and the gilets jaunes are a symptom of a dissatisfaction that is not only felt in France.

Literature is, perhaps, at its most powerful when it gives voice to that which cannot – or dare not – be said. Mr Louis has shown himself to be a prophet of sorts and his is a voice that should be heard, particularly by anyone wanting to understand the roots of France’s current political woes.

Peter Costello is away.

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