Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
In nine days, we are due to leave the European Union with no deal. Parliament has twice voted down the proposed deal. The Cabinet is divided. Party discipline has broken down. The Speaker is effectively campaigning for Remain. And Emmanuel Macron is threatening to veto any extension to Article 50.
Mention of France’s President reminds us of the country he governs – which is apposite, because a new book from France casts light on Britain, and reminds us all what is at stake.
Twilight of the Elites by Christophe Guilluy is a more pessimistic French equivalent of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere. Written in 2016, before the country was wracked by riots, protests and violence, it argues that France is suffering from a fatal – maybe terminal – division between the people and elites.
The failure of the French elite
Guilluy, a geographer, argues that his country has seen:
- Social dislocation and unhappiness.
- Economic stagnation.
- A rise in insecurity in every level – both economic in terms of ownership, pensions, jobs, but also cultural in terms of rapid ethnic and cultural change, terror attacks, and crime.
The ruling class of France has failed to create a stable and prosperous country, and has morphed into an Establishment whose rule is difficult to justify on conventional metrics of success.
His main charge against this elite – which may have a familiar ring to British ears – is their hypocrisy. Their bastion, Paris, lectures the rest of the country on being open, yet is a city where the average square metre in housing costs more than 8,000 euros, way beyond most people’s budgets.
He also hits out at France’s equality agenda, arguing that it is designed to allow the children of the rich, whatever their gender, to retain control while feeling virtuous about the open society. There is far less attention paid to slowing social mobility beyond those educated at elite universities, or to the stagnant economy.
This elite condemn those who express concerns over immigration or multiculturalism – yet even more than in Britain, they themselves live far away from areas of low skill migration, Parisian suburbs like Aubervilliers and La Courneuve where nearly eight in ten children are from a migrant background. Even where the elite and migrants live close to each other, they are educated separately.
The divide between metropolis and periphery
Guilluy’s most explosive argument is that all this is a deliberate strategy, created to ignore the more important divide between the 40 per cent living in the largest metropolitan areas and the 60 per cent living in what he terms the periphery, the France of rural areas and small cities, towns and villages.
The political system, he claims, is designed to ignore the fact that the country’s limited economic gains accrue to the top 10 to 20 percent within the large metropolitan areas. This allows the elite to effectively pretend that the large cities are France, and France is the large cities – so communities that are poor, white, old, outside major urban areas, or any combination thereof, simply do not exist.
However, even within the metropolitan areas, Guilluy notes there is increasing marginalisation for those who do not have the right connections, attend the right schools, or capture one of the professional jobs in the city’s core. He notes for all the talk of diversity, those who live in the “sensitive urban zones” – predominantly poor migrants alongside the remains of the white working class – were hit most by the global financial crisis, with unemployment rising in these areas from 16.7 per cent to 24.2 per cent, compared to 7.6 per cent to 9.1 per cent across urban areas as a whole. He also notes that the last thing those who live in these areas, whether white working class or the children of previous migrants, want or benefit from is more migration.
The collapse of the old politics
The result of all this is an incompetent, self-selecting, hereditary and deeply out-of-touch ruling class which is unable to cope with the political challenges France faces. The last desperate claim of those in charge is that they are all that stand between power and the bogeyman of the National Front. Yet Guilluy argues that it is their own failures that have created both the National Front and rising Islamism among alienated migrant youth.
Guilluy does not believe this argument will be enough to save the system, and events appear to be vindicating him. He published his book in 2016, before the old parties of left and right came a humiliated third and fifth in the 2017 Presidential elections, beaten by Macron, Le Pen, and in the case of the Left, by a Corbynite socialist. The most recent polls for 2022 have Le Pen scoring in the mid-forties.
The book cites polling showing that nearly nine out of ten French people believe both that government takes no interest in people like them, and politicians are only concerned with their own advantage. He notes that those who rail against divisive politics are themselves prone to portraying those on the periphery as bigoted and stupid, or to pitting different groups against each other along gender or racial lines.
The lesson for Britain
Brexit has been a huge political convulsion. But it is striking – in comparison to France and other European countries – that the turmoil has not spilled out on to the streets. In France, the Champs-Elysées has been looted and pillaged. Thousands of demonstrators in their yellow vests regularly confront the security forces, and each other. The far right are on the march.
The coming days and weeks in Britain are sure to be dramatic. And probably traumatic.
Britain’s elites need to bear in mind the lessons from France. Almost all of the points Guilluy makes about France could arguably be applied here too. There is a disconnection between the metropolis and periphery – or in our case, between London and the affluent university towns and the rest. And our Establishment is not exactly performing brilliantly under pressure. Brexit is complex but not impossible and people expect politicians to solve complex problems.
Abandoning or reversing Brexit would be the best possible way to make all of these problems worse – to confirm to the millions on Britain’s periphery that they do not matter. And to push us down the dangerous path that France appears to be locked into.