a photo of yellow vest protesters in Paris, France.
Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

French geographer Christophe Guilluy has a controversial diagnosis of working-class resentment in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the Yellow Vests.

Ever since the twin 2016 ballot-booth surprises of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, academics, journalists, and policymakers have been looking intently at geographic divides—in particular, the gap between urban and rural communities. The arrival of the Gilets Jaunes—the Yellow Vests—on the streets and squares of French cities in 2018 prompted a similar searching. Led initially by disgruntled motorists protesting government fuel taxes, the Yellow Vests tapped a familiar vein of populist anger against an increasingly out-of-touch urban elite. To understand what the movement wanted, many turned to the work of French geographer Christophe Guilluy.

Before the Yellow Vests emerged, Guilluy laid out a searing indictment of trans-Atlantic capitalism and its urban forms in his books La France Périphérique and Twilight of the Elites, the latter of which has recently been published in English. Focusing on smaller French cities and rural areas, the 54-year-old writer takes aim at liberal articles of faith around openness, cosmopolitanism, protest, and multiculturalism. Provocative in print, congenial in conversation, Guilluy spoke with CityLab on why “urban” is a useless concept, the problem with the “cool bourgeoisie,” and why Notre Dame belongs to more than just Parisians. Our conversation was translated by Dylan Yaeger and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Métropolisation, you write, is “the domestic corollary of globalization.” But this divide between the metropole and the so-called periphery is not simply the urban-rural divide, is it?

I wanted to highlight the regions that are the most isolated from the large globalized cities. These regions can be rural, but they can also be urban—for example, little cities or de-industrialized medium-sized cities. The idea was explicitly not to compare cities to the country. I think that it is a distinction that tells us nothing. Instead, I wanted to illustrate that there are successful economic regions today in which the spoils of employment—the majority of the jobs and wealth—are concentrated, and other territories that have suffered an economic reshaping with far fewer jobs, much less wealth. I call these regions peripheral France, but I could very well call them peripheral America.

Has French management of its territories and departments and transportation worsened this effect?

We have talked a lot in France about decentralization, which is positive, but from the idea of having to decentralize Paris we ended up recreating the same system of métropolisation within all the large regions in France. That is to say that in all the regions of France you have one large city in which most of the jobs and wealth are concentrated. This economic model polarizes employment, but it also polarizes the territories. What has happened in the last 20 years in France is that power has become more concentrated in large cities, not only Paris but also Lyon and Toulouse. I could also use the British example, with the hyper-concentration of power and wealth in London, for example.

It’s interesting, the question of how we even know any of this. Urban data is at once overwhelming and sometimes unreliable. You point out the huge differences between the figures of INSEE, the national statistics bureau of France, and Eurostat, the EU’s statistical body, on French urbanization levels. This is in part a definitional issue, but there are also political implications, you suggest?

Yes, definitely. I go back to my distinction between the France of large cities and peripheral France. I wanted to show that the urban-rural divide doesn’t mean anything anymore. Statistics, for example, tell us that France is 90 percent urban. There are even notes attached to these statistics that say 95 percent of French people live under an urban influence. Now I’m just waiting for the next batch of statistics to be released that say that 100 percent of the population live in cities. So what? There are cities and there are cities.

When one lives in a tiny “city” they are “urban,” but they don’t have anything close to the same economic, social, or cultural environment as those in large metropolises. We can see that this urban-rural split is nonsense in France, in the United States, and in Great Britain. I wanted to illustrate that statistics, and even the concept of “urban” itself does nothing to help us understand our social reality.

You describe protests, the sort that occurred after the Charlie Hebdo attack for instance, as a sort of luxury for big city residents. You argue that participatory democracy, an article of faith for modern urbanists, can’t bring about structural reform. Instead, you describe a form of resistance to globalization that prioritizes place—a “sovereignism from below” that you call “a rational response to a neoliberal global model that destroys all sense of community.”

Yes. It was by looking at the working class that I was able to draw the geographic contours of peripheral France. The problem with urbanists is that they often begin with geography to get to people. I did exactly the opposite. And when you do that you come to realize that the majority of the working class in the West live in places that do not count anymore, that no longer exist culturally. That is why much of my focus is on that issue.

Today, there’s an over-mediatization of the metropolis, based on the idea that ultimately everyone will benefit from métropolisation. But in France, only 40 percent of the population at the most live in big metropolises [such as Paris, Lyon, and Bordeaux]. We believed that this population would become the majority. It did not. Above all, we are experiencing a social shift: Large metropolises are chasing away the working class.

What is interesting is that the Western working class is no longer at the forefront of the economic model, and ultimately it finds itself geographically relegated. The real estate market creates the conditions for the presence of the people that business needs to function, and today the working class lives in places that matter the least. It is this economic rupture that leads to a cultural rupture, and eventually a very, very strong political rupture.

I would argue that cities may be sites of globalization, but they have also become icons of a sort of forward-leaning internationalism. See how Paris, for example, is taking actions around carbon emissions, pollution, and traffic. And these actions are in fact applauded and copied by cities around the world to combat climate change.

Of course. That’s the paradox. The city engages in a very progressive discourse on the environment, socially very progressive, very progressive on openness. This progressive discourse belongs to the “cool bourgeoisie.” The bourgeoisie of the 21st century is very cool. It talks about an “open society” but lives in large metropolises that have become the new medieval citadels. That’s the paradox.

For example, when we look at the environmental vote in France, it is concentrated in the large cities. They engage in a very progressive discourse about the environment, but in reality they’re big polluters. The people who live in large metropolises are also the most mobile people. They vote for the environment and then take a plane to New York for breakfast. But they are very cool!

And in a similar fashion, they talk all about an “open society” but live in these metropolises that have become little bubbles. It is the paradox of the dominant discourse, a discourse which is very progressive but that leads to very negative consequences, notably for the working class.

On the openness question, you note that a city like Paris is in fact composed of myriad invisible barriers and hides its class divides. Anatole France famously wrote, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” You describe the value of openness a bit like that—it seems like a social good, but in fact is very sensitive to socioeconomic difference.

Yes, of course. All this is very superficial. That’s the problem with the cool bourgeoisie. The cool bourgeoisie does not accept its class position. In contrast to the traditional bourgeoisie, it does not acknowledge a rank in the social hierarchy. It refuses the very idea of a society that is divided by class, and imposes its choices on society. But when doing this it shuts itself into these little bubbles, and it’s regularly the class that uses invisible barriers to segregate itself.

For example, Paris is the champion in France for bypassing school districting. I am not sure if you have the equivalent in the United States, but [in France] you do not send your children to the neighborhood public school when there are too many immigrants. You don’t tell anyone [that]; you just don’t send them. And you continue to say how important an open society is, but with your residential and school choices you protect yourself. That’s what I call an invisible barrier. So, you segregate yourself but continue to talk about an open society. That’s the paradox.

I wonder if you might reflect on the globalized city as symbol. Despite all these barriers, when the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral occurred, people within Paris but also all over the world were affected. Is this just a sort of bourgeoise, tourist sentimentalism, or can it be that these cities matter to us even if they are not entirely ours?

Yes, of course it is a global symbol and these sites of memory are at the heart of great cities. I think this goes beyond the question of métropolisation. Notre Dame is something that speaks to all the inhabitants of France and of Europe who live in both large metropolises or in small towns. So, it is a symbol that transcends the large globalized city.

You also note that the metropole as economic engine is not going anywhere. Putting universities in rural areas or smaller towns, you suggest, might help shape a different future. If you were forced to look out a decade, how does this story end?

I am not wishing for a clash, and I think there will be a soft landing. We have a problem today. The destiny of the Western working class is tied to an economic model that creates a ton of wealth but does not make a society. For the first time in history, working people do not live where the wealth is being created. That has never happened. In the past, the factory workers lived in the industrialized cities. And there was a coherence between the population that benefited from the economic model. Today the economic model does not create a society. That is to say: It creates wealth, it creates a set of very concentrated jobs, but it does not allow for peripheral France, for ordinary people, to find their place in globalization.

I believe the future is one of decentralization. Today one needs to think about the territories, starting with the small villages and medium towns. But to do this one needs to prioritize. The future of Western democracies is to find an economic model that’s not an alternative to the model of large metropolises, but rather complementary. It is not about suppressing the large metropolises. I live in Paris. I like Paris a lot. A fantastic city. But it will be necessary to find an economic model that integrates the largest number of people, and integrates the territories, notably of peripheral France.

And so, ultimately, I think that what is interesting is to see that the global economic model has produced the same effects in all the Western democracies. We cannot continue to act as if the Yellow Vests or Trump’s electorate or the Brexiteers don’t exist. These people exist. They exist in regions very removed from the globalized city, and we need to come up with an economic model for them. We don’t have a choice. They will be here for around 100 years. So, whatever else, we need to think differently about space.

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