America captured France – UnHerd
France is no longer the country of Notre-Dame, nor the country of De Gaulle, where the Concorde was built and where a large bourgeoisie flourished. To understand this moment of profound transition, we must look beyond the results of the first round of the presidential election last weekend, and beyond the second round to come between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Election campaigns can only tell us a lot.
What is happening in France, as the sociologist Jérôme Fourquet has observed, is best understood as “the Great Metamorphosis”. No one has done more than Fourquet to unravel the misunderstandings that surround French society, and reveal what it is now, or what it will look like in the future. He is the sociologist of France as it is, not of what it was. The Economist or FinancialTimes wishes.
“The Great Metamorphosis” has begun, explains Fourquet in France before our eyes (2021), in the 1980s. This is the decade when the cultural core of France began to crumble in on itself and the characteristics of French society in its current form began to surface.
In 1983, strikes and violent protests by autoworkers, mostly immigrants from the Maghreb, made the Muslim minority visible for the first time in France. Images of the riots propelled the Front National to its first significant successes in the 1984 European elections. France’s anxieties over migration had begun.
Then, in 2005, French voters rejected the European Constitution in a referendum, despite its support by most of the media and the French political class. Here, Fourquet thinks, we could see for the first time a new divide, one that would determine political conflict in the future: between those who have benefited from globalization and those who have not.
In this context of worsening political discontent, French culture is changing. Older mores were disappearing, especially Christian ones, and Catholic ones in particular. Fourquet vividly demonstrates the disappearance of the influence of the Church on French sensibilities. In 1961, 38% of French Catholics said they went to mass every Sunday. In 2012, only 7% had done so. This sharp decline in the number of practicing Catholics is accompanied by a decrease in the number of vocations. At the outbreak of the Revolution, the number of priests, 170,000, was almost equal to their number in 1950. By 2015, it had fallen to 51,500. If the current trend continues, there will not be a single Catholic priest left. in France in 30 years.
Freed from this crumbling framework, French attitudes toward marriage, homosexuality, and children born to unmarried parents changed dramatically. In the sixties, marriage was still the dominant social norm, but today it has ceased to be so. In 1980, 11.4% of children were born out of wedlock; in 1990, it was 30% and in 2005, more than half of the children were born out of wedlock. If a teacher had started his career in 1980, he would have taught a class in which almost all the children had married parents. At the time of his retirement, however, this ratio would have reversed.
The latest stand for French Catholicism came when Francois Hollande legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. To an extent unheard of in the UK, Germany or Spain, French Catholics rallied against Hollande’s decision. The strike for all the marches drew tens of thousands of participants who disagreed with the new law, but to no avail. The Catholics finally understood that they were a minority, one of the islands of the “French archipelago”, as the title of one of Fourquet’s books says. Dechristianization, he believed, had entered its “terminal phase.”
Nature abhors a vacuum. As Christianity receded, other forces began to influence French society. Emancipation from tradition led to individualism. Fourquet measures this in birth names: In the early 1960s, the number of newborns with rare names – those that had only been given to three people so far – was less than 6,000. 1990, it had risen to nearly 18,000. But the real explosion came in 2016, when as many as 55,000 newborns had rare names. And the cultural component of Catholicism has been replaced by American pop culture.
Americanization, writes Fourquet, profoundly transformed France. While 27% of French people have visited the United States at least once, one in two of the rich have done so. The upper classes are fluent in English – Macron voters were the most proficient in the language, while Le Pen voters were the least – and primarily consume American media.
The less fortunate have their own cultural markers of Americanization. Once again, Fourquet analyzes the names. The Maries of French tradition have been replaced by Kevins (after Alone at home) and Dylans (after Beverly Hills 90210). The map of these American names coincides with the places where Marine Le Pen can count on her strongest support. Many Rassemblement national activists bear names like Jordan Bardella, now the party’s number two, or Davy Rodriguez, who headed his youth organization. Other phenomena of this low-status kitsch Americanization include the immense popularity of country music clubs, vintage American cars, and pole dancing across France, as well as the spread of the Buffalo Grill restaurant chain into hundreds. of places.
The elites and the working classes began to dream of American dreams. Fourquet calls one of them the “Majority Plaza” lifestyle, after the famous real estate agent Stéphane Plaza. In his television programs, he promotes an ideal shared by all of French society: a house with a garden, a desire that mimics the lifestyle of American suburbs. Depending on the class, this ideal takes different forms, but it often includes a swimming pool. This vision of opulence from America captured the imagination of the French, who built 1.3 million swimming pools in their country. Elsewhere, Fourquet says the last common experience of the “French archipelago” is a visit or “pilgrimage” to Disneyland – 75% of under-35s have visited the theme park.
Americanization is the only component of globalization that does not bitterly divide the French. According to Fourquet, the divide between those for whom globalization meant fulfillment and those for whom it meant dispossession, would, from 2017, become central to understanding France. As in the United States and Great Britain, globalization has swept away the French economy. As in the United States and Britain, its impact could have perverse consequences.
At the turn of the century, French telecommunications manufacturer Alcatel had 120 different types of factories scattered throughout the country. One of them was located in Lannion. This is where the Minitel was created and the first French mobile phone, Bi-bop, was invented. In 2001, the CEO of Alcatel said that in the new economy, factories were not necessary. Thousands of Lannionnais lost their jobs. Between 1999 and 2004, the city lost 10% of its population, then between 2004 and 2017, it dropped another 20%.
What happened to the inhabitants of Lannion? They left the middle class, which was remodeled everywhere by “the Great Metamorphosis”. It has led to a phenomenon that Fourquet calls “bipolarization”; society begins to look like an hourglass. The middle class is disintegrating, its lower layers falling into the lower classes and its upper layers rising into the upper classes.
This process is observed in leisure. the Thirty glorious were a period of social ascent, which resulted in a democratization of the ski slopes. Whereas in the past whole families of the middle class went skiing, today skiing has become an activity that only the wealthiest can afford. The appearance of hard discount stores is another sign of the erosion of the middle class. Its less well-off members cannot afford to maintain their consumption habits. This also explains, as Fourquet points out, the resounding success of Dacia cars. This Romanian brand, bought by Renault, was originally intended to develop on the markets of Eastern Europe. However, Dacia enjoyed great popularity in France, enabling those who would otherwise have had to turn to a used car to buy a new one.
Dacia drivers in the new France were more likely to work in warehouses, schools and retirement homes than in factories. It is these workers who have become the backbone of the Yellow Vests movement. The protesters were the people Fourquet had studied for decades; “proletarians working in logistics and services”, and those who juggled several trades to make ends meet. Jacline Mouraud, a Yellow Vests in the protest delegation that met with the French government, worked simultaneously as a hypnotherapist, accordionist and security guard. Fourquet sees the Yellow Vests as an example of the “minor class” once described by Gramsci. Similar to the farmers of the Italian Mezzogiornoconstantly agitated, but unable to articulate their grievances successfully.
In Fourquet’s work we can see the models that came to define modern France. The detachment of the elites from their country; the break-up of the middle class; the collapse of centuries-old traditions. His analyzes shed light on French politics. A reader of Fourquet could have predicted the failure of Eric Zemmour to win the votes of the National Rally this weekend. The electorate of Kevins who sing country music and appreciate Buffalo Grill belongs to a different universe than the Parisian essayist quoting de Maistre who recorded his best results in Saint-Tropez.
Without Fourquet’s writings, it can be difficult to understand that the second round between Macron and Le Pen is more than a political battle. It’s a clash between two worlds in France, between the two halves of Fourquet’s hourglass. A confrontation, as Disraeli once wrote of a divided England, of “two nations, between which there is neither intercourse nor sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were inhabitants of different zones or inhabitants of different planets.
What will France be after France? Fourquet warned that the islands of the French archipelago will continue to move away. Stark differences in consumption, lifestyles, mobility and wealth would only increase. He believed there were two ways to end this fragmentation. A new electoral system, based on proportional representation. And a definitive abandonment of the old French left-right divide, and the acceptance of a new policy, contested on one side by the winners of globalization, with the losers on the other.
Proportional representation seems a distant prospect. But on Sunday, France, where politics had been structured for more than half a century around two parties, changed dramatically. Socialists were no longer relevant in 2017. Now Republicans can’t even get 5% of the vote. During the second round, for the second time in a row, we will witness a showdown between the candidate from France, for whom the future and globalization mean the same thing, and the candidate from France, for whom globalization rhymes with decline. French politics has finally come to represent the society described by Fourquet.