In 2014, the French writer Édouard Louis published “The End of Eddy,” a roman à clef based on his childhood in Hallencourt, a small town in the north of France. The world that it describes is brutal, marked by violence, prejudice, and pain. Like much of the surrounding region, Louis’s town suffers from post-industrial malaise; the vast majority of its residents vote for the far-right Front National. The novel’s protagonist, called Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s given name, which he later officially changed), is gay, and made to suffer habitual shame and abuse. When, as a teen-ager, he finally manages to escape for the nearby city of Amiens, it is as if a canary has somehow flown out of the coal mine.
Louis’s novel centers on an unsparing portrait of his family, whose ignorance and cruelty, especially when directed toward Eddy, can be nearly unbearable. (He has said that everything in the novel is true.) But Louis also sought to expose the way that poverty and neglect by the state had deformed the lives of those around him. When he considers his mother, he thinks of the women, “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. In France, “The End of Eddy” was seen as a burning letter sent from a forgotten place, and its effect was culturally explosive. Within a year of its publication, it had sold three hundred thousand copies.
In recent weeks, France has been seized by the protests of the gilets jaunes, an amorphous, leaderless group that consists, in part, of people like Louis’s family and former neighbors, who are furious with a government they feel has both forgotten and exploited them. Recently, on Twitter, Louis, who is twenty-six and lives in Paris, 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 paralyzes me,” he wrote. Earlier this week, we spoke over FaceTime about the gilets jaunes; Louis’s family; the case of Adama Traoré, a young black man whose death while in police custody, in 2016, became a flashpoint in France for issues of race and police brutality; and the political elasticity of protest movements.
The interview has been edited and condensed, and translated, in certain places, from the French.
Tell me why you decided to be at the gilets jaunes protest last Saturday.
I decided to go because I saw pictures from the movement. I was in the United States, in Providence, Rhode Island, and in those pictures, I saw 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 recognized, 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.
There was the emergence of the kind of body that we never see, and, along with it, the kinds of words that we never hear. People are saying, “I can’t manage to feed myself, or my family. Christmas is coming up, and I can’t buy presents for my kids.” And, for me, a sentence like that is so much more political, so much more powerful, than all of this discourse about “the Republic,” the “people,” “coexistence,” “democracy.” What does any of that mean? These grand concepts that don’t really reflect anything. Nothing really, nothing corporal, at least.
Can you describe the kinds of bodies that you’re talking about?
It’s 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 seven hundred euros a month. Five kids and two adults. Maybe you have to really come from that world to immediately identify it.
Actually, when I started to write books, it was because 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.
When did you come back to France?
I came back after the first demonstration. And so I saw that as soon as these voices emerged, as soon as these people emerged, a huge part of the political field and a huge part of the media was trying to shut them down. Immediately, there were several strategies. The first strategy and I saw it a lot in the U.S. because I read the papers in the U.S., was to say, “Ah, you know, they’re a lot of middle-class people.” The middle class in the French sense, so, not poor, not rich, but in between. I saw that on TV, among the journalists—people had a kind of pleasure in repeating that. For me, it was another strategy in order to not address the issue of poor people.
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Because to say “middle class” is to legitimatize the protesters by making them seem familiar, part of the usual protests in France?
Absolutely. It’s another way of not talking about extremely poor people, or about their suffering. And, in addition to that, “middle class” is a very complicated concept. You have some people who are really suffering, you have some situations with people making two thousand euros a month but having five kids, having a wife or a husband that they are divorced from, who live in the middle of nowhere and have to pay, like, hundreds of euros for gas every month. It’s very complicated, and for me, it was a way of not talking about it.
But the biggest argument to delegitimize the movement was to say, “Oh, this movement is racist, it’s homophobic, it’s anti-climate,” because people were protesting the gas tax. And what I saw was the mobilization of the bourgeoisie to try to silence this demonstration, this movement. It was, “Please, shut them up. They need to be shut up.”
That really struck me, on a personal level, because when I published my first two novels, “The End of Eddy” and “History of Violence,” which spoke about this milieu, which I grew up in—a milieu of extreme poverty, of people who have been socially dispossessed and geographically excluded—I spoke about racism and homophobia in that world. And when I published those books in France, people said, “Oh, Édouard Louis says that people in the working class are homophobic and racist, that’s not true!” And so I, who came from the working class, and who was trying to speak about it, was being told, “Shut up, it’s not true, they’re not racist, they’re not homophobic. The poor are bons vivants, they’re authentic.”
And why, do you think?
For me, it was simply a mechanism to stop the popular class from speaking. And so a few years later, now that there’s a movement that actually consists of those people, all the same people who attacked me are suddenly saying, “Oh, no, these people are racist, these people are homophobic, so we’ve got to shut them up.”
The dominant class, the bourgeoisie, doesn’t care about contradicting itself. One day, the working class were “authentic,” almost “good savages.” And the day after they were racist, homophobic, horrible people.
What you’re describing is like a mask being ripped off of society.
They were forced to say what they were, what they deeply think. I saw how much this kind of classism is ingrained in our society.
And of course, I don’t deny that there have been some homophobic things in this movement, some racist discourse, some racist acts. I know that. I’ve written about this milieu. I’ve written about my family. So I don’t deny that. I’m a gay person. I don’t say that homophobia is not a problem. I don’t say that it’s a secondary issue. But it’s precise because there has been some homophobia and some racism in this movement that we have to change this movement.
There is all of this pain, all of this suffering, that is expressed through the gilets jaunes. And, the question is, are these people are going to say, “We suffer because of the migrants, we suffer because of women’s rights,” as the far right says, or, “We suffer because of the violence of the dominant class, because of the government, because of Macron and Édouard Philippe”? People are trying to dismiss this movement by saying, “There’s some racism, there’s some homophobia.” But this is precisely the reason why we have to be there because we have to struggle in order to build another vocabulary.
When I was a child—and I don’t say it in order to talk about me but just because it’s the reality that I know the best, and I have the impression that I am more honest in talking about my own past—people like my father, my mother, people around me in the village, very often hesitated, when it was time to vote, between voting for the far right or voting for the left. Never for the mainstream right-wing parties, because they were the symbol of the dominant bourgeoisie. But they were always hesitating between the far right and the left, which was a way of saying, “Who is going to support me? Who is going to make me visible? Who is going to fight for me?” And so, which vocabulary am I going to use? Am I going to say, “I am suffering because of migrants, or because of social inequalities and classism”?
We know that the same thing happened in the United States. We know that some people who would have voted for Bernie Sanders voted for Donald Trump. When you suffer from poverty, from exclusion, from constant humiliation, you are just trying to find a way to say, “I suffer.”
Of course, there were, in my childhood, and I think in general, some people who were deeply racist, who will never change. When I was a child, it was some guys who had a croix gammée on their car, you know, the Hitlerian cross, or who have them tattooed on their skin.
But most of these people who voted for the far right were right-wing because the left hasn’t cared about them for so long. In the eighties, in the nineties, in the early two-thousands, the left-wing parties stopped talking about poverty, they stopped talking about pain at work, they stopped talking about precariousness. It’s the same throughout the world. So, the poor people, the working class, had the impression that no one cared about them anymore, and they started to vote for the far right.
How, with the gilets jaunes, do you imagine that the language around this movement could be reinvented? What would that require, or look like?
I think that what is important was for the left to be there, to be present. It’s already what started to happen with the gilets jaunes. At the beginning, you had a lot of right-wing people, some of the far-right—politicians or celebrities—who were supporting this movement. And then the movement started to become more left-wing because at the beginning they were talking only about gas, and now they are talking about social justice, equality.
I was there, last Saturday, as a part of the Comité Adama, which was created after Adama Traoré was killed by the police, two years ago. Several gendarmes stopped him—he wasn’t doing anything, he just didn’t have his I.D., and in France you can arrest someone if that person doesn’t have her or his I.D. but, obviously, they only do it against black people, people of color. It never happened to me. So, they arrested Adama Traoré. He didn’t want to be arrested, so he ran. It was his birthday, and he wanted to celebrate, he didn’t want to spend his night in jail just because he didn’t have his I.D. They stopped him, and three or four gendarmes put pressure on his body, asphyxiated him, and he died. Afterward, his sister, Assa Traoré, created the Comité Adama, which is now the most important organization that fights against racism in France, against police violence.
So, since the beginning, I have been part of this movement with Assa Traoré, and we’ve been there demonstrating together the last couple of weeks. At first, when some people from the media, from the bourgeoisie, were trying to dismiss the gilets jaunes movement, Assa Traoré said, “We will be there.” Many others did, too, and it challenged the vocabulary of this movement because it changes the face of who is seen to represent it. Our group marching looks different from the popular imagination of who the gilets jaunes are. I was walking with Assa Traoré, she’s a black woman. I’m a queer guy, I’m not very masculine. And we were part of the movement. We didn’t feel any violence from other people, except the police.
Now the thing that they are talking about is this violence—a car burnt, or the Arc de Triomphe being attacked. But, as many people have already said, what is this violence compared to the extreme violence of social domination, of poverty? My father is fifty years old. He has trouble walking. He cannot breathe at night without an apparatus so his heart doesn’t stop. And my father is young. The state of his body is due to social violence because he was a factory worker. At thirty-five, his back was destroyed in the factory. The French state, Nicolas Sarkozy, said, if you don’t go back to work, you will lose your welfare. And so now he’s fifty years old, he cannot walk anymore. What is a tag on the Arc de Triomphe compared to that? What is a car burning in comparison to that?
There’s been a lot of discussion of violence at gilets jaunes protests. We often see this word “casseur.” They’re vandals who show up at protests to break stuff, smash store windows, and things like that. Are they actually a part of the movement?
You have some casseurs who come to every single demonstration to break things. But there are also people who feel how unfair the world is, and they want to break everything because their lives have been broken, or because they saw broken lives around them. Some of them come from privilege, but you can come from a privileged milieu and think that all this violence around us is unbearable. So I wouldn’t dismiss it so easily. The question we should ask is not “Why are there some people breaking?” but “Why are there not more people breaking?”
My little sister was selling burgers at McDonald’s. She stopped school at sixteen, like my mother, like my father, like my grandmother, like everybody in my family. She was humiliated, she was insulted, she was treated so badly there. My little brother is an homme de menage, he is cleaning offices. People there don’t say hello, he doesn’t make any money. Why don’t people break more often? I don’t think that it’s my ideal. But, in terms of truthful social analysis, we should ask the question this way.
- Alexandra Schwartz is a staff writer at The New Yorker.