In the spring of 1995, Jacques Chirac campaigned for the French presidency by offering a break from past politics. While previous liberal and progressive governments endorsed economic globalization, Chirac raised the alarm about its negative effects. He warned about the erosion of social mobility, the destruction of economic security, and the deepening of urban, ethnic, and religious divisions. This fracture sociale, Chirac said, compromised national unity and showed that the French system no longer worked. Moreover, an increasingly large segment of the electorate felt that the established parties no longer represented them and were attracted by populist alternatives. Running on the slogan La France pour tous, Chirac promised to turn the tide and restore unity.
Chirac might seem ahead of his time, given current concerns over globalization. But he was no prophet. The economic and social problems we now face were readily on display in the early 1990s. Yet few paid attention, and those who did, such as Chirac, rapidly moved on. By the end of 1995, after his election, Chirac had a new agenda. He focused on deficit reduction to meet the requisite criteria for European economic and monetary union. Thereafter, the narrative of the 1990s focused on Europe’s political and economic integration: a successful step away from the blood and soil politics of Europe’s past, a successful healing of Europe’s old wounds, and a successful expansion of universal prosperity.
This narrative was a fiction, and sometimes to challenge such narratives it takes fiction in turn. Set in the 1990s, Nicholas Mathieu’s 2018 novel And Their Children After Them (Leurs enfants après eux), recounts life in a de-industrialized French valley over the course of the decade. The book won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and was recently translated into English. The story is told primarily through the eyes of Anthony, a teenage boy.
For Anthony’s family and the valley’s other inhabitants, the 1990s are a decade of failures. His father, Patrick, fails to overcome his alcoholism. His mother, Hélène, fails to hold their family together. A boy from a Moroccan family, Hacine, fails as a drug dealer. Anthony himself fails to win the affections of an attractive girl in the valley, Steph. Steph is ambitious, a child of stable but uninspiring middle class parents, and aims to escape mediocrity tout court. At first, she is successful enough that one of her university professors pulls her aside to acknowledge her talents and tell her to aim high. But she fails as well. In the end, she moves to Canada to work as a waitress.
None of these characters make for interesting or intricate portraits; the novel’s dramas and dialogues depict crude vices and are often repulsive. But while the novel fails as noble literature, it is effective as sociology. It portrays a people defined by despair, who, lacking other prospects, are stuck with each other:
The men said little and died young. The women dyed their hair and looked at life with gradually fading optimism. When they got old, they retained the memory of their men, beaten down on the job, at bars or sick with silicosis, and their sons dead in car crashes, not counting the ones who packed up and left . . . among those people you got fired, divorced, cuckolded, or cancer.
As a writer, Matthieu’s talent lies in blending the thoughts of his characters with acute social commentary. We learn that “it’s the hour of the individual, the temp, the isolate,” as the scraps of work are divided up among the valley’s remaining denizens. Employment and money problems are pervasive. Those who do have steady jobs find themselves pushed around by new managers with American MBAs. They preach about “the essential forward march of a whole civilization” and complain that French practices stand in the way of “the promise of endless progress and the certainty of amazing unity.” The rule of administrative technique tightens. Instead of facing the risks of explosions at work, “you die by degrees, killed by humiliation, tiny demands, and petty surveillance at every stage of your day.”
The valley’s leaders are not cynics. They are progressives with positive visions of what will come. “Productivist notions were out of date,” one notable says. “The future lay in leisure activities,” in elaborate plans to build recreation centers and hiking trails. To achieve these plans, the notables play the economic system to their advantage by securing the approval of experts and getting state subsidies from every level of government, from the region to Paris to Brussels: “Studies would prove what he was saying, and subsidies would follow.” Playing the system to their advantage, these notables may think themselves lords, but “they were actually mediocre stewards for a rule operating elsewhere.” Repainting old edifices and constructing flashy buildings according to the latest fashions of architecture pass for economic renewal. Yet the valley’s inhabitants accept it all, “in the name of that most tenacious of ideas, progress.”
Beneath the notables, the valley’s poorest also have their own state-subsidized economy. Yet theirs is set up for “the management of poverty,” for their eventual extinction. “You had to wonder what kind of life those people could be leading,” some children of the notables speculate, “in their shabby housing, eating fatty food, hooked on video games and soap operas, spending their time making children and trouble, lost, enraged, marginalized. It was best to avoid asking yourself the question.”
What the notables and the lower classes in the valley have in common are two activities: sex and drugs. Adolescents go from one sexual encounter to another until they coast into permanent solitude or quasi-monogamy. Drugs are ubiquitous. Local doctors accommodate addicts by liberal dispensations of prescription drugs (“The whole valley was in palliative care, somewhere”). The harder drug trade mimics the old patterns of heavy industry, with similar modes of supply, personnel, and families all over Europe. The difference is that the new proletariat of street dealers has no conception of class and no conception of solidarity.
There are clear parallels between the deindustrialized societies of And Their Children After Them and Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s book that was recently turned into a Netflix film—the former’s episodes could easily occur in the Rust Belt. For instance, the pop culture consumed in both places is identical. But there are four important differences that disclose distinct French themes, which hint at the novel’s foreboding assessment of France’s political future.
First, there is the absence of religion. In Hillbilly Elegy, religion remains a residual form of solidarity. The characters often view Christianity in a positive light and give the impression of religiosity, even if it has been months or years since they set foot in a church. In And Their Children After Them, the meaning of religious language is completely lost. Anthony steps inside a church once, for a funeral. He does not understand any of it.
Second, the regional divides in And Their Children After Them are not between urban and rural counties. The divide is between Paris and the rest of France. To succeed, one must pass through Paris, but those who live in la France périphérique are lost in the city, tourists in their own country. When Anthony asks where the Eiffel Tower is, he is mockingly told, “It’s straight ahead. And if you keep going, you’ll see the ocean.” The city, as Steph realises while studying there, is “completely beyond her grasp . . . you had to have been born there.”
The third difference is how France applies meritocracy. Paris is not impregnable. To “grasp” Paris and become part of France’s elite, it is possible, through vigorous study, “to succeed there.” In France, “it isn’t enough to be cool and well-born.” Rather, “the world belongs to the students first in their class.” French republicanism offers a purer commitment to meritocracy than the contemporary United States, and this has its advantages. Unlike in the US, where affirmative action makes it even harder for the most studious white male from Appalachia to get into Yale, in France the system of accreditation-through-education is colorblind. The drawback to this is that everything requires accreditation, which means that everything depends on academic success.
In France, the American virtues of hard work and self-reliance cannot compensate for poor academic performance. Only those who passed with top marks can rise through the ranks to the highest echelons of French society. If you quit school early, the best you get is “underpaid and unfulfilling” jobs in manual labor. In a way, the worst fate is a poor job gained by poor academic performance. If your performance is only average, you get “mediocre diplomas that promised endless job searches, civil service tests taken as a last resort, and a variety of frustrating destinies.” You become part of that “category of citizens who were overeducated and underemployed, who understood everything but could do nothing,” growing “disappointed and angry”.
The fourth difference is how mass immigration casts its shadow. While this shadow lurks in the United States, it does not provoke the same sense of impending conflict. In his visit to Paris, Anthony finds Paris, the epicenter of France’s mass immigration, a complicated, dangerous city, because there are “immigrants at every turn, incredibly numerous and diverse, kinky hair, blacks, Chinese, millions of them.” The dream of a harmonious multicultural, multi-ethnic France strikes a seasoned police officer as a bit of “comic opium.” Getting along is not possible, as the interactions between Anthony and Hacine suggest. They grow up in the same town, and their fathers work in the same factory. They hold similar menial jobs and drop out of school around the same time. They can celebrate together and embrace when France makes the World Cup Finals. But these moments are fleeting. They are destined to hostility, continually finding ways to injure each other.
At first sight, politics appears epiphenomenal in And Their Children After Them. The novel’s social commentary emphasizes long-term trends that outlast particular political careers. Chirac is mentioned only once, whereas the local Front National offices, posters, and supporters make more regular appearances. But therein lies the novel’s subtle political evaluation. For a writer of the 2010s describing France of the 1990s, President Chirac is entirely forgettable. It is the Front National that matters, because its quiet but persistent presence discloses the lasting political consequences of these social fractures.
Politics, then, is not epiphenomenal at all. Each dysfunctional character and detail of a ruined society prompts the reader to consider its political implications. Disappointed by other efforts to find solidarity, Anthony makes a discovery. Only the valley provides him with a sense of belonging. This conclusion is disquieting. The failures of France’s liberal progressive regime impel its depleted and demoralized denizens to look for forms of solidarity based on the soil from which they sprang. Contrary to what its adherents claim, liberal progressivism does not heal Europe’s old wounds. It rips them open.