The voices of the gilets jaunes in literature: ‘No one is talking about us’

5 minutes to read
Column
Odile Heynders
20/12/2018

The current protests of the gillet jaunes in France developed from a grassroots revolt over fuel tax into a massive disapproval of the president, the government and politics in general. Most media analysts contend that the belligerent atmosphere emerged so quickly due to the fact that people randomly met on social media and were not organized or represented by one official spokesperson. This, however, is a too simplifying explanation.

Edouard Louis, the literary voice of the gilets jaunes

At least one public intellectual has more than once explained that the gap between the workers and the bourgeois class has widened enormously over the last decades. Young but already acclaimed writer Édouard Louis (b. 1992) has described the struggles of workers in post-industrialist rural areas. His auto-fictional observations of the milieu of poverty in which he grew up have been detailed, raw and shocking. In a recent pamphlet, Qui a tué mon pėre [Who killed my father] (2018), Louis openly accuses Emmanuel Macron and other politicians of destroying the body and life of his father.

On 10 December after weeks of protest by the gilets jaunes, president Macron addressed the French people in a 13 minutes speech on primetime television. His main claim was that the anger and indignation was ‘deep and legitimate’ and built up in a period of 40 years of malaise. He ordered concrete measures to help protesting workers and promised an increase of the minimum wage by 100 euros a month, as well as the cancelling of a planned tax on pensions under 2000 euros. He concluded his televised performance at the Elysée with the words ‘We are at a historic moment in our country. With dialogue, respect, and engagement, we will succeed. My concern is you, my only combat is for you – our only battle is for France.’

Rhetorically, these sentences are over-designed with personal pronouns: we, our, we, my, you, my, you, our, in order to underline the bond between the president and the citizens. The point being, evidently, that most of the protesters feel that they are very different from the politicians in Paris, whom they consider elite, arrogant and out of touch with the harsh reality in (the rural regions of) France.

Literature as the voice of the people

Young and hailed writer Édouard Louis, already a best-seller author in France, has repeatedly pointed at the lack of knowledge of politicians in regard to the effects of the political decisions they take. In his debut, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule [The End of Eddy] (2012) Louis described his life as a young gay boy in a village in Picardy in the North of France. The post-industrial depression led to poverty and to rage and anger of the working-class men who could not afford a decent living and escaped into racism, homophobia and brutality. In France The End of Eddy sold three hundred thousand copies within the year of its publication. 

His second novel, Histoire de la Violence [History of Violence] (2016), is the auto-fictional story of the experience of rape and its post-traumatic repercussions. Again, Louis writes a painful narrative about his own life, and about the violence, shame and humiliation that is part of it.

the ruling class in France can vote for a left or right wing party, but whatever they vote, it will not effectuate substantial changes in their lives.

As said, this year Louis published the booklet, Qui a tué mon père (2018), in which he addresses his father, who has not yet died, but is not able anymore to have a respectable life and self-esteem. The pamphlet gives insight in the motivation and frustration of the gilets jaunes, who are protesting on roundabouts all over France. 

The pamphlet is an effective traditional literary genre, and offers a short text in form of a booklet containing information or arguments about one single subject. Famous writers in the 18th century, such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, wrote pamphlets as reasoned discourses in which they expressed the philosophy of the Enlightenment. With the French revolution, pamphlets became more critical and polemical. 

Édouard Louis' booklet can be considered a pamphlet in that it underlines one critical argument: the ruling class in France can vote for a left or right wing party, but whatever they vote, it will not effectuate substantial changes in their lives. For the ruling class politics is an ‘aesthetical issue’, a perspective on the world, and on themselves, but never something that has consequences for everyday life. But ‘to us’, Louis writes, ‘politics was an issue of life or dying’ (Louis, 2018: 66)

Politics and the people

The development of this argument is based on memories of Louis as the queer son of a father who did not succeed in life. The father was not able to finish secondary school, he had to work in a factory – just like his father and grandfather did. School was something for girls or faggots, not for real men. This obsession with manliness has condemned the father to poverty, lack of money, lack of knowledge on what was going on in the world. The son learns at school about history and asks his father questions about the fall of the Berlin wall, but then realises that his father was kept outside of the world. “You have not lived your own life, you have lived beside it’ (Louis 2018, p. 63).  The father got injured in the factory and after recovery, he kept on having pain in his back. 

But the politics of successive politicians such as Jacques Chirac, Xavier Bertrand, Nicolas Sarkozy, Martin Hirsch, Francois Hollande, Manuel Valls, and Myriam El Khomri – there is emphasis in naming the names – has certainly not made life better for someone with a broken body: the father was eventually forced to work as road-sweeper, to clear the waste of others. And finally, there is Emmanuel Macron, who accuses the good-for-nothings of opposing the reforms in France. Shame and humiliation are even further bringing the father down.

Literature should not be about made up characters and circumstances, but about social issues, shame, and (in)visibility. The writer in 2018/19 has to radically be involved in the present.

The pamphlet is a touching address of the father, who in the end asks his son if he still is doing politics. In an interview of 14 December 2018 in The New Yorker Louis explains his stance

He describes that he joined the gilets jaunes because he thinks that the grand concepts such as ‘the Republic’, the ‘people’, ‘democracy’ do no longer reflect anything real or corporal. People feel excluded, ‘no one is talking about us’ his mother used to say. These are people who experience how unfair the world is. Louis tells about his kin:

"My little sister was selling burgers at McDonalds. 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 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."

Les invisibles, the deplorables and 'the-good-for-nothings'

No one of his family joins the gilets jaunes; they live in a provincial village and for them it is difficult to go. In the pamphlet as well as in the interview the perspectives of the invisibles are confronting. 

Some journalists accuse Édouard Louis of overdoing the poverty, others celebrate his engagement and relatedness to the theoretical work of Michel Foucault and Didier Éribon. What is definitely clear is that this young writer has a very bold message about literature. Literature should not be about made up characters and circumstances, but about social issues, shame, and (in)visibility. The writer in 2018/19 has to radically be involved in the present.

References

Édouard Louis (2014), The End of Eddy, Translated by Michael Lucey, London: Vintage Publishing.

Édouard Louis (2016), History of Violence, Translated from the French by Lorin Stein, London: Harvill Secker.

Édouard Louis (2018), Ze hebben mijn vader vermoord, Vertaald door Reintje Ghoos en Jan Pieter van der Sterre, Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, p. 66.