A Literary View of the Election

14 April 2022

Most commentary on the election has concentrated on the personalities and policies of the candidates. What little attention has been devoted to deeper structural changes in French society has tended to focus on three things: a geographical divide between urban areas on the one hand and rural or peri-urban areas on the other, with the latter favoring Le Pen; an educational divide, in which those with more formal schooling and diplomas favor Macron; and a generational divide, in which older voters prefer Macron (or Zemmour) while younger ones gravitate toward Le Pen.

The novelist Nicolas Mathieu offers a complementary view in his novel Connemara. Mathieu is also the author of Leurs enfants après eux, which won the Prix Goncourt in 2018. Like Connemara, the earlier novel is set in eastern France, a once-proud industrial region now fallen on hard times and become a Lepenist stronghold. Some readers might be tempted to reduce the author to a regionalist. But that would be like calling John Updike a regionalist because he set his Rabbit novels in the declining industrial heartland of Pennsylvania. Both authors grew up in the regions they describe, owed the discovery of a wider world to the brains that earned them educational success, but continued to draw sustenance from their home soil while seeking to tap into the deeper currents roiling their societies.

Mathieu’s latest novel revolves around Hélène, whose stellar performance as a student launches her on a path to a well-paid career as a consultant for a firm much like McKinsey–interestingly in view of the role the rather overblown scandal involving McKinsey has played in the campaign. Her work not only fails to satisfy her but also alienates the local politicians and bureaucrats whom her firm is hired to advised. They don’t like being told what to do by people younger and less experienced than themselves, whose only authority lies in their educational credentials. While these resentful officials may be more than a little corrupt and less than optimally “efficient,” the unwanted intrusion of “outside experts” not only undermines their stature in the eyes of their constituents but also diminishes their relevance to the community, which used to see these officials as capable of relaying their voices and grievances to far-away Paris, where the real decisions are made. Here one sees the origins of the complaint voiced by many a Gilet Jaune and Le Pen voter: “They don’t listen to us.”

The recent “territorial reorganization” of France, which consolidated many towns and communes into larger administrative units, disrupted traditional lines of communication, increased surveillance and accountability to central authorities in the name of “efficiency,” and brought consultants into the provinces to oversee the operation. The novel also shows how officials of Macron’s nascent party sought to recruit politically inexperienced people from the ranks of managers and consultants whose backgrounds resembled their own: the new recruits were people who owed their positions to their education, which had made of them déracinés, to use the term used by another novelist, Maurice Barrès, back in the nineteenth century to describe the disruption of traditional French society in another period of broad social transformation. The difference today is that these young déracinés have become parachutés, returned to the provinces after a stint in the capital, there to dominate the locals who have failed to surmount the educational bar preventing mass exodus from the provincial backwater.

The irony is that Hélène’s disappointment with her high-flying métier, coupled with the affair she begins with a man who was a local sports hero (like Updike’s Rabbit) in his youth but has since subsided into the unremarkable life of a representative Everyman (again like Updike’s Rabbit), reconciles her to the life she had once thought only of escaping.

There is nothing didactic about Mathieu’s writing, yet it captures, I think, in a way no sociological analysis has, the wellsprings of the deeper resentments that have baffle analysts of French politics for some time now.


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