Édouard Louis opened the door to the apartment at the top of the Tour Perret, the only skyscraper in the northern French city of Amiens. He said hello warmly before resuming his position in front of a large window, which looked onto a boulevard that cut through town and then vanished into green fields. The apartment belonged to someone called Noppe, who must have been an amateur artist and collector with a nostalgic idea of globe-trotting. On one wall hung a painting that bore the owner’s name, which somewhat stereotypically depicted four African masks suspended in a cloud of hieroglyphs; across from it stood a display case containing regional glassware and a number of vintage die-cast cars. Louis was in the midst of a preliminary shoot for a documentary with the working title “Édouard Louis, or the Transformation,” and the filmmaker, François Caillat, had rented the apartment for its views. “Now you have Amiens at your feet,” Caillat said. “When you arrived, it wasn’t like that.”
A cameraman and a sound operator closed in on Louis as Caillat positioned him. They requested a sound test, and Louis, who attended a performing-arts high school in Amiens, sang a short tune, an old song by the ’70s French pop star Daniel Balavoine called “The Singer”: “I want to succeed in life, be loved, be beautiful, earn money/Above all be intelligent/But for all that, it’s a full-time job.”
At 28, Louis is tall, statuesque, with sharp, angular features. He is also one of France’s most widely read and internationally successful novelists. He seems, however, to have skirted the complicated psychological dynamics that youthful fame can inflict. His sentences are punctuated with a lighthearted, reassuring laugh. Occasionally, you could see the drama student’s checklist reel through his mind: He would straighten his spine, press his shoulders back and down as he looked into the camera. Caillat asked if he could swing open the giant window to film Louis leaning out over town. Louis concurred, though with a faint cry of protest: “I’m not at all the type of person to open a window,” he said.
The boundaries of the self are central to the three novels that Louis has published since 2014, and perhaps even more central to understanding the prodigious reception they’ve had in France. His first novel, “The End of Eddy,” became an international best seller and has been most accurately described as a “nonfiction novel.” In it, Louis recounted the desolate poverty he experienced growing up in the tiny village of Hallencourt, 20 miles from Amiens, in the remote reaches of France’s postindustrial north. “It was a literary bomb,” the philosopher and sociologist Didier Eribon, a close friend of Louis’s, told me, that upset the routine “navel-gazing of the cultural bourgeoisie.” Since then, some in France have questioned whether this precocious award-winning author, whose works have been translated into two dozen languages and adapted for the stage by Europe’s most prestigious directors, is really qualified to speak for those he left behind. Louis, in turn, likes to flip the question around: Had he not left Hallencourt, received the best education available in France and altered the way he spoke, ate and dressed, would French literary circles have expressed such profuse empathy toward him? Would they have cared at all?
Louis arrived in Amiens after fleeing the cruelty of life as a closeted teenager in Hallencourt. “I had no previous experience of being in a city,” Louis said to the camera. Caillat, looking like an American tourist in slouchy khakis and a striped polo shirt, asked him what it had been like for him to live there. “I remember a rainy city, with a certain architecture, which I think constitutes part of what I am,” Louis said. Though it was late summer, the sky was accommodatingly pale. “The bricks of the north and the gray sky, it’s a kind of radicality of melancholy.” Five years later, Louis left for Paris to attend graduate school and only then felt sufficiently at ease with himself and his social environment to come out publicly. “It’s strange, because Amiens, for me. … ” He trailed off. “Often when you try to reinvent yourself, there are intermediary places in the reinvention of the self,” he said. “You think it’s a place of arrival, but in fact it turns out to be a place of departure.”
Louis is seen primarily as a literary figure in France, but he studied sociology in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, perhaps France’s most hallowed institution of advanced education; many of the closest members of his circle are social scientists. In fact, Louis and Caillat first met five years earlier, when Louis worked as a consultant on a film that Caillat made about Michel Foucault, the iconic philosopher (a concept that might only exist in France). A year before Louis achieved broader fame, he published his first book, a collection of essays that he commissioned and edited on Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist of social class.
Louis has a way of making all conversation feel like a late-night cram session for a final exam on 20th-century Continental philosophy; a heady excitement lurks in everything he says, often culminating in a considered appraisal of how a certain theory explains a particular emotion or behavior. Caillat observed that Louis was the opposite of the traditional French hero figure, who feels that he is destined for something greater than the conditions of his birth. “People tell me I’m different,” Louis said, “but I didn’t want to be different — I was forced to in spite of myself. I wasn’t born different, I became different.”
After half an hour, Caillat decided to move outside into the street to shoot a few city scenes. Filming would continue in front of Louis’s high school, a few blocks away. As the crew packed up, Louis scooped up a plastic bag containing hair gel and a tiny blue earring that he’d removed for the camera. A rectangular dish of potpourri on the kitchen table had become crooked, and Louis attentively straightened it before heading for the door. The crew squeezed into the elevator, leaving space for one more body, and at Louis’s insistence I wedged myself in. Louis disappeared into the stairwell, calling out that he would meet us in the lobby, 23 flights down.
The Édouard Louis phenomenon in France has been analogized by some American reviewers to that of J.D. Vance, the Ohioan author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” in the United States. It’s a comparison that might work better if Vance were a communist inspired by the poetics of Toni Morrison rather than an aspirant to political office in the mold of Ronald Reagan. Still, both writers escaped the static, endemic poverty of forgotten places and climbed, against fearful odds, to the top of their countries’ elite education systems, writing damning accounts once they arrived. Both also became important public figureheads in the political movements convulsing their countries: Louis, who has been an activist since he was a teenager, was a highly visible supporter of the “Yellow Vest” protest movement that emerged across France in the fall of 2018, in response to Macron’s proposal to raise taxes on fuel, which disproportionately affected the working and middle class.
As with Vance’s book, “The End of Eddy” was a kind of unbidden oracle, offering, without really intending to, the possibility of a timely explanation of tumultuous events. It coincided in France with the “Manif pour Tous,” movement, or “Protest for All,” a reactionary response to the policy passed by François Hollande, then France’s president, called “Marriage for All,” which extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. Tens of thousands of conservatives, many from traditional Catholic backgrounds, marched across the country against the “demolition of the family,” foreshadowing the electoral wave that would propel the candidacies of both Marine Le Pen and the 2017 ultraconservative “trado” (traditional Catholic) François Fillon. This in a country where the influence of Freud, the idea that a properly raised child must have both a feminine and a masculine role model, remains potent.
“We were in a big debate about gender theory,” Marion Dalibert, a professor of media studies at the University of Lille, who has written extensively about Louis, told me. The media portrayal of these debates had tied homophobia in France, perhaps unfairly, to Catholics and Muslims. When Louis’s novel came out, Dalibert said, “ the white working classes also came to be connected to homophobia.” Jean Birnbaum, the literary editor of the newspaper Le Monde, told me that “up to that point, there was this idea that sexual politics was a ‘bobo’ question — a bourgeois question, generated by a certain neighborhood in the center of Paris.” Louis’s book insisted that this was everyone’s debate, Birnbaum said, planting it firmly within other debates “about immense poverty and social misery.”
Louis was born Eddy Bellegueule (which in French means “nice face” or, more precise, “nice mug”) in Hallencourt in 1991. He was his father’s first child and son (though not his mother’s, who was married before and who brought Louis’s half brother and sister into the new hybrid family). This was significant, because Louis’s father, who left school at 14 to work for a brass-parts manufacturer, imagined his firstborn inhabiting this given name, which was inspired by American TV and was, Louis writes, that of a “tough guy.” Life in Hallencourt was spare and harsh. There wasn’t enough hot water for everyone in the household to shower every day, and the most consistent source of light was the television screen. When food was scarce, Eddy’s parents would send him to the grocer to buy on credit, thinking the owners wouldn’t say no to a child. As Louis grew older, his father became alarmed when he discovered that his son didn’t like soccer, girls or pub brawls. His parents constantly pleaded with him to “stop putting on airs,” asking themselves why their son had to behave like a “sissy.”
In Hallencourt, Louis’s parents were not the only ones reacting to him in that way. Eddy found himself the target of perpetual harassment at school, including by two bullies, “the first tall with red hair, and the second short with a hunchback,” whose reign of terror he describes in painstaking physical detail in the opening scene of “The End of Eddy”: “The gob of spit dripped slowly down my cheek, thick and yellow, like the noisy mucus that obstructs the throats of old people or people who are ill, with a strong, sickening smell to it.” By the time the reader comes to the end of “The End of Eddy,” there is a kind of Proustian doubling-back, so that the very first lines (which, like a hit single, have taken on a fame of their own in France) may now be fully understood: “From my childhood I have no happy memories,” Louis writes. “I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: It somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.”
To get away from the bullying and the general misery of Hallencourt, Louis auditioned for, and was accepted by, a residential theater program at the arts high school in Amiens. There, he encountered the children of the professional class for the first time. Everything about him changed; or rather, he changed everything about himself — the way he dressed and spoke, the music he listened to and, eventually, his name. (“Louis” is Eribon’s middle name and also that of the main character in “It’s Only the End of the World,” a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce) As we wandered through town with the camera crew, he remembered a friend who once invited him for lunch. Having largely subsisted on processed meats and pasta, he was served a tomato salad for the first time. I asked him what his memory of it was. “It was slimy,” he said, laughing.
In 2009, Louis entered the university in Amiens, and the following year attended a talk by Eribon, the sociologist and author of a definitive biography of Foucault. Eribon had recently published “Return to Reims,” a personal book in which he wove together memoir, sociological analysis and political commentary. It recounted an emotional trip home to Reims, a town on the Champagne route not far from Amiens, where he grew up the gay child of factory workers. Louis, reading Eribon’s book, had the feeling that it explained his own life to him, perhaps better than his own perceptions of his own life. After the talk, he approached Eribon, who invited him to have a drink with a group of professors, and eventually Louis, a first-year student, joined Eribon’s graduate seminars. Eribon had also been close friends with Pierre Bourdieu. Louis, at 18, embarked on a course of reading, starting with Foucault and Bourdieu. “As soon as I quoted a book, he had read it by the following week,” Eribon once told Le Monde.
A year later, Eribon encouraged Louis to apply for the graduate program at the École Normale Supérieure. Louis was accepted and moved to Paris, leaving behind Amiens for the metropolis, where he could live freely as a gay man. It was also there, confronted with liberal circles that seemed utterly oblivious to the lives of families like his, that Louis began to write. When, eventually, he submitted the manuscript of “The End of Eddy” to a publisher, the publisher worried that the French public simply wouldn’t believe that the kind of poverty Louis described still existed in France.
Louis sees literature to a large extent as a political project, one that he believes may accomplish more than politics itself; the language of politics, he argues, is meant to conceal rather than reveal the truth. He often says that he hopes to confront readers “with what they don’t want to see.” But he also stresses the humility inherent in the act of writing. “I always write with a sense of shame,” Louis told me. After the shoot wrapped in Amiens, I met him back in Paris at what might be the only working-class cafe in the city’s 14th arrondissement, an unadorned space that sells espressos and lottery tickets on the cheap. Louis typically works until 2 or 3 in the morning and sleeps until noon, and he suggested we meet at around 4 p.m., though he showed up a few minutes late, perhaps intentionally. (A friend of his later told me that Louis finds being on time a “bit conformist.”) He knew the cafe’s Vietnamese owners well and sat down without ordering anything. “I have this feeling that I am here in front of my computer every day, for five hours, six hours, seven hours, when I could be in the street,” he said. “When I write, I compare my life to my mother’s, for example, and I think: What are you writing when she actually had to live it? From age 25 to 45 she was with a macho tyrant” — Louis’s father — “who took away her freedom, and you, what are you going to do, just write?”
Louis speaks of the decision to leave Hallencourt as the “tragedy of escape”: “It was a failure to conform to the norms of masculinity,” he said. But certainly, he had ambitions. The Malaysian writer Tash Aw, who has become close friends with Louis and is 20 years older, regularly spent months at a time in Hallencourt with his French partner, who is from the region. One day, “when there was still a bakery in town,” Aw told me, his partner came home and said to him: “There’s a 15-year-old, you know the guy we see walking around the street, who is working there on Saturdays. He says he wants to become a writer. Maybe you can go and talk to him.” Aw said, laughing, that he replied: “You know what? I’m finishing my novel. I really just cannot deal with this — it’s Hallencourt, it’s never going to have a writer.” Years later, after Louis published his first novel, Aw ran into him at a literary festival in Lillehammer, Norway. He introduced himself and told Louis that he already knew who he was, and that he knew his entire family too.
There seems a certain ambivalence to Louis’s life now, an appreciation of and pleasure in accomplishment coupled with a measure of guilt about what it has brought him. He constantly turns the conversation to the needs of others, as if to reassure himself of his own intentions. Louis’s relationship with his family has become a kind of casualty of his immense success, subject to a public scrutiny that is no less difficult for being expected. After “The End of Eddy” was published, French journalists descended on Hallencourt to fact-check Louis’s portrait of the town. The Courrier Picard, a regional newspaper based in Amiens, filmed a short clip, which was picked up by a national broadcaster, with Louis’s mother and younger siblings appearing shellshocked and protesting that they didn’t recognize themselves in the book’s portrayals. Louis accused the journalists of exhibiting “racism of class.” He reflected later, however, that while the book had angered his mother, it had actually repaired his relationship with his father. “People surprise you sometimes,” he said. (I did not talk to the family, as they and Louis have understandably become reluctant to speak of the matter publicly and a certain amount of strain still exists among some family members. He worried aloud that I would publish the location of his apartment in Paris, and that one of his brothers would find out where he lived.)
When I attended a talk that Louis gave with Aw in Berlin last September, Aw tried to ask him about his relationship with his father. “I have seen you with your father, a little-known secret, but I have,” Aw said. “And I was trying to figure out when I saw you what your relationship was.” Louis deflected. “You ask very difficult questions,” he said. “I thought we were going to talk about literature, which is much easier.” Everyone laughed. Louis retreated into a consideration of how his father’s willingness to conform to masculine norms has made the relationships in his life more difficult. Aw eventually gave up and moved on. At another point in the talk, Louis likened publishing his book to an experience described in one of Aw’s own novels, in which a journalist tells the story of a poor migrant who has committed a murder. The journalist writes a book about the migrant’s story and throws a chic literary party to celebrate its publication. The migrant comes to the party, but he doesn’t really understand what’s going on around him. “Sometimes I have the feeling that the books I am writing are a party for the people I used to live with, but that they cannot attend,” Louis said.
It’s a complication of the genre that cropped up again with Louis’s second novel, “History of Violence,” published in 2016. Also autobiographical, “History of Violence” is a subtle account of the interplay of race, class and the social systems that determine them. It recounts a harrowing incident that took place in 2012, in Paris in the early morning hours of Christmas. Louis was coming home from celebrating with Eribon when he was approached by a man in the street near his apartment. After some persistence, the man, who has Algerian roots and is named Reda, persuades Édouard (as the book calls Louis) to take him home. They make love, several times, and afterward, Édouard gets up to take a shower. When he returns, his phone and iPad are missing. Édouard tries to be gracious, asking Reda simply to return everything and they can pretend nothing ever happened. But Reda becomes defensive, his fury escalating into a brutal assault. He repeatedly rapes Édouard, at one point attempting to strangle him with a scarf and pulling a gun.
I spoke to Louis for the first time by phone, a few weeks before we met in Amiens, and he told me that he would not answer questions about the real-life Reda B., who was arrested and placed in custody in 2016, just as the book came out. Louis must have been in a cafe as we spoke; I heard him order an apricot juice. He told me that he had been unable to sleep or work for three weeks after being questioned about the rape. “He’s some guy who destroyed something inside me,” Louis said over the phone. “It’s a sad story for everyone, and that’s all.” Louis does not believe in incarceration or in any kind of repressive function of the state, having seen, by way of his own family members, how the French penal system compounds the cruelty of already-cruel lives. In “History of Violence,” he expresses a profound discomfort with the decision he ultimately makes to file a criminal complaint (which happened in 2012, before Édouard Louis was Édouard Louis). In the real case, Reda B. sued Louis, unsuccessfully, for “infringement on the right to presumption of innocence.” In 2016, he also requested a face-to-face meeting with Louis, which is often done in the French judicial system. Louis, having already gone through the details four times, declined. The somewhat spiteful reaction of the French press was to wonder why he would refuse to confront his aggressor. When a judge announced last year that the case would be heard by three judges instead of a jury, the newspaper Libération ran a long article pondering the effects that the already-published literary version of events might have on the judiciary fact-finding process, while also questioning the novel’s veracity. Louis denounced the paper for perpetuating a culture of disbelieving rape victims.
Reda B.’s trial was supposed to begin this March. In the months immediately preceding it, a stage adaptation of Louis’s novel played at a theater in central Paris. Reda B.’s lawyer went on a popular radio program to rebuke the spectacle as “indecent” and question Louis’s literary motives; Louis’s circle was aghast at this public degradation of someone who had been the victim of a crime.
“History of Violence” is perhaps Louis’s most searching work, precisely because the reader can see him struggling with such dissonances. In the novel, Édouard seeks respite after the assault and goes to visit his sister Clara, who still lives in northern France, thinking a few days in the countryside will revive him. He immediately regrets the decision: “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Louis writes. “The last time, I got into the same car, . . . this depressing landscape made me nauseated.” But he is also there to settle accounts with his sister. And she plans to do the same with him. He is made to feel that he has abandoned his family; his sister even accuses him of secretly hoping as a child that his family would not accept him: “If we said that, it would distance him from us, because we would hold his secret against him, and then he could tell other people, in his arrogant way: You see, it’s their fault if I distance myself from them.” Then Louis does something rather ingenious. He allows Clara to tell the story of the rape, recounting it to her husband, while Édouard listens from the next room. In asides to the reader, he notes whenever she says something he thinks is wrong. Louis the writer seems to be trying to correct for the way in which he has been able to tell others’ stories while they remain silent, unable to offer their own version. Louis told me that with “History of Violence,” he wanted to write an autobiography in which someone else tells his story. “It puts me at the level of a character, like all the other characters in the story,” he said. “I’m not the subjective voice, above all the others, but rather part of the story like everyone else.”
Louis’s third novel, “Who Killed My Father,” was published in France in 2018. In it, Louis took aim at the last three French administrations, singling out specific policies and their effects on the life of his father. “Politics,” Louis says, “is controlled by those who are least affected by politics.” To be bourgeois “is to learn to ignore others and to be OK with that.”
As it happened, a few months after the publication of “Who Killed My Father,” French citizens who live in parts of the country that resemble Hallencourt began to don the traffic vests they are required to keep in their cars when commuting to the jobs that have moved out of their small communities. People gathered at roundabouts in Paris to hurl epithets at President Emmanuel Macron that, at times, eerily echoed Louis’s own. Louis was in New York at the time, but when he saw images of the protests, he flew back immediately and joined them, denouncing their depiction in the press. The street movements, wide-ranging and deeply contentious, arguably amounted to the most serious setback for Macron’s administration up to that point. Nearly a year later, in an incident that stunned the nation, a university student in Lyon set himself on fire to protest the precarity of his present and future. He had posted a note on social media that read, in part, “I accuse Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and the European Union.”
Much of Louis’s political activity is undertaken as part of a trio, with Didier Eribon and his partner, the political philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie. The three form a kind of intellectual triumvirate, critiquing one another’s work and sometimes co-signing articles, but also taking vacations together, posting photos of their travels and street marches on Instagram, their life a kind of glamorous 21st-century update of the Paris engagée of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. (Eribon and de Lagasnerie appear as characters in “History of Violence.”) The three are frequently portrayed in the French press as a single unit. (“It’s not true!” Eribon insisted to me, though when I suggested to him that it was more envy than animus, he laughed. De Lagasnerie, who is 38, described the relationship as a “factory that mutualizes our knowledge.”) They often cite Michel Foucault’s dictum that friendship is a way of life; Louis has said that he would never have written a word without it.
The German director Thomas Ostermeier adapted Eribon’s memoirs for the stage in 2017, and then turned to “History of Violence.” Louis’s work reads, at times, like a performance of his emotions, and it’s easy to see how the text might turn into stage directions. As a child, he found the theater to be a natural refuge. There, his habit of role-playing (at being straight and macho) could be transformed into “a place in which others would see me,” he said. Like many kids from small towns with nothing else to do, he joined a drama club in middle school, partly to avoid being alone during recess. But enacting possible worlds also brought its discomforts. During high school, in Amiens, his class attended a production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which showed men having sex together onstage. Fifteen years old at the time, Louis got up in the middle of the show, to announce angrily that he didn’t want to watch this “fag stuff,” and left the auditorium. “I’ll never forget it,” Louis says. “It was a whirlwind of emotion. The theater really forced me to face the part of myself that I did not want to acknowledge.”
“History of Violence,” is now part of the regular repertoire at the Schaubühne on Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. Ostermeier’s solution to the complicated narrative devices was to place a microphone at a front corner of the stage that the characters could grab in order to speak directly to the audience when so inclined (a live drum set on one side of the stage mimics the tensions between the characters). The German actor Laurenz Laufenberg plays a sweet, 20-year-old Édouard in a trim pink sweater and clean-fitting jeans, his beechwood hair neatly cut; Renato Schuch, in baggy streetwear, is his lover-turned-aggressor, Reda.
Laufenberg and Schuch told me that they were unsure how, or even whether, to stage the rape, wondering whether it might not be better to use some kind of image or metonymy to suggest what happens. But Ostermeier’s adaptation establishes in the opening seconds that some kind of chilling disaster will occur, and the actors decided that to not play that out would frustrate the audience. Then Louis attended their first week of rehearsals, and they had to perform the story in front of him. “I was always not really sure if I should do it like I was doing it,” Schuch told me. “Because emotionally, it’s a lot of pain coming up, and I was always concerned about him.”
When I attended a performance in Berlin, I found the rape scene complicated but necessary. The violence is blunt and unforgiving, and Schuch told me later that he had slapped Laufenberg in a way that wasn’t choreographed into the scene, taking Laufenberg by surprise, which he later regretted. But he acknowledged that being forced to improvise made them burnish their performance. Beneath the stage lights the two bodies, with all their social and racial markings, seemed to transcend the particulars of their circumstances, and I had the feeling that I was watching, all at once, many other acts of violence.
In his work, Louis always hews to stories that are strictly personal while also insisting that the experiences they delineate are collective. “The discussion about who can tell a story,” Laufenberg said, “it’s so interesting because Édouard said to us, more or less, It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or you’re older or anything.” The actor who plays Reda is not North African, and Laufenberg isn’t gay. “I totally see the point if there’s a minority that has no voice outside the majority world, then you need a voice, and it’s so important that they speak for themselves, that they can speak at all,” Laufenberg said. But he didn’t necessarily agree that others shouldn’t be allowed to tell that story, too, and Louis almost prefers it otherwise. “Why is it that the losers of the story always have to carry their loss on their backs when they didn’t choose it?” Louis often says. “Other people are responsible for the suffering of others.”
Last fall, Louis, Eribon and de Lagasnerie were in Berlin for the city’s annual Internationales Literaturfestival. They had been invited to give a talk entitled “France Under Macron.” The lecture was in a gallery on Berlin’s Museum Island, a superlative example of the towering neo-Classical style beloved of the German state. Many of the German members of the audience seemed unaware that the three were some of Macron’s most vocal critics.
As Eribon detailed in his memoirs, when he was growing up, his parents supported the French Communist Party, not because as factory workers they yearned for any kind of Soviet-style system but because the party gave them political weight within the system. In the late 1980s, when Eribon called home to speak with his mother, he realized that his parents were voting for the far-right National Front. They had not become right-wing ideologues overnight, but, as the Communist Party disintegrated, the National Front became the only organization that put pressure on the political establishment from the outside. The National Front, Eribon argued, had staged a kind of transference, replacing the sense of collective belonging provided by the Communist Party (“we the workers”) with the collectivity of the nation (“we the French”).
Louis’s parents, a generation younger than Eribon’s, had always been National Front voters; they came of age not in industrial France but in postindustrial France, no longer workers but out-of-work workers who had become dependent on the state. Louis got involved in politics when he was a teenager, though many of his early convictions were adopted as a way to rebel against his family. When he arrived in Amiens, he became a member of the Socialist Party. Soon thereafter, he joined a movement to protest against a reform proposed by the French education minister and was invited on the local news. His father proudly asked his friends over to watch Louis’s appearance on TV. But once on camera, Louis announced that he would not, as the program had invited him to do, speak about the proposed reforms, but rather about undocumented students who were being denied their rights. His mother, he recalled, later told him that his father exploded, humiliated in front of his friends, who were hardly keen to sympathize with the plight of immigrants.
Louis is an impassioned public speaker, his gentleness dissolving into an intensity of purpose. In front of an audience of several hundred packed into stadium-style seating, the moderator in Berlin mused that the last German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, was the son of a laborer and had gotten his education at night school. She wondered whether such a thing was imaginable in France.
“The question of class seems, to me, a very important one,” Louis said. Macron had taken an increasingly hard line on asylum, which, in conjunction with the E.U. policy of giving money to offshore countries, especially Libya, to block migration, has led to thousands of deaths, not to mention the trafficking, torture and enslavement of would-be migrants. The Mediterranean, according to the U.N.’s migration agency, is now the deadliest border on Earth. In another example, the encounters of French police with the Yellow Vest protesters in late 2018 — videos showed riot police dragging protesters through the street, and 25 people lost an eye — prompted Amnesty International to call for an end to excessive use of violence by law enforcement in France, and in January, the Paris prosecutor opened an investigation. And yet the coverage of Macron, particularly internationally, and especially in Germany and the United States, continued to be overwhelmingly positive. Certainly, there was nothing resembling the outcry that followed the border policies of Donald Trump.
“When Emmanuel Macron speaks, he uses the language of the bourgeoisie,” Louis continued. “He has the body of the bourgeoisie, the culture of the bourgeoisie, and so the lesson is that this violence becomes acceptable when it is delivered by the bourgeoisie.”
The coverage of the Yellow Vests in the French press, on the other hand, had been, with some clear exceptions, condemnatory and dismissive. Eribon, at 66, is a more hesitant speaker than Louis. He noted that journalism is one of the most closed professions in Europe, accessible mostly to children of the upper middle class. Last winter, a French TV crew was assaulted by a group of Yellow Vest protesters in Rouen, a town not far from Amiens. Such attacks had become increasingly common. Afterward, in a gesture of self-critique, Libération, the most left-leaning of mainstream newspapers in France, conducted an internal survey: among 112 of its reporters, 81 had at least one parent in the highest income bracket. About 90 percent of the journalists who appeared on TV were upper middle class. “Journalists don’t need to be ordered to like Macron,” Eribon told me. “They recognize themselves in him, they come from the same milieus. They campaigned for him.”
At the panel, Eribon continued on the topic of the Yellow Vests: “How do you expect journalists to understand, to have a sort of spontaneous sympathy for these people?” The journalists come from a country where the “people” are entrepreneurs and C.E.O.s of start-ups; suddenly, they were faced with a group of people with a vocabulary, a language, a mode of expression out of reality TV. “German newspapers published the fact that the Yellow Vests were anti-Semitic,” Eribon went on. They all carried the story of the well-known French Jewish intellectual, Alain Finkielkraut, who had been assaulted on a sidewalk during a protest last February. Someone in a yellow vest called him a “dirty Zionist [expletive],” and told him to “go back to Tel Aviv.” In July, one of the harassers was sentenced to two months in jail for hate speech. But Finkielkraut himself has a long history of complaining about the “culture” of Muslim immigrants, arguing that “the colonial project sought to educate, to bring civilization to savages.” Most recently, he lamented that no one from the banlieues came out to mourn the death of the French rock star Johnny Hallyday — a litmus test, he said, for being French. Finkielkraut hosts a program on one of France’s most prestigious radio channels and is a member of the Académie Française. He has never been to jail.
“Alain Finkielkraut is a racist ideologue who has a radio show every Saturday morning to which he invites every racist and fascist that France has to offer — members of the extreme right, even anti-Semites,” Eribon said. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t criticize. But it seems to me that if you criticize the one, then you also criticize the other, who is on the radio every Saturday morning for 35 years.”
Louis, Eribon and de Lagasnerie are united in putting pressure on politicians and policies that go against working-class interests, upholding what they feel is a long-abandoned social critique from the left. In December French railway workers, in response to pension reforms proposed by Macron, began what would become the longest transport strike in French history; they were soon joined by teachers and lawyers. Amid extraordinary scenes of ballet dancers performing in protest and firefighters clashing with the riot police that lined the intersections, the three writers were in the streets, posing for photos, chins raised. They donated money to participants in the strike, they appeared with local leftist politicians and, of course, they wrote.
Reforms to retirement plans were, the three argued, one element of a larger, decades-long push to dismantle the country’s hard-won social protections. But it was a particularly telling development, they believed — proof, if more were needed, that contemporary France had lost its way: “There is undoubtedly nothing more efficient for understanding how the social world works than, quite simply, to look at who dies before whom,” Louis posted on Twitter. “We forget it too often: Politics is a question of life and death.”