The real story behind 'yellow vest' France

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Sociologist Benoît Coquard specialises in the study of the working classes who live in rural areas of France. He has just published a book which rejects many of the old assumptions about France's declining countryside and the supposed isolation of citizens living in 'peripheral' areas around the country's large conurbations cities. As Mediapart's Joseph Confavreux writes, the book also provides valuable insight into the origins of the so-called 'yellow vest' protests which began sweeping France a year ago.

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Sociologist Benoît Coquard, who works at the agricultural science institute INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique), grew up in a rural area of France. Now, following in the footsteps of another academic Nicolas Renahy – who also came from a rural area and wrote Les Gars du Coin ('The Guys From This Area') – Coquard has written about a part of French society he knows through personal experience. The result is Ceux qui restentFaire sa vie dans les campagnes en déclin ('Those who remain. Living in a countryside in decline') published by La Découverte.

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The author's unique vantage point explains the detailed nature of his scrutiny of areas which are at best ignored and at worst held in disdain as “backwaters and stuck in the past” even though some of the “greatest economic and social disruption of our times” are being played out there.

This perspective also allows the academic to free himself from the two dominant portrayals of people from rural areas in decline. “It's either a bleak narrative of the lifestyle of these supposed 'racist red-necks' that you tend to find on the Left, or an ode to the so-called 'forgotten France' 'those on the fringes' who supposedly represent in some way the 'real people' who need to be supported, which you tend to find on the Right,” says Benoît Coquard in his book. The academic says there are two main reasons for these stereotypes. “These working classes are particularly overlooked (in the sociological sense)” and they are “in all senses of the term very far removed from those who speak about them”.

The INRA academic attacks the way that disparate ideas have been conflated to produce the notion of a “peripheral France”, an idea championed in particular by the essayist Christophe Guilluy, even though he did not gather information about specific areas to support the view. Indeed, Coquard says he is constantly astonished by the mixture of disdain and ignorance that exists in relation to the rural world. Even the growing divergence between desirable rural areas which are attracting people on the one hand and those areas which are losing their populations and getting poorer on the other is rarely taken into account. Yet, says Benoît Coquard, “not acknowledging this minimal divergence is a bit like putting the [plush Paris suburb of] Neuilly-sur-Seine and [the deprived Paris suburb of] Aubervilliers into the same category on the basis that they are both Paris suburban towns. This kind of conflating wouldn't stand a chance of convincing a lecture audience and yet when it comes to unknown villages and towns you're allowed to lump everyone together under the same label.”

When the academic began his research in eastern France in 2010 those regions were little discussed, either in the media or academia. That has since started to change, he says, because of the large number of votes won by the far right and more recently the 'yellow vest' movement. Yet there has been very little written about the history of rural areas in decline and the realities of such areas have often remained ignored, even when these realities themselves are tragic: the deterioration of town centres, young people taking heroin, the dismantling of local health services and so on.

Benoît Coquard places particular emphasis on one striking phenomenon, and that is a new rural exodus that is in relative terms on a scale comparable to the one that France saw after World War II. Indeed, the scale of this population movement, he says, is matched only by the extent to which it is “ignored in public debate”. Since the end of the 1990s around a third of young people aged 18 to 25 have left such areas in the Grande Est region of northern and eastern France “never to return”, says the academic, who has studied this region. This youthful exodus has led to a massive demographic decline which in proportionate terms is “comparable (even above in certain districts) to what we saw in the so-called 1950-1960 rural exodus decade”.

This rural exodus also reinforces the social homogeneity of “those who remain”, as the major driving factor pushing people to leave is getting the baccalauréat - broadly equivalent to A levels or a High School Diploma. But the exodus also has an impact on the gender balance locally, as it is primarily young women who play the “education card” and leave “isolated areas”.

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However, while these areas may be homogeneous, this does not mean the residents who remain have retreated or withdrawn from life. First of all, says Benoît Coquard, the “fearful attitude that they are assumed to have does not characterise them at all”. Moreover, the people who live in such regions spend an awful lot of time together, even if the venue for such sociability has migrated from cafés to people's homes, and from work-based or geographic-based sociability to one based on groups of friends. Finally, these rural and industrial zones have always made use of foreign workers – from Italy, Portugal, North Africa and Turkey for example – and are thus not just home to 'whiteys'. The reality of the post-industrial countryside, says Benoît Coquard, is that “the descendants of North African immigrants form part of 'those who remain'. As the children of workers they share the same concerns and living conditions as those of their generation, whether they are from immigrant [families] or not.”

It is true that there are some conflicts that have an ethnic perspective. But the academic says it is important to look at them in the context of “an erosion of local solidarity” that is linked to the disappearance of jobs and public services, and that one should not forget that “such conflicts are as commonplace between the so-called 'whiteys'”, as the “scarcity of resources fans existing rivalries and latent jealousies”.

Benoît Coquard accepts that such an analysis is doubtless “less eye-catching and seductive that that of a 'clash of civilisations' or the theory of 'the Great Replacement'.” But he says it is through studying the more mundane conflicts between individuals that one can determine that it is “indeed for fundamental economic reasons, rather than because of cultural differences, that there is fighting and division today among the rural working classes. What's changed is that you no longer meet people in the area by chance. Because of increased competition, friends are carefully selected.”

Coquard's central thesis is that due to the successive dismantling of collective frameworks “individuals have started to recreate the structures of solidarity” which are different to what existed in the past, both in the way they are created and they way they behave. “It's precisely because jobs are scarce that one has to do more when it comes to collective commitment in order to be recommended for a job,” writes the academic. “It's also because the public services and different facilities are disappearing in these regions that [people] have to learn how to surround themselves and help one another on a daily basis.”

Similarities that transcend class

Benoît Coquard explains a paradox which is that though the inhabitants of rural areas in decline are often depicted in terms of being inward-looking and closed to the outside world, the fact that they live in these areas means in reality that they are “fully engaged in a quest for recognition”. The academic points to the “small friendly collectives” which occupy a central role in the general economy of rural areas. These are the ways that people meet others, get married or forge careers, in a context where having a good or bad reputation matters when it comes to being able to access ever-scarcer resources.

Author Benoît Coquard. © Carole Lozano Author Benoît Coquard. © Carole Lozano
There has, then, been a switch from a life based on attachment to a particular place to one with a much broader relationship with the surrounding area, where the notion of 'here' has started to mean the “circles of acquaintances” more than a “precise place”. It is no longer the place that creates belonging but instead the “circles of friends who unite in sociability around a common place such as a football club”.

This deep transformation, in which belonging is more about friendship than it is about the locality, and where “cliques and groups of mates” have started to “overcome the obsolescence of old structures” does not stop the sociability of these rural areas in decline from continuing to be “intense and essential”.

However, the feeling of sharing solidarity with only a limited number of people leads to a particular kind of social introspection which reflects the very competitive nature of the jobs market in these areas. “It is within the protective and rewarding confines of the 'clique' that a sense of collective conscience is enhanced, one which is no longer based on belonging to a broader and unifying 'us' but instead on a sense of 'just us' which is more restricted and selective than in the past,” writes the sociologist.

Coquard is not unaware of the potential for this real but restricted sense of solidarity to be “exploited” by far-right political thinking based on the idea of “putting French people first”. All the more so given that he is researching electoral areas which have been among the most supportive of the far right, places where it is easier to say that you support Marine Le Pen – president of the far-right Rassemblement National – than the Left, which is associated with the culture of welfare dependency and laziness.

But the decision to carry out a full ethnographic study which looks into the small groups who make up these abandoned rural areas, rather than simply periodically sticking a microphone under the noses of people who are ignored apart from at election time, has enabled the academic to discover “solidarity between friends of different ethnic origin” behind the very pronounced political discourse of the far right.

In addition, Benoît Coquard notes the way in which some people who could describe themselves as “100% Le Pen” can in many cases veer towards other views, in particular during the protests by the 'yellow vests'. While a large part of the population which he has studied has for a long time been “seduced by the far right, it's not questions of national identity or immigration which have mobilised them and allowed them to remain united in the cold of winter”, says the academic, who appears to have written a book about the 'yellow vests' before they first appeared as a phenomenon in October 2018. In fact, his book sheds retrospective light on this unique movement.

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The collective actions of the 'yellow vests' have in fact revealed a “story” and “commonplace daily social relations” which hitherto have been invisible. The writer considers that the 'yellow vests' are “indeed 'those who remain' or more precisely those who want to remain to live their lives in a countryside in decline, against the grain of events and often with a nostalgia for a less moribund era”.

The occupants of roundabouts – which became a familiar meeting place for the 'yellow vests' across France – are thus delighted to “(re)form groups against a backdrop where, as many admit 'we no longer see anyone' since daily life became dispersed over a wider area”. This is in a context where a growing tendency to use the car has corresponded to the disappearance and collapse of local businesses, public services and places of shared communal life.

On the 'yellow-vest' roundabouts, as in these rural areas in decline, people create what the academic calls “affinities” that transcend class. The pensioners, women, people living in hardship and the jobless who make up most of those present can be found alongside local artisans and owners of small businesses. These artisans and business owners have a “lifestyle and a vision of the world which is close to those who doubtless have less economic wealth but who work in the same areas, have the same manual skills, share the same leisure activities” in particular hunting, football and motocross. Coquard says that even if “on paper” these people do not belong to the same social class “in this movement [editor's note, the 'yellow vest' movement] as in everyday life those who are close in a social area resemble each other, whether they are employees or not”.

In such areas - which are empty politically and socially only to those who do not know how to look – and thanks to “starting out on the basis of taxes and criticism of the political game and without attacking the bosses” the 'yellow vests' were able to “seduce a much wider base than that of workers politicised around a conflictual vision based on an exploitative relationship”, argues the sociologist.

Indeed, thanks to these protests some residents have ended up belonging to a group that helps them cope with the difficulties of everyday life. “For the 'yellow vests' as for a large part of the young countryside dwellers one came across, it's through this involvement in the collective that they come to be known and acknowledged, even though they belong to social classes that are from an objective point of view overlooked,” writes Benoît Coquard at the end of this rigorous work. But despite its rigour, this book and its thesis are unlikely to displace the viewpoint of Christophe Guilluy in the views of the mainstream media, who still hold to the notion of a “peripheral France” from the distant comfort of their studios and offices.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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