Geographer's 'forgotten French' shakes up political class

PARIS (Reuters) - When France’s left-leaning daily Liberation newspaper devoted a cover and two full pages last month to a book on geography, author Christophe Guilluy understood that his message was reaching a wider audience than his peers in the field.

The book, a geographical study entitled “The Peripheral France”, has set off a heated debate in the media and in the hallways of French power about a country beset by high unemployment and facing the rapid rise of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party.

Guilluy’s argument is simple, yet provocative: an ostensibly unified country is, in fact, split in two, between rich, globalized, culturally vibrant cities like Paris and Lyon, and a depressed “periphery” being left behind.

The latter, which he says covers most of the population, never caught up with big cities plugged into a global market for jobs and investment. Instead, the largely white, working class inhabitants -- former mine and factory workers many of them -- of small- and mid-sized towns, suburbs and rural areas have seen their jobs and livelihoods steadily eroded, to the point where they no longer share political ideas with their big city peers.

Guilluy argues the inhabitants of this “peripheral France” could be worse off than people living in the immigrant-heavy “banlieues” (city suburbs), that have loomed large in public debate, because they are more isolated from economic centers.

As a result of the split, Guilluy says most of the country has lost faith in the mainstream center-right and center-left political parties, which tend to concentrate on the big cities, and are turning toward the far-right National Front party.

Guilluy’s analysis is catching on, and not just in France, where his book sold 13,000 copies in two weeks, nearly five times the average for a geography book, publisher Flammarion said.

The geographer has briefed advisers to President Francois Hollande and given talks to European ambassadors about his findings. Their response to his grim view of French society? “The split exists in our countries, too.”

Q: What do you describe as “peripheral France”?

A: Peripheral France encompasses 60 percent of the population. It’s small towns, suburbs and rural zones. It’s everything that is far from a globalized metropolis. It’s the vast, hidden, forgotten part of the country that lacks jobs, prospects, any sense of connection with the political class in Paris. For people who live in this part of France, there is no political party offering any sort of social or economic alternative truly adapted to their problems. The only party trying to speak to them is the National Front, and even they only capture a minority of their votes.

Officials in peripheral France know they are facing gigantic social problems. They are looking for answers, for an economic model that could help their communities complement the globalized economies of the big metropolises. But so far, nobody has anything to offer them.

Q: Are you suggesting that too much has been made of the “banlieues” as a social problem?

A: A lot of research has been done on the “banlieues”, and at some point people forgot that the banlieues were not the only depressed areas of the country. I’m not saying that the banlieues are doing super well and that everything else is going badly. I’m saying that there is a different reality, which is that the vast majority of people who are struggling do not live in the suburbs, but far from major city centers.

Q: If France’s mainstream politicians are so out of touch with “peripheral France”, will the far-right prevail?

A: After meeting with government ministers, I can see that they are starting to understand the situation. They can see that it’s not just me talking about this gulf, but also researchers in Britain, in the Netherlands, even in Switzerland. It’s easy to see because when you place a map of voting patterns over a map of these peripheral areas, you can see just where so-called “populist” parties are emerging around Europe.

Q: Your book drew a lot of criticism from left-wing commentators and academics. Why?

A: I learned that the experts who had criticized the book (in Liberation) had not, in fact, read it. There is also a question of academic bastions. I am not part of the academic establishment, I don’t belong to a political party, and I’ve had media attention, which is unbearable.

Q: Have you caught the attention of France’s leaders?

A: I’ve spoken to advisers of (Socialist President) Hollande who had read the book. What they said was that if we don’t start to move in your direction, to deal with these issues politically, then the left is going to die. The problem is: how does the left talk to the working class? When I talk to people in peripheral France about their problems, they talk about employment, Europe, Brussels, globalization, immigration. But those who guard the temple doors on the left don’t want to talk about immigration...

However, if they don’t find a way to talk about it, there is going to be a real implosion of the Socialist party, probably starting with the base. They have to move quickly: right now, the National Front calls itself the number one party in France. They are catching up quickly to the mainstream parties.

Editing by Michael Roddy and Janet Lawrence