- Interview by
- Cole Stangler
Unpopular pension reforms would force low-wage workers in France to put in a couple more years on the job — and yet the country’s superrich have arguably never had it so good. For all the complaints about supposedly stifling regulation and excessive taxes, France is home to more than forty billionaires — including the world’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, whose fortune recently eclipsed $200 billion. His family and others, like the Bettencourts, Wertheimers, Saadés, and Pinaults, sit on mountains of inherited wealth bound up in globally renowned brands like L’Oréal, Chanel, and Yves Saint Laurent, capturing lucrative profits even as the global economic situation sours.
The ultra-wealthy also benefit from numerous allies in government, maintaining close ties to the world of French politics. Thanks to President Emmanuel Macron, they benefit from a reduced levy on capital gains and are no longer required to pay a wealth tax as of 2018. According to economist Gabriel Zucman, the wealthiest 370 households in France pay an effective tax rate of just around 2 percent. A recent poll found that more than eight in ten French people still believe the “class struggle” is a reality today. But if so, why is the minority winning it?
In his book Parasites, released in February by publisher Les liens qui libèrent, labor sociologist and editor of Frustration magazine Nicolas Framont takes aim at the ultra-wealthy and the stranglehold they exert over French culture and politics — all the while making a renewed case for how to shift the balance of power. He spoke with Jacobin’s Cole Stangler about the particularities of France’s moneyed elites and how the country’s working majority can start winning the class war.
This interview has been edited and translated from French.
Why did you decide to write this book?
It’s similar to our approach at Frustration magazine, which I’ve led for a few years. Our subtitle is “the media of the class struggle.” This notion of class war seems central for understanding what’s going on politically — but also in the sense that it determines a big part of our daily lives. I wanted to write a very accessible book. The goal was not to do a book for Marxist specialists, but rather to refresh this framework of the class struggle and apply it to contemporary France. The title came later. I wanted something that was punchy and that would attract attention, including from people who aren’t already convinced of a class-based analysis.
“Parasite” is a strong word. Why this term?
I wanted something used in everyday language. It’s a strong word that gets attention.
The second reason is that it describes the process pretty well. Workplace exploitation is a form of parasitism. The standard functioning of the bourgeoisie — the process that has allowed it to exist and to get rich — is the exploitation of the work of others. They’re feeding themselves through the work of others. I also think it shines a light on the political parasitism taking place in France: the fact that we have a social class that is [dependent on state aid], benefitting from a lot of public money. That’s the case in most capitalist states, but in France, we’re talking about very significant sums of money. We really have a total porosity between the state and French capitalism.
The third reason is there’s the idea of flipping the stigma on this head. The term assistés [a pejorative term for people dependent on aid] and the term parasite are words that can be used by the far right to describe people receiving welfare benefits, or foreigners. The idea was to take this term, empty it of all anti-poor or anti-immigrant substance, and to use it only for the rich.
Capitalism, by its very nature, is an international system. But one of the particularities in France is the importance of inherited wealth. This seems to inform your analysis a lot.
There’s an article I reference from the Financial Times showing that [around] 80 percent of the wealth of French billionaires is inherited. It’s not surprising! In France, we have a bourgeoisie that is very effective at reproducing itself, where “nothing is left to chance.”
I think it’s particularly effective because it benefits from state tools to do this. The grandes écoles [elite colleges] are an example. There’s this originality in France of having bourgeois education paid for by taxpayers. That’s not the case for every country in the world. [In France], they have these very, very specific, closed-off spaces. I’d say the children of the grande bourgeoisie can only become grands bourgeois themselves.
There are few ways of getting rich in France if you’re not the child of a bourgeois. The fact that the bourgeoisie tries to inspire itself with these stories from US entrepreneurs — which, of course, also have been invented through storytelling of their own — is even more ridiculous in France. That’s just not how it works.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is when you talk about the role of the media in France. You write about this group that isn’t necessarily part of the bourgeoisie, but that, in your view, serves the interests of this class. Could you talk about how this works?
If we’re thinking about television, there are two things. Firstly, there are the social origins of journalists. Journalists tell themselves that they’re neutral and are constantly denying that they belong to a class category.
But what’s also striking is how the biases of social and geographic selection mean that it’s constantly the same people on TV. I’ve experienced it myself. Sometimes I get invited on these shows, and I always find myself in this sort of closed-off Parisian space. All the TV channels are based in Paris. They’re constantly busy, so they invite you at the last minute. Typically, only Parisians can make it! There’s also this kind of convergence of interests between producers who want guests who can speak about everything and nothing, and then this galaxy of think tanks, foundation, and institutions who send them the same people every night to preach bourgeois-friendly ideas. A lot of these think tanks basically exist for this! They don’t do research, they don’t publish studies — they produce people that they pay to send on TV sets.
The fact that power is so concentrated in Paris plays a role in strengthening the trends you identify in the book.
It plays a huge role. I think the bourgeoisie everywhere find ways to create these closed-off spaces. But in France, it’s greatly aided by the fact that these people are living and working in the same place. I’m always struck by this in TV studios. Maybe these people come from different universes — there could be business executives, editors, journalists, etc. — but they already all know each other! They have this closed-off space concentrated within a square mile or two, generally in western Paris. The French bourgeoisie is very effective because it has these resources that allow it to exercise its domination and ensure its reproduction. Paris is a part of this. Paris is another resource they have to achieve their ends.
In the book, you use certain terms that can appear outdated to some. You write about the bourgeoisie and the classes laborieuses [“laboring classes”]. Are these categories still relevant today?
This is also a critical response to other types of analytical frameworks. On the Left, these last ten years, we’ve heard a lot about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, what you might call the Occupy Wall Street framing. I think there’s grounds to criticize this, because it doesn’t account for the intermediary groups that maintain the domination of the 1 percent. And then 99 percent of people don’t have common interests.
There’s also this practice of just talking about “the rich” or “the superrich” or “the billionaires.” For me, these terms are focusing only on wealth, which is one of the forms of power for the bourgeoisie, but ultimately one of many.
Talking about “the bourgeoisie” is also meant to show historical continuity. Things haven’t changed that much! Maybe it sounds outdated, but it’s still the same class, so it should be named the same way. Renewing terms just for the sake of renewing them doesn’t make much sense.
On the other hand, with Frustration magazine, when we decided to use the term classes laborieuses, we had to really think about what term to use. In France, the term “people” [often used by the Left] doesn’t allow us to think about class divides, and then the term classe ouvrière is more restrictive. For us, classes laborieuses is the translation for “working class” in English.
Let’s talk about the final section of the book, entitled “remedies.” What should be done?
There are a couple of ways to think about it.
One is, let’s say, cultural or ideological: How do we reappropriate a discourse of class struggle and cultivate a form of pride in our social backgrounds? This is important to me. There’s class consciousness. But there’s also class confidence. How do we collectively gain confidence and feel strong and legitimate? For me, it’s happening precisely at times like these! I feel like there’s a form of class confidence that’s very strong. People are getting actively involved.
The second dimension is more organizational: How do we organize ourselves as dominated classes to manage to overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a society without classes? That’s still the project behind all this! It requires a pretty stern critique of current organizations. We need to criticize left-wing parties that are dominated by elites and that are very poorly representative of the classes they claim to represent. They’re still taking the lead from the bourgeois republic. They have ultimately little autonomy and are very submissive to the dominant agenda.
As you say in the book, the left-wing coalition called Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES) is largely made up of white-collar professionals. Among its members in the National Assembly, there are very few blue-collar workers.
Yes, it’s not at all a class-based party. It sees cleavages in terms of ideology. And it’s not infused with this history of class cleavages. Maybe La France Insoumise is more than most, but it is ambivalent on the topic. Sometimes Jean-Luc Mélenchon will have a very republican, very unifying discourse, and sometimes it’ll be more polarizing.
We have this [vision of class struggle] to some extent on the far left, but it’s made up of small groups. There is a lot of criticism to be made of the French far left, which is very, very ineffective because its members are interested, above all, in internal purity. They spend their time splitting. Even if I think they’re ultimately right, they’re very ineffective.
There is also a criticism to be made of French trade unions, which can sometimes be very disconnected from the situation on the ground. Like you’ve said before, they put out strike calls and then see what happens.
All in all, it means workers don’t have organizations that let them truly fight against all these forms of discrimination that they suffer on the job. It’s worth thinking about what kinds of organizations can be adapted to present-day constraints. For example, union meetings that end at midnight every night aren’t possible. People have complex lives and they don’t want to go to annoying meetings. Today, that’s what “getting engaged” means — going to meetings with people who listen to each other talk. Changes are needed.
How can we imagine an organization that’s present at the workplace but also in different aspects of life — and that is able to maintain and strengthen class consciousness? At the moment, this doesn’t exist: an organization that’s present at the workplace but also in different aspects of life — and that is able to maintain and strengthen class consciousness. Right now, we often have social movements that express class consciousness and confidence. But they’re unable, in such a limited time period, to build themselves organizations that allow this consciousness to exist beyond periods of mobilization. For me, that’s one of the things that needs doing.