“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.”