Édouard Louis is a French novelist and critic. His third book, Who Killed My Father, an indictment of France’s neglect of the rural working class, is out from New Directions today. He spoke with Intelligencer about the downsides of American individualism, his excitement about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and why his family members don’t read much.
Can you describe your background?
I grew up in a very small village in the north of France. There were two factories in the village where everyone used to work, but in the ’80s and ’90s, they fired most of the people and moved to another country. So I grew up in the 1990s, in a context where people didn’t have any jobs anymore, didn’t have any hope anymore. My father and my mother stopped school at 14. They didn’t want to study and were stuck in this postindustrial village. And I grew up as a gay man in this milieu. My sexuality was the thing that made me escape, because it was impossible to breathe there. That made me try to think about this milieu, to think about my past and write about it. So I dedicated my very first books to these people who are very rarely represented.
You’ve accused the French left of abandoning the kind of people you grew up with. Does that include François Hollande and the Socialist Party?
Mm-hmm. Hollande carried on a process that started a long time before, in the ’80s and the ’90s. A conservative revolution took place in Europe, and the institutional left stopped talking about poverty, they stopped talking about work, they stopped talking about pain. There was a new language that was created: like “responsibility,” “gestion,” “commonwealth,” “le bien commun,” “common wellness.”
Hollande erased poor people from the language. And so the far right in France, in Europe, and I suspect in the United States, said, “Okay, we are the ones who are going to talk about excluded people” — except they did it in another way: in a horrible, awful, violent way. When I was a child, my father and mother hesitated between voting for the left and the far right. This would be very exotic in the bourgeoisie, because people vote either for the right or for the left, or the left and the center. But it was happening frequently in my childhood. It was a desperate way of finding someone who would talk about you, who would represent you.
Of course, you have people who are deeply racist — sometimes my brother is deeply racist and will never change — but I truly believe that among the people who suffer, an important percentage could really switch from one side to the other. The left has to be there in order to not let the far right win this struggle.
What’s the condition of the French left now? Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who ran and lost in 2017, seemed closer to being a genuine socialist …
During Mélenchon’s campaign, my little brother sent me a text message to tell me, “I am going to vote for Mélenchon.” I couldn’t believe it. But it always takes time to create something new. People should never forget that, for example, in France, in the 1980s, the far right, the National Front, was doing 3 or 4 percent in the elections. People were so scared, and they said, “Oh, it’s the beginning of fascism!” And now, when they do 30 percent, people say, “Ah, we are relieved — it’s only 30 percent!”
You need time to really change the psychological structure of people and make them understand that there is another way of perceiving themselves, another way of talking about themselves. And it’s the same thing in the U.S., of course. Donald Trump was not created out of nothing; he is the continuation of a long process. It’s partly the fact that the Democratic Party, like the Socialist Party in France, became more and more a party of the Establishment, or the dominant class.
I was living in New York during the 2016 election. I tell you, as a guy who comes from the working class, when I saw Hillary Clinton speaking, she had such a privileged body language! She was so bourgeois in the way of moving, of talking. I felt intimidated by her. I don’t think people should scream and speak with poor language, but I felt in my flesh that this woman was not going to support people like me. Of course I would have preferred that she won, but I didn’t feel represented by what she was saying.
One difference we have here is that a lot of people just really hate the government, and that’s been a constant since long before the Democratic Party’s neoliberal turn. You don’t have that problem in France. Your brother might have racist tendencies, but he’s not likely to be against the welfare state.
That’s absolutely right. The intellectual and political traditions are very different. I’ve spent a lot of time in the U.S., teaching at Brown University and Dartmouth College. What really hit me at the beginning, like a storm, was to see how little, in general, American people care about poverty and about black issues and about class domination.
There is a strong idea of the will in the United States. Will as something to drive behavior. There is this idea that if you want to do something, you can do something, you know? When in France, we have a stronger tradition — and, in my opinion a truer one — to see willpower as a consequence of political structure. You show how being in a certain milieu, how being women in a certain milieu, how being a certain kind of person in a certain crowd, destroys the very possibility of will. For example, someone like my brother or my father didn’t want to study. It was out of the question because no one was studying. They didn’t have to think about it.
You mean their way of being was inherited. They didn’t have to determine it for themselves.
Exactly. It is the social structure that creates your mind, and not your mind that goes against the social structure. It’s very difficult to address this in America, even in the universities.
You said in an essay a couple years ago that there were no books where you grew up, but it wasn’t because the people around you were dumb. It was because the high culture had rejected the working classes.
I think it’s a very important issue. I started to write my books because people from towns like mine were not represented in the literary field. So in a way I wrote against literature — in the same way Toni Morrison was writing against literature. I wrote in the Guardian about a day when I was in a cab, and I told the driver I was studying literature. He told me, “I don’t know that many books, but what I see is that they never give literary prizes to people of color in France.” This man, even if he tells me, “I don’t read books,” he knows that books don’t talk about him.
If we want to reinvent the left, we also have to challenge the cultural world, and then cultural production: books, movies, poetry, literature, and everything. What they are talking about, what they are ignoring, which kind of violence they are reproducing. The political field, it’s the same way. And most of the time, in France and the U.S. — this is something these two countries have in common — when you are in the cultural milieu, you are with publishers, you are with journalists, they always have this feeling that they are on the good side of the world because they are part of culture, and that this culture was necessarily progressive. But it’s not true for so many literature-excluded black people and queer people.
When I teach in the U.S., I always say to my students, “You shouldn’t like literature too much. You have to be suspicious of literature, and then if you are suspicious, you will include life and experiences and voices and bodies that were not included before. Challenge it, and then you will make great literature.” And I deeply believe it. Because in the U.S., a bunch of people, they think they are already fighting by just doing literature. [Laughs.]
The word ‘socialism’ has been toxic in America for six or seven decades. That’s changing, thanks in part to Bernie Sanders, but people still have very little sense of what it means. In France, you’ve always had a major party that calls itself socialist.
Well, most of the people here who would call themselves socialist have nothing to do with socialism — so it works in a similar way. And it was the same way in Germany and a lot of parties in Europe. We’ve seen what I call the end of shame in the political sphere. People like Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron don’t hesitate to insult poor people and say that they have to work harder. Probably Jacques Chirac and Hollande agreed on that, even if they didn’t express it in public.
With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, my first reaction was, Finally, she talks about reality! When I was a student, I would open the papers or turn on the TV, and see politicians speaking, and I would think, What kind of society are they talking about? It’s not the society that I live in! When they were saying these words obsessively, like “responsibility,” what does it mean? My father had an accident at the factory when he was 35. He couldn’t walk for a few years. His back was destroyed. But then, according to the French state, he was supposed to go back to work. The only job for someone like him was to be a street sweeper, because he had no education or diploma. The work destroyed his back even more. And so when you say “responsibility,” what are you talking about? I can’t even answer to that kind of language, because it has nothing to do with reality.
And so when Ocasio-Cortez talks about corruption, when she talks about pain, when she talks about rage, I think that finally someone is talking about reality. And people see that this movement toward reality can be associated with socialism, and so we understand what socialism can be. But in the end, the language is not very important. The importance is what we create, how we affect people’s bodies.
Sure, although we happen to be in a rare moment where the word ‘socialism’ can really electrify people.
I hope so, and I hope also that something will change within the liberals in the United States. I remember once I was at a literary cocktail party in New York, and there were waiters serving us, and I was so struck by the ability of the American bourgeoisie to completely avoid the people who were serving them, who were giving them Champagne — as if they were not existing. I wanted to scream to the waiter, “I’m on your side! Don’t believe that I’m like them! I’m not like these people!”
It sounds anecdotal, but I think that it was very relevant in the way American society has trouble tracing the problems of social violence, social inequality, structural inequalities. You really have to learn in order to ignore people that much.