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Édouard Louis: Why Is Individual Responsibility Only for the Poor?

Édouard Louis

French author Édouard Louis is famous for his works portraying the daily humiliations of working-class life. In an interview, he explains how our rulers avoid responsibility for their decisions — while blaming the rest of us for how we cope with the consequences.

Writer Édouard Louis at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017. (Heike Huslage-Koch / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Jonathan Lefèvre

With his works selling hundreds of thousands of copies in thirty languages, you might think Édouard Louis risks losing touch with reality. But upon meeting the twenty-nine-year-old writer, I find his humility and frankness are disarming. The radicalism of his words when he defends his class — the working class — contrasts starkly with the softness of his voice. Yes, Édouard Louis is angry. But even anger can be beautiful when it appears in fine prose.

For Édouard Louis, a politically committed writer has to buckle down, “on the ground.” Involved in the national council for high schoolers from age sixteen, in 2018, he joined the railroad workers’ fight against the privatization of France’s national rail network, and then the protests against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms. And if this young writer is continually invited to mingle in bourgeois circles, he’s not afraid of being “recuperated.”

“I wrote my book in my own little neck of the woods. And then one day I sent in my first book by mail. I didn’t know anyone. I’d gone to print out my book in a copy center. I borrowed €30 from friends to print my manuscript four times. I sent it to publishers and I was published. I owe nothing to the bourgeoisie.”

In an interview first published in French by Solidaire, Jonathan Lefèvre spoke to Édouard Louis about his political commitment and the power of class hatred today.


JL

What gave you the taste for political commitment?

EL

In my childhood, I knew that politics was something important. At first, I had private memories of politics rather than political ones. I remember when there was a reform in France that put conditions on the welfare system — so you had to show that you were working and show that you deserved even these minimum benefits. All of a sudden, the administration would phone or send letters to my father: “You have to prove that you have been looking for work, if you want to continue receiving benefits. You’ll have to show that you’re not sat at home.” At the time, I didn’t know what a party was, what a reform was, etc., but I could see that someone had made a political decision and, suddenly, in my father’s flesh, in my father’s body, something had abruptly changed.

So, very early on, I had a form of political awareness that then grew and grew. When I went to lycée — and I was the first in my family to continue studying beyond school-leaving age — I was suddenly confronted with more bourgeois, more privileged environments. And there I saw the gap between the world of my childhood and that world. And that made me aware of social violence and injustice.

JL

You saw that politics didn’t leave marks on their bodies, like it did for the workers . . .

EL

Privileges protect you from politics. Degrees protect you from politics. Money protects you from politics. Today, if I have money and I’m not happy with what a government is doing in France, I can go and live somewhere else. This is not the case for my father or my mother. And, basically, the more part of the ruling classes you are, the more protected you are from politics.

But the ruling classes are also actively working against the dominated classes. Some say that nobody talks about the working classes. I don’t think that’s right. In fact, among the ruling classes there is a form of obsession in the discourse on the working classes — but only to insult them. That’s what we’ve seen with Emmanuel Macron lately. It’s all about the “bottom of the class,” the “lazy,” “those who hold up reforms,” “those who don’t want to work,” etc.

JL

You explained this in a powerful text, “Every person who insulted a gilet jaune insulted my father.” At the time, you were one of the first public figures to take a stand.

EL

I saw the first gilets jaunes demonstrations. I was moved to finally see people who never have access to the public space. I was sad because we saw people who were suffering. And I was angry because as soon as these bodies appeared, people tried to silence them: “They are violent, they are this, they are that, etc.” The emotion, the sadness, and the anger made me feel like I needed to say something.

I felt like these were the people I had tried to talk about in my books. And, for once, you could hear their voices. For once, you could see their bodies. We were finally hearing reality in politics, not the great abstractions about the “social contract” and the “Republic,” but people saying, “We can’t put food on the table, we can’t pay the rent . . .” Intervening was important. I had the impression that nobody was defending them.

JL

You said, “The gilets jaunes have confronted the bourgeoisie with reality.”

EL

With the emergence of the yellow vests, reality came out into the open in a way the media aren’t used to. Because it is invisibilized. When we see politicians on TV, we never hear a cashier say, “My hands hurt because I spend all day moving things from right to left like this.” And that’s real. And for me, a great political movement is a moment when reality finally emerges.

JL

Is talking about that reality also the way we should be fighting the far right?

EL

Exactly. Because then we are making sure that the most dominated, the people who suffer, can identify themselves with the discourse of the Left. People want to say, “I’m suffering,” because they are in a situation of suffering — which doesn’t mean that’s all they are. No one wants to be just a victim. Do we say, “I suffer because of a class violence, a caste system” or do we say, “I suffer because of migrants, women, and homosexuals”?

And if the far right are the only people offering a space in which people feel they can say “I’m suffering,” in which their suffering will get a hearing, then they will head in that direction. Because we are all looking for ways to say what we are living through and what we are, what we feel.

JL

In your book Who Killed My Father, you point out who is responsible. Why do you do that?

EL

Because there are people who make decisions, who are responsible for this. It was strange for me to talk about Chirac, Sarkozy, and Macron in a literary work. But if that’s strange, it’s because we’re not used to it. Probably also because many writers come from the ruling classes and have never had this experience of politics, as an intimate experience, as an experience of life or death. They tell of lives without politics because they have lives without politics, whereas my father’s life was a political life.

Above all, there’s this constant denying of the responsibility of those who make decisions. When a worker dies, we chalk it up as a workplace accident, and that’s that. But no — it’s not that. There are human responsibilities. It’s strange, because when I published my first books, in which I spoke a lot about homophobia and racism in my childhood environment, many journalists — bourgeois journalists — told me, “When you call someone a fag or a sand nigger, you are responsible. There’s no excusing the individual.” And when I published Who Killed My Father, where I recounted the decisions of Macron or Sarkozy that impacted my father, that crushed my father’s back, people said to me, “Oh no, but wait, it’s a whole system, it’s not them who really decide . . .” We live in a society in which there is a regime of sociological excuses only for the dominant. Macron can change my father’s life but my father cannot change Macron’s life. There is someone who has power over the other — and those who have the most power bear the least responsibility. At first, I had always thought that the dominant were against sociological excuses; they are always for responsibility, for the individual. In fact, they only want to make the dominated individually responsible.

JL

In your new book, Combats et métamorphoses d’une femme (Struggles and metamorphoses of a woman), you explain that emancipation, for your mother, meant dressing up and doing her makeup according to the prevailing norms. Does this echo the debates over the injunctions that are made to women to wear this or that garment?

EL

Exactly. The idea of an injunction is one that the Left should always be fighting against. We should not dictate to people the true definition of dignity, of being, of what one should or should not do. Especially since, for many women, putting on a dress and lipstick is an injunction. That’s what Marilyn Monroe was told: “You put on a dress, you put on lipstick, or you can get lost.”

For many of my friends who were born into the ruling classes, that injunction is very strong. Whereas for my mother, who was born into an environment in which she had a tough husband like my father, who didn’t want her to wear makeup, who wanted her to stay home, who wanted her to fade away — for her, putting on lipstick and making herself “pretty,” in the most traditional sense, was emancipation. What is oppression for one person can be emancipation for another. And that’s why, in politics, we must never create injunctions, things that are supposedly immutable and universal. It is important that the Left always keeps its language open to the world.

JL

You have been accused of “prolophobia” — of doing wrong by the working class by portraying it negatively. But on the other hand, one can read your books and say that you want to describe the workers faithfully, with their faults, out of respect for them. So, are you with or against them?

EL

With them. I don’t want to stigmatize the working class but to show its diversity. Basically, the prolophobes are the people who prevent us from talking about this. Because when they say “working class,” they only want to talk about the white man, the “traditional” worker, a racist, alcoholic guy. I don’t want to produce mythologies. I want to think about reality. In my books, there are very different people. I met very different people throughout my childhood and my teenage years.

These people who accuse me of prolophobia, who accuse me of talking about racism, about sexism in the working class, say that we should show that the working classes are beautiful, clean, so that we can defend them and fight for them. They have to be deserving of our support. But that’s a right-wing view. I fight for people whether they are nice or not, whether they are good or bad. And so I can show the phenomenon of racism inside a community and at the same time fight against the living conditions that these people suffer. And, especially, to explain where racism comes from, to show that it comes from a situation of exclusion, domination, lack of access to certain discourses.

JL

What do you think explains these attacks?

EL

What I noticed, is that most of the people who accused me of “prolophobia” came from the bourgeoisie, when most of the people who could identify with what I described were people with the same background I have.

Here we get back to the gilets jaunes who were thrown in the mud. When I spoke, people said, “Shut up! You’re calling them homophobic, racist; you’re hurting them.” But then whenever the working classes raise their head, the same people tell them, “Shut up! You’re racists and homophobes.” The last thing they want is for people from the working classes to mobilize or speak out. The bourgeoisie is a system of permanent contradiction — and ultimately, what it has to say is “Shut them up.”