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To Understand American Political Anger, Look to ‘Peripheral France’

French geographer Christophe Guilluy has a controversial diagnosis of working-class resentment in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the Yellow Vests.
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Ever since the twin 2016 ballot-booth surprises of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, academics, journalists, and policymakers have been looking intently at geographic divides—in particular, the gap between urban and rural communities. The arrival of the Gilets Jaunes—the Yellow Vests—on the streets and squares of French cities in 2018 prompted a similar searching. Led initially by disgruntled motorists protesting government fuel taxes, the Yellow Vests tapped a familiar vein of populist anger against an increasingly out-of-touch urban elite. To understand what the movement wanted, many turned to the work of French geographer Christophe Guilluy.

Before the Yellow Vests emerged, Guilluy laid out a searing indictment of trans-Atlantic capitalism and its urban forms in his books La France Périphérique and Twilight of the Elites, the latter of which has recently been published in English. Focusing on smaller French cities and rural areas, the 54-year-old writer takes aim at liberal articles of faith around openness, cosmopolitanism, protest, and multiculturalism. Provocative in print, congenial in conversation, Guilluy spoke with CityLab on why “urban” is a useless concept, the problem with the “cool bourgeoisie,” and why Notre Dame belongs to more than just Parisians. Our conversation was translated by Dylan Yaeger and has been condensed and edited for clarity.