Article published in the New York Times ( long version )
Last month, the face of Marine Le Pen appeared on my computer screen. The headline under the picture read, “Marine Le Pen in Round Two.” The leader of France’s far-right National Front had advanced to a runoff vote in the presidential election. I immediately thought of my father, several hundred miles away. I imagined him bursting with joy in front of the TV — the same joy he felt in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the previous leader of the National Front made it to the second round. I remembered my father shouting, “We’re going to win!” with tears in his eyes.
I grew up in Hallencourt, a tiny village in Northern France where, until the 1980s, nearly everyone worked for the same factory. By the time I was born, in the 1990s, after several waves of layoffs, most of the people around me were out of work and had to survive as best they could on welfare. My father left school at 14, as did his father before him. He worked for 10 years at the factory. He never got a chance to be laid off: One day at work, a storage container fell on him and crushed his back, leaving him bedridden, on morphine for the pain.
I knew the feeling of being hungry before I knew how to read. From the time I was 5 my father would order me to go knock on the door of one of my aunts, who lived down the street, and ask if she could spare some pasta or bread for our table. I was sent because he knew it was easier to pity a child than an adult. Every year the amount of his workers’ compensation decreased. I have four siblings, and in the end, my father couldn’t feed a family of seven. My mother didn’t work; my father said a woman’s place was in the home.
At 18, thanks to a series of lucky breaks and miracles, I became a student of philosophy in Paris, at a college considered one of the most prestigious in France. I was the first in my family to attend university. So far from the world where I’d grown up, living in a little studio on the Place de la République, I decided to write a novel about where I came from. I wanted to bear witness to the poverty and exclusion that were part of our everyday experience. I was struck and troubled by the fact that the life I knew all those years never appeared in books, in newspapers or on TV. Every time I heard someone talk about « France », in the media or even in the street, I knew they weren’t talking about the people I’d grown up with.
Two years later, I finished the book and sent it to a big Paris publisher. Less than two weeks later, he sent a reply: He couldn’t publish my manuscript because the poverty I wrote about hadn’t existed in more than a century; no one would believe the story I had to tell. I read that email several times, choked with rage and despair. The explanation was tragic but simple : the life I’d known, the life that my mother and father still lived while I was writing, was so completely absent from the public discourse that, in the end, those who didn’t live it believed that it didn’t exist.
In the 2000s, when I was growing up, every member of my family voted for Le Pen. My father went into the polling station with my older brothers to make sure they really were voting for the National Front. The mayor and his staff members didn’t say anything when they saw my father doing this. In our village, with its population of only a few hundred, everyone had attended the same school. Everyone saw everyone else at the bakery in the morning or in the cafe at night. No one wanted to pick a fight with my father.
A vote for the National Front was of course a vote tinged with racism and homophobia. My father looked forward to the time when we would “throw out the Arabs and the Jews.” He liked to say that homosexuals deserved the death penalty — looking sternly at me, who already in primary school was attracted to other boys on the playground.
And yet what these elections really meant for my father was a chance to fight his sense of invisibility. My father understood, long before I did, that in the minds of the bourgeoisie — people like the editor who would turn down my book a few years later — our existence didn’t count and wasn’t real.
The writer Pierre Bergounioux has observed that the difference between the powerful and the powerless is not just a matter of wealth or education – No, it is also that the powerful get to exist twice. First they exist as bodies: walking around, eating, making love. But they have another existence too, in the world of representations – in literature, in art, in the media. The powerless are allowed only the life of the body. Their lives don’t show up in books or in political discourse. My father voted against this injustice. Unlike the ruling class, he didn’t have the privilege of voting for a political program. Voting, for him, was a desperate attempt to exist in the eyes of others.
He had felt abandoned by the political left ever since the 1980s, when it began adopting the language and thinking of the free market. Across Europe, as Didier Eribon pointed out in his book Returning to Reims, left-wing parties no longer spoke of social class, injustice and poverty — of suffering, pain and exhaustion. They talked about modernization, growth and harmony in diversity — of communication, social dialogue and calming tensions. My father understood that this technocratic vocabulary was meant to shut up workers and further the spread of neoliberalism. The left wasn’t fighting for the working class, against the laws of the marketplace; it was trying to manage the lives of the working class from within those laws. The unions had undergone the same transformation: My grandfather was a union man. My father was not.
When he was watching TV and a socialist or a union representative appeared on the screen, my father would call out, “Whatever — left, right, now, they’re all the same.” That “whatever” distilled all of his disappointment in those who, in his mind, should have been standing up for him but weren’t. By contrast, the National Front railed against poor working conditions and unemployment, blaming it all on immigration or the European Union. In the absence of any attempt by the left to discuss his suffering, my father took ahold of the false explanations offered by the far-right.
I don’t know for sure how he voted last month, in the first round of the presidential election, and I don’t know for sure how he will vote on Sunday, in the runoff. He and I almost never speak. Our lives have grown too far apart, and whenever we try to talk on the phone, we are reduced to silence by the pain of having become strangers to each other. Usually we hang up after a minute or two, embarrassed that neither of us can think of anything to say.
But even if I can’t ask him directly, I’m confident he is still voting for the National Front. In his village, Marine Le Pen came out way ahead in the first round of the election. In the European elections, three years ago, almost 55% of the village voted for the far right – and if all those who were eligible had cast their votes, the tally would probably have exceeded 70%.
Today, writers, journalists, and liberals bear the weight of responsibility for the future. Unless they offer a discourse and framework that allow the outcast to feel represented, then these outcasts will turn to whatever populist movement gives them the illusion of being counted. To persuade my family not to vote for Marine Le Pen, it’s not enough to show that she is racist and dangerous: Everyone knows that already. It’s not enough to fight against hate or against her. We have to fight for the powerless, for a language that gives a place to the most invisible people – people like my father.