Geographer's 'forgotten French' shakes up political class

Thu Oct 16, 2014 12:13am EDT
 
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By Nicholas Vinocur

PARIS (Reuters) - When France's left-leaning daily Liberation newspaper devoted a cover and two full pages last month to a book on geography, author Christophe Guilluy understood that his message was reaching a wider audience than his peers in the field.

The book, a geographical study entitled "The Peripheral France", has set off a heated debate in the media and in the hallways of French power about a country beset by high unemployment and facing the rapid rise of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party.

Guilluy's argument is simple, yet provocative: an ostensibly unified country is, in fact, split in two, between rich, globalized, culturally vibrant cities like Paris and Lyon, and a depressed "periphery" being left behind.

The latter, which he says covers most of the population, never caught up with big cities plugged into a global market for jobs and investment. Instead, the largely white, working class inhabitants -- former mine and factory workers many of them -- of small- and mid-sized towns, suburbs and rural areas have seen their jobs and livelihoods steadily eroded, to the point where they no longer share political ideas with their big city peers.

Guilluy argues the inhabitants of this "peripheral France" could be worse off than people living in the immigrant-heavy "banlieues" (city suburbs), that have loomed large in public debate, because they are more isolated from economic centers.

As a result of the split, Guilluy says most of the country has lost faith in the mainstream center-right and center-left political parties, which tend to concentrate on the big cities, and are turning toward the far-right National Front party.

Guilluy's analysis is catching on, and not just in France, where his book sold 13,000 copies in two weeks, nearly five times the average for a geography book, publisher Flammarion said.

The geographer has briefed advisers to President Francois Hollande and given talks to European ambassadors about his findings. Their response to his grim view of French society? "The split exists in our countries, too."   Continued...