Toward A Different Solution: Édouard Louis, Émile Zola, and the Literary Accusation

August 2, 2018   •   By Benjamin Bernard, Colton Valentine

Qui a tué mon père

Édouard Louis

ONE EVENING, years ago, before Benjamin had learned not to underestimate first-time authors, he met Édouard Louis at a Parisian cafe to discuss French graduate school programs. Rather than Benjamin’s preferred quincy, Louis opted for fruit juice, noting he’d need to revise his manuscript that night. That diligence paid off: in 2014, 21-year-old Louis stunned audiences with his debut autobiographical novel, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (The End of Eddy), which gave a politically engaged portrait of a fractured contemporary France. Louis pursued the same project in his second novel, Histoire de la Violence (History of Violence), just released in English translation earlier this year.

His third novel, Qui a tué mon père (Who Killed my Father), however, takes a new course. It shifts from self-reflective observation to polemical anger, casting off the artifice of fiction to confront head-on an impasse in French society: how to square economic justice with identity politics.

This dilemma brought a realignment of political poles last election season, and centrist Emmanuel Macron rode the ensuing turmoil into office. The new president’s medicine has not been easily swallowed. This spring, clumsy attempts to transform France’s state-run university and transportation systems incited widespread strikes and student occupations, like at our own École Normale Supérieure. By prioritizing “market efficiency,” he has ignored identitarian concerns, raising skepticism from both sides of the political spectrum. The right fears migrants leeching from social security, the left that those newcomers lack humane living conditions.

Who Killed My Father (2018) offers a fresh slant on Macron’s agenda, culminating in a decisive answer to the titular question — a bipartisan hit list of government leaders whose neoliberal policies kept Louis’s father constrained in back-breaking manual labor. This allegation inspired France Culture and Les Inrockuptibles, insightfully, to liken Who Killed My Father to France’s most famous literary indictment: Émile Zola’s 1898 “J’Accuse.”

A more meaningful parallel, however, lies beneath that shared polemic form of accusation. When Zola left the sanctum of fiction-writing to charge President Félix Faure, he emerged as the first modern intellectuel engagé. His real target was a national mindset — rampant anti-Semitism that had led to the wrongful conviction of Alsatian Jew Alfred Dreyfus. And that mindset was informed by decades of turmoil that, like today, saw the imperatives of social equality pitted against minority inclusion.

As Thomas Piketty has shown, wealth inequality remained consistent — and colossal — throughout 19th-century France’s transition from landed to industrial forms of capital. The top decile’s share of national capital hovered at around 80 percent for most of the century before inching to nearly 90 percent between 1870 and 1910. Multiple resentments flourished. Urban artisans watched industrial investment grow while an extended depression and competition from newfangled department stores weighed them down. The shameful outcome of the Franco-Prussian War still stung, too.

So a revanchist right, led by General Georges Boulanger, curried popular support for a counterrevolutionary scheme by summoning a specter they claimed was responsible for both societal ills: Jewish financiers siphoning off wealth and engaging in foreign espionage. Urban workers turned away from the socialist policies of leftists like Jean Jaurès that might have alleviated their burdens, for identity had come to inflect their goals for social transformation. As the Catholic La Croix concluded in 1894, “In the end, the social question is the Jewish question.”

Like Louis’s auto-fiction, Zola’s naturalism shocked bourgeois readers with its portrayals of the working class. The 1877 L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den) aped street jargon to portray alcoholism among the poor of Paris, while the 1885 Germinal gave voice to miners rebelling in the town of Anzin. Zola’s novels also grappled with the connections between economy and identity. In the 1891 L’Argent (Money), a global speculation scheme sees Catholic protagonist Aristide Saccard brought down by Jewish banker Gundermann, personnage-à-clef for James de Rothschild. Those early novels have long posed a paradox: they are draped in the very anti-Semitic tropes that Zola would unmask in J’Accuse.

Or so it seems. In his recent book The Right to Difference (2016), Maurice Samuels proposes that French universalism has been defined by repeated confrontation with Jewish identity. In his pivotal chapter on the Dreyfus Affair, Samuels argues that Zola’s early anti-Semitism was an essential and consistent component of a leftist vision for the republic. The right cunningly co-opted those ideas, “effecting a political sleight of hand: stirring up antisemitism — including leftist stereotypes about Jews and capitalism — to trick the lower classes into endorsing a political program that did not serve their economic interests.” But while Zola condemned that trick, he never fundamentally reversed his position. Samuels shows how in Zola’s 1896 “Pour les juifs,” a precursor to “J’accuse,” he had proposed that Catholics could triumph by first adopting Jewish business strategies — a synthesis of Gundermann’s acumen with Saccard’s zeal — then diluting Jewish blood through strategic intermarriage. In the wake of the Affair, however, Zola proposed a more radical solution: overturning capitalism to render null the war-between-races. In his 1903 Vérité (Truth), he restaged the Dreyfus Affair in a fictional plot, carrying its social rupture to this alternative conclusion. His utopia was free of classes — and of Jewish identity.

One hundred and twenty years after the Affair, Édouard Louis has witnessed a similar right-wing “sleight of hand.” Global wealth inequality is wider than at any point since the time of Zola’s death. Like the anti-Dreyfusards, the National Front found its scapegoat at the crossroads of a foreign security threat and a targetable identity group: an EU-sanctioned flood of migrants supposedly leeching off welfare and poised to commit acts of terror. The economy of Louis’s hometown, Hallencourt, was bolstered by local factory labor until 1990s deindustrialization led to widespread layoffs. In his 2017 New York Times op-ed, “Why My Father Votes for Le Pen,” Louis explained how the left’s neoliberal language fell on ears trained elsewhere: Le Pen’s xenophobia and homophobia had become the siren song of his impoverished neighbors.

His accusation, however, stands in contrast to Zola’s, by placing difference — not republican homogeneity — at the core of social reform. That vision begins with the Hallencourt homophobia that alienated him socially and caused him to flee. It has matured as Louis’s work grapples with systems of interlocking injustices. In The End of Eddy, he recounts his childhood perception that his “otherness” was akin to the blackness of a Martinican named Jordan. Yet he also notes unexpected surges of fear each time an Arab or black person passes him while en route to lycée Michelis in Amiens. The struggle deepens in History of Violence. After being sexually assaulted by an Algerian immigrant named Reda, Louis describes being temporarily possessed by a racist alter ego. Having witnessed how economic violence bred racism in his father, Louis watches sexual violence develop the same bias in himself.

Through these personal reckonings, Louis comes to identify the parallel, mutually reinforcing pains of those who fall outside the norm. Zola’s solution to Jewish exclusion was to eliminate difference, but for Louis, the injunction to become invisible is itself a form of violence. Indeed, it is the definition of what his intellectual forefather Pierre Bourdieu theorized as “symbolic violence.” The poor, too, experience it. Referring to the early 2000s, Louis poignantly noted in the New York Times op-ed, “And yet what those elections really meant for my father was a chance to fight his sense of invisibility.” In the absence of political representation, class itself becomes a form of difference like sexuality and race; and it can be addressed only through recognition.

Who Killed My Father marks a new step in Louis’s thinking. He opens the book by quoting theorist Ruth Gilmore’s definition of racism as the “exposing of certain populations to a premature death,” and then proposes that her definition functions equally for “masculine domination, hatred of homosexuality and transgenderism, class domination, all phenomena of social and political oppression.” The book plays out the implications of this theory and clicks the pieces of its social puzzle into place in the final pages. There, Louis and his father find a touching rapprochement. Louis recounts, in a somewhat stilted apostrophe, how his father has changed in recent years: openly asking Louis about the man he loves, and even criticizing racism in France. The hard-line Mélenchon supporter and the father who had always voted for a Le Pen find common ground in overturning the structures of violence that affect them both: a “revolution.” Zola believed a coalition between the working class and identitarian minorities was impossible, but for Louis it’s essential. In his formulation, difference is not only a right but the solution.

That solution has serious merit, and not just in France. As a rift widens between American moderates and populists, Mark Lilla, inspired by his French sabbatical, devised an approach to lure resentful populist voters toward center-left social democracy: muzzling “identity politics.” Samuel Moyn retorted, “The trouble with American liberalism is not the rhetoric […] Rather, liberals need to forge policies that allow Americans to identify or imagine common interests.” Louis conjures such a feat of imagination.

But Who Killed My Father also leaves important questions unanswered. Some feminist or critical race theorists might bristle at how far Louis stretches Gilmore’s idea. After all, the father’s warmth is kindled by his son’s newfound celebrity — a role more easily won by a white man. Their common ground is not so common to all. Further, as Kimberlé Crenshaw underscores in her fundamental work on the concept of intersectionality, although discriminations interconnect, they do not behave identically. Yet in places, Louis’s novel seems to align these phenomena of oppression on a single axis. Critical race theory has not smoothly crossed the Atlantic to resurface in these pages. Instead, it has confronted Zolian residues of French universalism, losing an essential piece: the difference of difference. So one has the sense, looking across Louis’s oeuvre, that his thinking continues to mature. If these newest 89 pages had been fleshed out, he might have developed a fuller intersectional politics that leans into the complexities of praxis.

Benjamin can now confirm that we should not underestimate young authors when they set ambitious intellectual goals. Instead, we should pay close attention. Now that France has one ear cocked, Louis has admirably begun to amplify a constellation of causes — from fundraising for striking rail workers to protesting police violence. But as he dons the mantle of the intellectuel engagé, or has it thrust upon him, we wonder what will come after the accusation — what difference will look like in his own Vérité.


Benjamin Bernard is a PhD candidate in History at Princeton, currently on exchange at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. In 2018–2019 he will be a Chateaubriand Fellow sponsored by the French Embassy to the United States.

Colton Valentine (Harvard ’16) just completed a master’s in French Literature at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. This fall, he will be continuing his studies at Oxford's Faculty of English as an Ertegun Scholar.