The wistfulness of writer Emmanuel Carrère invariably intersects with the resounding cry of current events, of history that comes looking for him, questioning him through the characters of his books, without granting him any chance of escape. The setting might be a beach in Sri Lanka where he encounters “other lives but mine”, gaining dramatic first-hand experience of what for millions of others was just a TV news item. Or it could be a beach in Calais, where Carrère went three years ago to write about the frustrations of a white, provincial France faced with a “jungle” of migrants. Perhaps the story could be about a small ferry shuttling back and forth between the French and English coasts every day, as in Le Quai de Ouistreham, the film that Carrère is finishing to shoot, depicting the opposite shores of a tottering and disintegrating Europe. On the verge of elections that will decide the political fate of the continent, once again the concerns of one of the leading figures of contemporary European literature provide an ominous yet fascinating reflection of the sentiments harboured by many of his fellow citizens.

Russian hostility, American hostility, imperialism, the Catholic Church. In 1947 George Orwell listed the main forces acting against European unity. Lastly he cited the greatest difficulty: “The apathy and conservatism of people everywhere, their unawareness of danger, their inability to imagine anything new.” Is this still the case?

“I think it’s still absolutely true. Except for the Catholic Church. Maybe it’s different in other countries like Italy, but in France, right now, honestly the Catholic Church is almost exerting a more positive than negative influence on European unity. This is because it no longer has any worldly power. And since it’s no longer a power, it can do what’s expected of the church, in other words represent a spiritual influence. In any case, Orwell was right. But this quote also strikes me for another reason. Here, Orwell criticises the apathy of ordinary people, whereas usually he tended to sing the praises of simple folk, celebrating what he called their sense of decency, while criticising the elites and intellectuals. Actually, in 2019 I’d say we could add these latter two categories to Orwell’s list of obstacles to European unity”.

So are European elites partly responsible for our current state?

“Yes, of course. They’re also the ones who coined and used that fashionable word “populism”. When you’re convinced that the opinions and beliefs of so many people in your own nation should be negatively labelled as populism, well, there’s a problem. And in this case, let’s be clear that I don’t think I’m excluded from the list of people responsible”.

Do you really think there’s such a thing as the elites? Isn’t it a bit of a dialectical ploy to keep evoking them?

“On one hand you’re absolutely right. Saying “elites” is a bit like saying “populism”. It’s using a label. However, it is true that there are people in our age who are on the right side of history, and others who aren’t. Let’s take the so-called gilets jaunes. Okay, we can refrain from calling it a popular revolt against the elites, but at the very least it’s a revolt of the poor against the rich, period. And here we’re in the most classical Marxist definition of the class struggle”.

Are movements like the yellow vests destined to remain a sort of jacquerie – an explosion of pure rebellious instinct – or do you see potential for them to become something more organised?

“At the moment it’s just an uprising, a jacquerie as you rightly call it. But who can say what it’ll turn into? I haven’t even grasped exactly what it is now. That’s partly because nobody has managed to emerge as its representative in a rational and institutional dialectic. Every time someone declares themselves as its spokesperson, someone else pops up and accuses them of being a traitor and collaborating with the enemy. They probably won’t get to the point of beheading Macron; the protest might fizzle out on its own. But in the meantime the yellow vests are proving that there’s an extremely fervent and profound anger in this nation. And it’s an anger that we honestly didn’t think existed”.

Pro-Europeans love to report the unanimous results of surveys, which suggest that much of the rebellion in France, the UK and elsewhere is made up of provincial, less-educated, elderly white people. Meanwhile, young people are decidedly and spectacularly in favour of the European Union. What do you think? Is this just typical reassuring thinking (almost offensive, in certain aspects), or is it true?

“There’s definitely truth in it. In France, for years and years, all the concerns of intellectuals and politicians were focused on city suburbs. The ones to worry about were young immigrants and the children of immigrants. And now we’re suddenly faced with a revolt that has nothing to do with all of that. It’s an uprising that consists only of white people, with practically no trace of Arabs or Africans. Of course, there’s also xenophobia and homophobia lurking among the yellow vests, but the interesting fact is that it’s a side of France that nobody wanted to see up close until now”.

This is the same France that you’re portraying in a film, as a director.

“It’s a funny coincidence. The film that I’m directing is taken from a book by the French journalist Florence Aubenas. It’s titled Le Quai de Ouistreham, and the story tells of a reporter who delves into the poor France of temporary workers. In the film adaptation, her part is played by Juliette Binoche, but all the other characters have been given to non-professional actors and actresses, mostly cleaning ladies”.

Did you do a casting of cleaning ladies?

“Yes. The film is set in Normandy, and we decided to recruit the cast from there, from the same people who did that job. While I was doing the auditions, it dawned on me that the cleaning ladies were all white. It’s similar to what we were saying before about the yellow vests. That would never happen in Paris or other big French cities. Cleaning ladies in big cities are never white; they’re Filipinos, Ukrainians, Cape Verdeans. But in Normandy, as in other parts of the French provinces, these ladies are purely of French origin – white women who work no more than 20 kilometres from where they were born. I say this because at the time I was concerned with a question of, let’s say, political correctness”.

In what way?

“I told myself, in this film I’ll have about ten cleaning ladies, so shouldn’t I make sure that at least two are like Arabs or something, and one of them coloured? Shouldn’t I correct the proportions? Come to think of it, political correctness wasn’t even a consideration in my thought process. It was more about giving an impression of truth, because a group of all-white cleaning ladies just didn’t seem credible to me. But in reality it was precisely that ethnic uniformity that was real, at least there in Normandy. So there are times when reality as it is simply doesn’t strike you as being real”.

European elites are often accused of the same thing: of living in a world that is out of touch with real life.

“Those elites, which I’m part of as well, have the responsibility to look at things from a reverse perspective. Instead, I’ve had the opposite opportunity in some of my works, such as Le Quai de Ouistreham, as already mentioned, but also A Russian Novel, which is set in a glubinka, a dull provincial town in central Russia. In these cases I lived among people who spend their entire existence in remote regions. They feel completely forgotten and even offended, and they’re convinced that “real life” happens in the big cities. I was struck by an idea that still rings true to me: that the view from the bottom up is richer and more informative than the view from the top down, which we Western writers often espouse”.

The star of Russia seems to be shining bright in today’s Europe, and we’re not just talking about the covers of Time dedicated to Vladimir Putin. It’s about something with deeper roots, a cultural attraction, a recurring story about their ability to keep tradition and faith alive… What do you think? 

“I don’t know if this sentiment is actually that deep-rooted. It’s definitely a new sentiment. Only recently, European intellectuals and elites – not to mention the French elites – were mostly horrified by Putin. They used to say: how is it possible that the Russians keep voting for this man? They were reduced to thinking that in order to win Putin must have rigged the elections, which is totally untrue. The elections weren’t particularly fixed simply because there wasn’t any need to. Russians vote for Putin with overwhelming majorities. So Westerners were claiming they knew better than the Russians what was best for the Russians, which is classic. And meanwhile Russians continue to vote for Putin. Now there’s even a generation – let’s say 30-year-olds and under – who have no recollection of anyone but Putin at the head of their nation”.

The world of the depressed and remote provinces that you’ve described recalls the Freudian category of the “return of the repressed”, that part of our existence and culture which we don’t want to see, so we repress it. But then it returns.

“The repressed always returns. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be repressed, right? And in some way the internet represents the subconscious of our society, a subconscious that immediately becomes visible. For the first time, through social networks, people take the liberty to say absolutely everything they want, in a state of total impunity. It’s a kind of enormous open-air subconscious that had never been uncovered before. I find it mind-blowing. But it’s no longer just Europe. The whole world works like this”.

Francesco Chiamulera
(From “L’Uomo Vogue”, May 2019)