Vacarme 37 / lignes

high, low, fragile: sociologies of the working class an interview with Annie Collovald & Olivier Schwartz

“Populaire [1]”: something that represents hope in French politics (the reversal of an unfair system, or of domination), yet sociology seems to be dismantling it (the population is too powerless to put an end to domination). Understanding the political battles developing today (the consecration of the “working-class vote” as the holy grail of political contests and, during the same period, the continually repeated evocation of “populism”) requires a very precise exercise in pinpointing the current social stratification and the political forces it liberates.
Annie Collovald is professor of political sociology at the University of Nantes. Oliver Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Paris V.

“Working classes”, “working-class electorate”, “working-class districts”... It seems as if we’re witnessing a return to favour of this category in discourse on French society, on the part of politicians as much as on the part of sociologists.

Olivier Schwartz: I think it’s true, actually. Among sociologists, you start to see signs of it in the mid-nineties, beginning with the 1995 movement calling the “middlising” concept into question—the idea of a French society with nothing but a middle class, a “middlised” society in which class cleavages have been erased under the effects of mass consumption, the widespread availability of education, and an expansion of services... But it seems to me that the 2002 presidential elections were the decisive factor. It was not Le Pen’s vote count so much as Lionel Jospin’s failure. When his desertion of the working classes cost him the election—or at least participation in the second round—we suddenly realised that these categories still held considerable demographic and sociological weight in contemporary France.

Annie Collovald: I agree with this assessment, with maybe one modification. Starting with, let’s say, the 1995 strikes, groups that had disappeared from the scene began returning to the forefront. And then the 2002 presidential elections reinforced the return of the working class to public discourse in particular. But this time it was not so much as a sociological group, but rather as a political issue. Remember, the prevailing theories explaining Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presence in the second round presented it as the rallying of most working class groups (labour, the unemployed) to the extreme right. But the working class said to have been summoned was a fantastical one, far removed from any rigorous sociological characterisation. It was the working class as the rounding up of “have-nots”, so to speak—those without degrees, without income, without culture... groups that only existed in the minds of people who were looking for them. The works of Sawicki and Lefebvre [2] show for example that after Jospin’s elimination, socialists debated the reasons for this rejection, particularly the reasons why he was repudiated by working class groups. Was it simply an isolated incident or a long-term phenomenon? Was it linked to the fact that Jospin and his team refused to make reference to the working class, or even to socialism? Or was it independent of this “poor communication strategy”, and could they therefore continue addressing themselves exclusively to the upper middle classes? But the discussion soon ended. In the eyes of many socialist leaders, the 2004 regional elections proved, on the one hand, the renewed mobilisation of the working classes in elections, and on the other hand, their loyalty to the parliamentary left. Therefore, a return to the working class, yes, but a volatile return, or one that remains under threat, an imagined working class.

What would this “rigorous sociological characterisation” of working class groups be, that would allow this “imagined working class” to be thwarted, Oliver Schwartz? Is this kind of characterisation even possible?

O. Schwartz: So that I don’t shy away from your question, I’ll say yes, I think the working class category makes sense and has sociological significance. For me, this category makes it possible to designate a group of populations that present the following characteristics. First, a low social and professional stature. I don’t think it’s necessary to elaborate on this point. Next, narrowness of economic resources. I know this expression is very vague, but it has the advantage of being less restrictive than the notion of “precariousness”, since there are sections of the working class that achieve relative economic security, working class families that rise above their situation, even if a certain vulnerability is always lurking. Finally, disengagement from cultural capital. I’ll avoid using the terms “dominant culture” or “legitimate culture”, but I’ll use the term cultural capital from Bourdieu’s lexicon. It designates cultural resources that are socially advantageous. At the same time I should no doubt include everything from Hoggart [3], all kinds of lifestyle characteristics, even if today’s working class groups certainly are both very similar and very different compared to those described by Hoggart. In any case, this set of characteristics makes sense to me.

To back up a little, to what happened beginning in the eighties—from that time I believe the dualist model, which Robert Castel has already criticised [4], greatly contributed to an underestimation of the working classes in French society, and this has somewhat tainted discourse about our society over the past twenty years. This model consisted of seeing modern French society as split into two large groups: a vast middle class on one side, and then the poor, the precarious and the excluded on the other. With this kind of model, you don’t take account of those people in French society today who have managed to “find a way out”, or have almost found a way out, but still occupy low positions in the distribution of wealth. In other words it gives us every opportunity to gloss over whole sections of the working classes. Certain views expressed last spring about the anti-CPE movement reminded me of the danger of this model. There is a tendency to oppose on the one hand the suburban movements of autumn 2005—which stemmed from relegation and exclusion—and on the other hand the anti-CPE movement, presented as a strictly middle-class initiative. And yet among the anti-CPE protesters there appeared to be a large number of secondary school students who were not from the middle class! They belonged to the “9-3” [5] as they say today, or from the “deep” 91 [6], (you could tell from the banners they were holding, and from plenty of other clues). They were from the “suburbs”, while at the same time undoubtedly belonging to families of labourers or other workers who were relatively well integrated socially. The dualist model makes it impossible to account for these students from working class groups who are neither excluded nor representative of the middle class. For a long time this model has obscured our vision of modern French society, and I believe it has greatly contributed to preventing the question of working classes from being fully considered.

A symmetrical question, Annie Collovald: is it possible to identify a specifically working-class relationship with politics?

A. Collovald: It’s not impossible, on the condition that we first dispense with the idea that, at bottom, the principal characteristic of working classes, once communism disappeared, would be their openness to “populism” in the very particular sense this term has taken on in the past few decades. At one time it served, according to Lenin’s definition, to denounce a depraved strategy to mobilise the population against its own interests and principal defenders; so the population was perceived as the principal victim of manipulation by self-interested elites. Now populism is used to discredit the working classes, which are assumed to be more susceptible to ideas that are simplistic, xenophobic and authoritarian, like those of the Front National, because of their ignorance, their authoritarianism, and their “receptive credulity”. But in defiance of these supposed “observations”, let’s remember that the most important party for the working class electorate is not the FN, but abstention. For example, if we compare the labour vote in the 2002 presidential elections to that of 1995, what do we find? That the number of votes cast for the FN by the working class didn’t really increase (they received 17% of the labour vote in 1995, 18% in 2002). That it is abstention that strongly progressed, rising from 20% to 31%. That the labour vote in favour of the left loses ground in inverse proportion, going from 39% to 29%. That the left nevertheless remains the second partisan preference for labour, in front of a more or less stable vote for the classic right (22%). So we have: abstention, left, classic right, and the FN, in that order. Considering this, it is very surprising that the working class’s FN vote draws more attention—and disgrace—than for example that of professional people or small businesspeople. It seems to me this stigmatising representation indicates that we have entered into an intellectual and political situation in which the “people” has become a very bad political argument, the opposite of the situation in the 60s and 70s when the “working class” embodied, in the eyes of many, the enlightened avant-garde of a better world.

And positively?

A. Collovald: If we want to positively characterise the relationship that specific working class groups have with politics, I should enlist the help of Hoggart and Bourdieu. We can take from Hoggart his observation of a working class indifferent to intellectual matters, particularly to politics. It is difficult to separate Bourdieu from the idea that the relationship the working class has with politics remains one of domination—particularly from the point of view of cultural capital—and a dispossession that produces an attitude of withdrawal. Working class groups are the least equipped to seize the political process and be seized by it. They have a remote and discordant relationship with the electoral institution. Abstention aside, their vote can indeed be won, but it is often by virtue of something other than the ideological content of the competing parties. Incidentally, working-class groups are the ones whose electoral choices are most likely to be at odds with their own rationale. The works of Gringnon and Passeron stress that in order to understand the political behaviour of working-class groups, you have to be prepared to set aside the mindset of intellectuals, including that of sociologists, who are always oscillating between “miserablism”, (complaints, deprivation) and populism (the enchanted celebration of the most destitute people’s ability to resist). [7].

In spite of all this, even without much serious investigation we observe that working class groups do indeed have a political culture, with this dual peculiarity: it is always balancing between acceptance and rejection of domination, and it is marked by a strong functional ambivalence toward political figures. For example, it is rare for people not to express, at the same time and in the same interview, their incredulity at the political process—including their disgust with the political world—and their approval of certain actors and certain political actions, particularly those in the local political realm, like their mayor, municipal social assistance, etc. To ignore this (as polls do, for example), is on the one hand to underestimate working-class groups’ attachment to the democratic process, and on the other hand to misconstrue the significance of their scepticism. Far from being synonymous with political rejection, it can actually represent high expectations, the hope that political figures might take social matters into hand. Moreover, the fact that certain members of working-class groups keep voting in spite of everything suggests continued faith in the political process. To come back to my original point—we are therefore very far from populism or the “revolt of small people against political elites.”

quartering, transformations

So you both accept the working-class category, even if it’s not exactly from the same perspective. Then how do you respond to the objection that this category is too heterogeneous? Don’t the range and diversity of the situations it covers weaken its unity and relevance?

O. Schwartz: You’re certainly right to bring up this question. It has been clearly asked, for example, by Éric Maurin [8], not only about the working classes but also in relation to the middle classes, and I think it’s essential. After all, we could very well take the question further and develop the following idea. Inequalities linked to employment status, to differences in market access, to differences in income security (for example between public and private salaried employees) have today taken on so much importance that they’ve ended up fracturing and dividing all of the old social classes... Put another way, perhaps these divisions are today in the process of becoming the important social differences, and we should be asking ourselves if ultimately they’re not destined to destroy everything that we’ve understood up until now by working classes and middle classes, since with equivalent professions and scholastic capital, two individuals can find themselves in extremely unequal situations depending on whether they belong to one category or the another. I don’t believe we can side-step this issue. Inasmuch as the vocabulary of social classes is largely based on professional and educational inequalities, I can’t see how we could avoid questioning the relevance of this vocabulary in a society in which, even with the same profession, inequalities of employment status and market access have taken on so much importance... From this, the whole question becomes: should we see this critique through to the end, and consider that due to the importance now taken by these “new” inequalities, the old social classes may have essentially lost their relevance and their consistency? This obviously leads nowhere, or in any case it ends up strongly relativising a category like the working class.

I obviously allow for the possibility of taking this position, but I don’t subscribe to it. Today there is an increasingly strong heterogenisation of working-class categories. There is, to use Louis Chauvel’s expression, a “quartering” of working class groups [9], and this hardly seems disputable, and in particular we can take it for granted that differences between the circumstances of public and private working-class groups are much more pronounced today than they were in the sixties. But even so, I don’t believe there can be any talk of an implosion, as if there were a kind of radical discontinuity between the vulnerable and stable components. The characteristics common to both of them still exist, and they are hardly secondary. There is the insignificance of one’s position at work, with all the consequences it entails, and that’s already a lot. And there is the crucial matter of one’s distance from cultural capital. For several years now I’ve been working on a study of RATP [10] bus drivers. RATP agents are the model of stable employees. And yet, it is enough to look into their relationship to written work, to writing, to see to what degree this relationship is awkward and regrettable, just how far their distance from cultural capital is. A RATP bus driver shares this characteristic with any labourer in the private sector. In a society in which cultural capital and a diploma have become decisive social resources, who could believe that this characteristic is secondary? For example, who believes that the bus driver’s job stability will guarantee his children access to educational capital? And we should obviously consider common characteristics between social groups at the level of temperament, lifestyle... That’s why, instead of evoking an implosion of the working class, I prefer to speak of quartering.

A. Collovald: Historians of the labour class are there to remind us that the internal divisions within the working-class world are not a recent phenomenon. It seems to me that if you really want to understand the current divisions, it is just as important to analyse the political offerings addressed to working-class groups as it is to dissect the groups themselves. Today, it is striking to see the relatively low number of political groups seeking to represent them and speak in their name, and thus to give them, at least symbolically, unity and homogeneity. It’s the usual paradox of politics—politicians address social factions that they consider to be their electoral clientele; but in so doing, they create the social categories they’re talking about, in whose name they’re speaking. This is the “oracle effect”, to use Bourdieu’s term. In this regard, we earlier evoked the return of the working class to political discourse, but it is more as something “discussed by others” rather than as a subject in public discourse. The parties’ electoral strategists may be relying on the assumed expectations of working-class groups, but there is no trace of the working class in the parties’ way of speaking about, and to, their working-class voters. The Parti Socialiste has turned away from them. The Parti Communiste speaks of “folks”. As for the right, they invoke “the France of the downtrodden” or the “Republic of fellowship”. All of this contributes to symbolically weakening a group that is already materially very fragmented, and it no doubt encourages a retreat from elections.

Another possible objection: when describing working-class groups, you both borrow from Hoggart and Bourdieu. And yet Hoggart’s research dates back to the fifties, and Bourdieu’s was for the most part carried out in the sixties and seventies. Haven’t working-class groups changed since then?

A. Collovald: Yes, of course. The working class isn’t a transhistorical essence. But among the most significant transformations, those that relate to what political parties are offering—specifically the disappearance of political representation for working-class groups—are not the least important. In the current legislature, there are only three members who acknowledge having once been labourers; in the pervious legislature, only one. In the sixties, there were around a hundred. Politicians therefore have less and less of a working-class ethos, and this contributes on the one hand to rendering this type of political existence illegitimate, and on the other hand it advances the disappearance of a social, political and moral identification for those who are the furthest removed from the political sphere. Recent struggles to change politics have dealt with equality between men and woman, with the need to give children who are “from immigration” access to responsible jobs. And rightly so. But why not take up an old struggle, the one that aimed to promote “the children of the people”?

O. Schwartz: Working-class groups have indeed changed profoundly compared to the sixties, and it is important (as many others have already said) to insist upon two essential phenomena: massive scholarisation and tertiarisation. Earlier I spoke about alienation from intellectual culture, from cultural capital. I’ve talked about the importance of this. But it follows that one mustn’t forget an important phenomenon that moves in the opposite direction, and in a way tends to open working-class groups to culture today. I’m referring to mass education, the large-scale introduction of school and extended studies into labour and working-class families. In his book on the scholarisation of secondary school students from immigrant labour families, Stéphane Beaud speaks, in connection with these students, about a “half-acculturation” to scholastic culture [11]. A “half-acculturation” is an acculturation with gaps, which explains the problems many of these students have at school. But it’s also a partial acculturation, meaning that there are different ways of broadening people’s horizons, as François Dubet has already highlighted in his 1987 book on misery [12]. He noted that many young people from the city had acquired elements of “psych” culture through contact with social workers, and this came through in their way of expressing and talking about themselves (“it depends on your personality”, “I’m not in a good head space”, etc.). I think it’s important to pay attention these matters if we’re going to talk about the working classes in today’s France. One paradox of the French situation is that there has been a clear consolidation of the social domination working classes have been subjected to over the past twenty or thirty years—in the working world in particular—and at the same time these same working-class groups display a visible predisposition to cultural emancipation. And it’s important to consider the consequences of tertiarisation in the same spirit. Today’s working-class groups are no longer mainly composed of industrial labourers, as was possible in the fifties. Now they are overwhelmingly made up of service staff (bus drivers, small business employees, service industry staff, nurse’s aides, home carers, etc.) with all that this implies, such as an aptitude for interacting with the outside world, an ability to confront socially diverse situations... Members of today’s working-class groups are clearly less cut off from the outside world than those described by Hoggart in 1950s England. But what I mean to say is, in order to speak about working classes in today’s France, you have to make the effort to imagine a “contemporary working class”, something that is not at all obvious. Sociologists of “change” often have the tendency to declare the end of social classes a bit too quickly, but those (and I’m one of them) who continue to “believe” in class often have the tendency to reason exclusively in terms of reproduction.

calling the people

And this encourages the equation you object to, Annie Collovald, which consists of making the supposed “ethnocentrism” of working classes (their “us”) the social basis of the Front National’s electoral successes, or of the failure of the EU constitution. Having said that, in recent years haven’t you both observed approaches to enhancing the standing of the working class that broaden the notion of “the people”, this time in a strictly ethno-geographic or national sense? Marie-Georges Buffet called on “the people of France” during the campaign against the EU constitution. Nicholas Sarkozy ostensibly promised a working class neighbourhood that he would get rid of its “rabble”. Should we look at this simply as a means of courting the working-class vote (even if purely imagined), or detect a more profound endorsement of the underclass behind it as well?

A. Collovald: There is no doubt that candidates flatter what they think are the working class’s expectations. Whether they really know what these expectations are is another story. The only reasonably objective comments I’ll allow myself to make are the following. Consider the EU constitution campaign. One thing we learned was that there was a decrease in abstention, particularly in working-class constituencies, even though we know that abstention had been increasing up until then, and that referenda usually foster it massively. This is no doubt because the electoral campaign was conducted out in the field. Left-wing parties—but also associations like Copernic and Attac—went to a number of small cities that are often ignored by “traditional” campaigns, to hold meetings, organise events. Interactive techniques such as Internet discussion forums where also used. So mobilisation practices were adopted that enabled groups that are usually removed from politics to make the connection between this treaty and their everyday lives, and to give a general political meaning to the social problems they often confront in a disorganised way.

As for Nicholas Sarkozy, I believe his strategy should be ascribed more to a fairly banal political tradition: there is a right-wing working-class electorate. In the sixties, the “conservative labourers” responsible for the success of Gaullism were denounced. This is generally what electoral analysts forgot, those who imagined that Le Pen voters would come from the left or the extreme left. On the other hand, calling his strategy populism attributes too much to it, and creates confusion that is then used to better disqualify those who really do plead the “the cause of the people”. From this point of view, there is no doubt that Marie-Georges Buffet is more entitled to speak on behalf of the most disadvantaged than the current Minister of the Interior. The use of the word “populism” encourages the belief that certain far-right groups or right-wing politicians have social ideas that benefit the most vulnerable people, and that they take a genuine interest in working-class groups. Objectively, this is a tremendous mistake of perception if you look at what they actually do with their political programs! If the Front National or Nicholas Sarkozy do social welfare, it’s actually like the Medef [13] does it: meaning not at all, and their political activity is mainly directed against the most modest groups. References to the working class are a tactic designed to lend social legitimacy to strategies that have very little of this. As N Sarkozy says cynically about his struggle against immigration, “firm but human”, in other words “human because they said I was too far to the right.”

O. Schwartz: Actually, Nicholas Sarkozy is trying to create a society that defines itself not by its opposition to what is “high” on the social hierarchy, but first and foremost by its opposition to menaces coming from those who are lowest, immigrants and the new “dangerous classes”. And he says to the people: I hear you, I’m defending you... On the question you raised, about the chances of success for this kind of appeal to the people, I wouldn’t be able to advance any precise principles, but I’ll simply state an observation. If I go by the studies I’ve carried out on bus drivers in recent years, I have the impression that their particular social consciousness, meaning the way in which they see themselves in society, oscillates between two models. There is first the classic model, which is dichotomous and oppositional: them/us. “Them”, meaning those higher up, the leaders, the governors, the powerful. “Us”, meaning all of those who didn’t get much education and are low on the hierarchy. Between “us” and “them” there is and will always be a barrier, which it will always to necessary to keep at arm’s length, and a mistrust of “them” because “what they do never follows the people”, as a bus driver once said to me. This is the classic model in the labour world and among the working classes; Hoggart demonstrated it, and it remains strong today. And it translates into a kind of mistrust of what comes from “above”, which is something that will confront even a political leader like Nicholas Sarkozy who addresses the “people”. But the problem is, today there is another highly visible model that is no doubt typical of the highest working-class groups—like agents of the RATP—and could be a lot more favourable to the Sarkozyist enterprise. You could almost say that this model is not dichotomous, but triangular. It’s the idea that there are people who are higher up, others who are lower, and then “us” cornered between the two. The higher group are the same “them” that I mentioned earlier. “Lower” are the poor families that take advantage of social assistance, the immigrants that don’t want to “integrate”, young people who are part of the “rabble”. And finally “us”; we are wronged with respect to both of these groups. This is what’s so striking about this model. Those who see themselves as being in the middle feel they’re more poorly treated than people who are higher up—that we can easily understand—but they also feel more poorly treated than those who are lower. “They” receive an allowance without working or paying taxes, “they” commit offences with impunity, and as soon as “they” move and “they” burn cars, we take care of their problems. And “us”, cornered between both groups, we are ultimately the least heard, the least listened to, the most poorly treated. I’ve heard views like these several times from RATP bus drivers. “We’re the ones who pay for everyone else”, “for all of the people who take advantage of the system”, these “people” being at the same time those higher up and those below. I mean to say that we have here a kind of working-class consciousness that is very different from the dichotomous model, because it is directed at the same time against people of the highest and the lowest social strata. And in that sense it is obvious that a political discourse like that of Nicholas Sarkozy can certainly find a favourable terrain, since even if he says nothing against those higher up, he clearly takes in hand the fears and resentments turned in the other direction. These two forms of consciousness surely coexist in all of the working-class groups. The dichotomous consciousness, always present in working classes, could instead translate into a resistance to Sarkozyist discourse, even if he addresses himself to the people. But the development of the triangular consciousness might offer this discourse a more favourable playing field.

So the question that needs to be asked is obviously: how do you go about conceiving and constructing a left-wing political discourse under these conditions? How do you address working class groups that are more or less carriers of this consciousness? How can the left demonstrate that it hears them, and that it’s still willing to represent them politically, without in the process renouncing the cause of those who expressed themselves during the November riots? How do you construct a left-wing political discourse that can speak to the most integrated people without letting go of the people of the suburbs? That’s the whole question. And it’s all the more important to think about it because it’s being asked now, today.


[1The French adjective “populaire” often refers to the sociological category known in English as the “working class”. In certain contexts it also refers to “the people”, but not in the universal sense of the English word “popular” (as in “the popular vote”). It more narrowly evokes “the people” of the lower social strata. (Tr)

[2Rémi Lefebvre, Frédéric Sawicki, « Le peuple vu par les socialistes », in Frédérique Matonti (dir.), La démobilisation politique, Paris, La Dispute, 2005, pp. 69-95. See also « Gauche française, gauche mimétique », Vacarme, no 35, 2006, pp. 97-98.

[3Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy : Aspects of Working-Class Life, with Special References to Publications and Entertainment. London, Chatto & Windus, 1957.

[4Robert Castel, Les métamorphoses de la question sociale, Paris, Folio, 1995, (« La destitution », p. 564-584).

[5Refers to the French département of Seine Saint Denis—a suburb of Paris—whose postcodes begin with 93.

[6Refers to the French département of Essonne, south of Paris, whose postcodes begin with 91.

[7Jean-Claude Grignon, Jean-Claude Passeron, Le savant et le populaire. Misérabilisme et populisme en sociologie et en littérature, Paris, Gallimard, 1989.

[8Éric Maurin, « Les nouvelles précarités », La République des idées, La nouvelle critique sociale, Le Seuil, Paris, 2006, pp. 19-26.

[9Louis Chauvel, Le destin des générations, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1998, p.40.

[10Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the authority responsible for public transit in Paris.

[11Stéphane Beaud, 80% au bac et après ? Les enfants de la démocratisation scolaire, Paris, Editions La Découverte, 2002 (particularly pp. 143 and 228).

[12François Dubet, La galère, Paris, Fayard, 1987.

[13Mouvement des Entreprises de France