The French, Coming Apart

A social thinker illuminates his country’s populist divide.

The real-estate market in any sophisticated city reflects deep aspirations and fears. If you had a feel for its ups and downs—if you understood, say, why young parents were picking this neighborhood and drunks wound up relegated to that one—you could make a killing in property, but you also might be able to pronounce on how society was evolving more generally. In 2016, a real-estate developer even sought—and won—the presidency of the United States.

In France, a real-estate expert has done something almost as improbable. Christophe Guilluy calls himself a geographer. But he has spent decades as a housing consultant in various rapidly changing neighborhoods north of Paris, studying gentrification, among other things. And he has crafted a convincing narrative tying together France’s various social problems—immigration tensions, inequality, deindustrialization, economic decline, ethnic conflict, and the rise of populist parties. Such an analysis had previously eluded the Parisian caste of philosophers, political scientists, literary journalists, government-funded researchers, and party ideologues.