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How a 25-year-old writer became France’s most outspoken advocate for the working class

“There is a political violence toward the poor, which existed under Thatcherism and that is today in the process of returning” under leaders such as Presidents Trump and Emmanuel Macron, writer Édouard Louis says. (Sabine Mirlesse for The Washington Post)
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PARIS — In some ways, Édouard Louis is yet another millennial who writes about himself, albeit one whose introspections have touched a national nerve.

His first novel, “The End of Eddy,” was an autobiographical account of a young man growing up gay and poor in northern France. Published in 2014, it established him as a literary sensation at age 21.

In a political moment defined by populist anger, Louis, now 25, has also emerged as France’s most outspoken advocate of the working class, the group he managed to escape but whose plight he considers intertwined with the trajectories of Europe and the United States. He wants vengeance for a population that he says has been abandoned. He is attempting to launch a revolution of class consciousness in a country that remains one of Europe’s proudest welfare states.

“There is a political violence toward the poor, which existed under Thatcherism and that is today in the process of returning” under leaders such as President Trump and President Emmanuel Macron, he said in an interview, equating the French and American leaders in a manner now in vogue on the French left.

Louis takes aim at Macron and France’s entire political establishment in a nonfiction book released this month, “Who Killed My Father.” His father is not actually dead, but he has led a challenging life — after suffering a debilitating accident in 2000, he had to give up his job as a factory worker and become a street cleaner in a town 40 miles away. There is no question mark at the end of the book’s title, because for Louis there is no question about who is responsible for the physical pain of poverty.

President Jacques Chirac, he writes, destroyed his father’s intestines, because his policies in the mid-2000s raised the price of certain digestive medicines his father needed. President Nicolas Sarkozy broke his father’s back because he trimmed social benefits, which forced his father to return to work. And Macron took food out of his father’s mouth, having reduced welfare for the poorest by five euros per month.

“The history of your body is the history of these names that have succeeded each other in destroying it,” he writes near the end of the 85-page book, which is framed as an extended address to his father.

Louis has regularly taken it upon himself to explain why so many in the working class have voted for populists such as Marine Le Pen in France and Trump in the United States. Sitting in a Saint Germain cafe, he suggested that people like his father who support right-wing, anti-immigrant factions should not be blamed for any unsavory opinions they may espouse.

“People search for discourses to explain their suffering,” he said. “If my father is racist, it’s the fault of Emmanuel Macron, the fault of François Hollande, the fault of Manuel Valls, the fault of Sarkozy.”

Louis’s work has been likened to “Hillbilly Elegy,” the best-selling 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, who examines the rift between the Appalachia of his birth and the coastal American elite. But Louis rejects the comparison, insisting that Vance focuses too narrowly on working-class whites and ignores the complicated reality of contemporary poverty.

“When you have the movement ‘Black Lives Matter,’ the gay movement, we can’t talk about poverty like we did in the 1950s,” he said. “We have to take into account the transformations that have happened, and rearticulate an image, a vision and a theory that takes account of all the realities that have emerged.”

Louis is a devotee of “intersectionality” — the notion that holds that oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism, classism and homophobia can never be untangled from one another.

As he writes, again to his father, in his book: “Your life proves that we are not what we do, but to the contrary, we are what we have not done, because the world, or society, has prevented us . . . verdicts fell on us — gay, trans, women, black, poor — and they rendered certain lives, experiences and dreams inaccessible.”

But some members of these groups have been less than enthused about having a 25-year-old white man as their champion.

Feminist critics, in particular, have rolled their eyes, and Louis’s views on the #MeToo movement are likely to win him few allies among them.

In his second book, “History of Violence,” he recounts being sexually assaulted by an Algerian immigrant who ultimately served 11 months in prison. But he said he objects to the immediate impulse to punish, because violence should never be answered with more violence. Prisons, he said, often make things worse. “I’m not saying do nothing. I’m not saying that at all,” he said. “I’m just saying that there are probably other ways than putting a body in a cage.”

In France — where the state does not officially recognize categories of race, ethnicity or religion — intersectionality is a far more controversial idea than it is in Britain or the United States. People of color who have dared to decry, as Louis regularly does, state-sponsored violence and discrimination often have been silenced or dismissed as “radical.”

For instance, Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent black journalist and documentarian, was kicked off a French government panel in December for remarks she had made about “state racism.” Franco-Senegalese novelist Marie Ndiaye — the first black woman to win the Goncourt prize, France’s most respected literary award — was likewise rebuked by government officials in 2009 after she criticized the surveillance and policing tactics of Sarkozy.

“A well-known person who defends France’s literary accomplishments must show some degree of respect toward our institutions,” Éric Raoult, a member of France’s National Assembly, said at the time.

No official has similarly reproached Louis. In fact, French media reported last week that presidential staff members at the Elysee Palace have read “Who Killed My Father,” in the interest of engaging with Macron’s critics.

“I really like what he does, but because he is a white man, what he’s able to say I couldn’t,” Diallo said in an interview. “He’s said many things I think about the government, but it was not received in the same way. There is something that is unacceptable when said by a black woman that is not controversial when said by a white man, and I think he knows that.”

Indeed, Louis did not hesitate to respond with a taunt to the report of readers in the presidential palace. “@EmmanuelMacron, my book is against what you are and what you do,” he tweeted. “Refrain from trying to use me to hide the violence that you incarnate and exercise. I write to shame you. I write to give weapons to those who fight you.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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