To understand France’s political malaise, look to Raymond Depardon’s works.
As the popular revolt paralyzed France last week in the ways unseen since the events of May 1968, one curious fact about the protesters — known as the gilets jaunes after the yellow vests they wore — was often repeated. Most of them came from the diagonale du vide, the empty sparsely populated diagonal running from the Ardennes in the northeast to the remote Nouvelle-Aquitaine in the southwest. This was Michel Dion’s La France Profonde, rural agrarian provincial towns marked by depopulation, lack of public services and in Dion’s view, lack of strong political ideologies.
That this ‘apolitical’ France had turned against Emmanuel Macron’s reforms bode ill for the president, still only in year two of his quinquennial mandate. This is the France of “des petits, des matraques, des spolies, des lamines, des humilies” — the little men, downtrodden, trashed, ripped-off, and the humiliated, by “the vampire state” — in the words of Pierre Poujade, whose occupations as a docker, grape-picker and road-mender were testaments to the career options opened to men born in this empty France, as Poujade did in Saint-Céré in the Lot Valley. Impossibly, Poujade managed to organize a 500,000 member-strong union, took a fifth of them on an anti-tax march to Paris in January 1955, and won 12% of the vote in the following year’s elections (one of its 52 elected members was Jean-Marie Le Pen, a later demagogue).
This France was captured in the photos of Raymond Depardon, himself son of peasants, born on a farm in the Saone region. For an ambitious project launched in the 1960s to transform this agrarian arcadian France, DATAR (self-importantly named délégation interministérielle à l’aménagement du territoire et à l’attractivité régionale), Depardon returned to his family’s farm to document its gradual decline, and revisited rural France again and again in his photos and three documentaries, this was the France of 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s, conjured up in the dark grimy black-and-white, far from services, populated by dead and dying men, working for dead and dying farms, living in hardscrabble cottages alongside unkempt trees and antique appliances.