For those who believe in symbols, this one is eloquent: the builder Maisons Phénix, incarnation of the French suburban dream and the accession to property of the middle classes in the post-war period, object of study for the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, closed on July 1. The Covid-19 pandemic, the inflation of the price of raw materials… and also, perhaps, the end of a certain golden age for the middle classes, this France of the middle, the heart of a powerful mythology which still structures the collective imagination today.

The anguish of purchasing power, the rest to live on and the end of the month made difficult by the return of inflation has revived the question of the middle classes and that of their supposed decline. The latter would always be those who “toast”, suffocated by compulsory levies that are too high but too rich to receive state subsidies. Globalization, by promoting the rise of a middle class of consumers in emerging countries, would also have wiped out these categories in our regions. Is the civilization inherited from the “glorious thirties”, this wage-earning society with faith in social mobility, growth and progress, threatened?

Books announcing the death of the middle classes appear at regular intervals – predicting an “hourglass society”, according to former MEP Alain Lipietz, or “drift middle classes”, like sociologist Louis Chauvel. The subject is nonetheless highly debated: more comfortable talking about low-income or very well-off households, sociologists, economists or geographers struggle to understand the transformations at work in the middle of the income pyramid. .

“Part of the middle classes considers that it has lost its feathers and is no longer part of it, explains political scientist Jérôme Fourquet, director of the opinion and business strategies department of the IFOP polling institute. We can discuss the numbers, but the fact that she feels that way is a major political and social fact. »

Economic insecurity

Between the two fringes, the middle classes, the bedrock of democracies, are, in fact, deemed to form a bulwark against the extremes. The German philosopher Georg Simmel saw it as the pillar of modern societies, making it possible to avoid the confrontation between capitalists and proletarians wanted by Karl Marx. The crises have shown that when the middle classes become impoverished, they switch to a vote of anger: it was, in part, the white middle classes impoverished by the effects of deindustrialization that enabled Donald Trump to win the 2016 UNITED STATES.

In France too, “the lower fringe of the middle class, qualified employees who cannot find a job corresponding to their qualification, civil servants of category C in the public hospital service for example, tend to vote for the National Rally”, notes Bruno Cautrès, researcher at Cevipof.

However, no political offer explicitly targets this average France, which the issue of purchasing power nevertheless places at the heart of the political spectrum. Even if Emmanuel Macron aspired to govern at the center, in 2017, like Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who wanted to speak to “two out of three French people” in a country that was then thought to be on the way to “average social, he never speaks specifically to the middle classes. “Giscard’s” two out of three French people “didn’t work so well, in reality,” recalls Bruno Cautrès. The middle classes, made up of an army of civil servants, overwhelmingly supported Mitterrand in 1981.”

The last to have tried to address it was the president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, when he was at the head of the UMP, even devoting a political book (La Lutte des classes Moyens, Odile Jacob, 2011) to these households “invisible, inaudible, without any real political relay in the public debate”, whereas they “are the essential cog in our society”.

No statistics alone can establish that the middle class is shrinking in France. By crossing the data over a long period, it nevertheless appears that a cultural change is at work, everywhere in the West. “The share of individuals belonging to middle-income households (…) fell from 64% to 61% between the mid-1980s and the mid-2010s, notes the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) , in a 2019 study of all member countries. 70% of baby boomers were in the middle class when they were in their twenties, compared to 60% of young millennials.” Their incomes are growing more slowly than those of their elders, and especially than those of the richest, notes the organization.

The increase in the net salary of intermediate professions, occupied by the middle classes, has slowed down, adds sociologist Louis Chauvel. After having tripled between 1950 and 1975, it is approaching the wages of manual workers (the difference was 120% in 1970, against 37% in 2010), so that the two groups are converging. In addition, “the cost of essentials to the middle-class lifestyle has risen faster than inflation,” the OECD continues, amid heightened economic insecurity. Housing prices have doubled since 2000, as well as those of education, while those of health have increased by 60%, according to the institution.

“Quality jobs” are becoming scarce

In France, this feeling of downgrading began to appear in the polls with the 2008 crisis. 1960s, according to the work of the Jean Jaurès Foundation. “We then saw the reappearance in the lexicon of the middle classes of words like ‘modest’, ‘small’, ‘popular'”, says sociologist Camille Peugny. “Seen from above, everything is fine, but the building is eaten away from below”, adds Louis Chauvel, for whom “the subject is not income, but what it allows to consume”.

At the origin of this erosion, a movement of polarization between highly qualified jobs, better prepared for globalization, and unskilled jobs, often precarious. In the middle, “quality jobs” are becoming scarce, those characterized by good pay, relative security, the prospect of progression and the possibility of training, as highlighted in the Blanchard-Tirole report, submitted to Emmanuel Macron in 2021. This phenomenon is more sustained in France than elsewhere and contributes massively to the increase in wage inequality, explain the economists Ariell Reshef and Farid Toubal, in a note published in 2019. Above all, it has accelerated since the crisis of 2008.

Part of the middle class thus sees its living conditions deteriorate, while the upper part consolidates. The first is typically made up of “households paid at the minimum wage, who live in peri-urban areas and are precarious by part-time work which makes them invisible in the statistics, based on full-time equivalents”, describes Camille Peugny. Added to this is a part of the public service, impoverished by years of non-indexation of salaries.

These households must “give up going to Leclerc to go to Lidl”, describes Jérôme Fourquet, which feeds a feeling of downgrading. Because the middle class is also “a status sold in advertising, integrated by individuals themselves as the union minimum”, he explains. No longer being able to offer Nutella or Nike sneakers to your children becomes a suffering, as certain brands have an “iconic power”. This population “hunts for promotions, it’s the economy of resourcefulness, scratch games and autoentrepreneurs,” he continues. It is also a delight for revolving credit companies – whose outstandings have exploded since the 1990s.

Picture of the escalator

At the ballot box, this erosion fuels a feeling of “paying for everyone”, as sociologist Olivier Schwartz has described it, and in the first place of paying for the poorest, the “assisted”. “This encourages abstention and the vote of resentment, extreme, as one goes down the scale of income or diplomas”, observes Camille Peugny.

Another part of the middle classes manages to maintain its positions, “at the cost of a significant mobilization”, he specifies. It is the one that has benefited the most from the democratization of education and the social ascent of the last thirty years: 55% of children whose father worked in an intermediate profession had graduated from higher education in 2009, compared to 24% in 1984. An increase faster than for workers’ children. She votes more willingly for Emmanuel Macron when she is an employee of the private sector, and more willingly for Jean-Luc Mélenchon when she works in the public sector.

This image of the escalator thanks to which children could live better than their parents, the middle classes are very sensitive to it. It finds its source in part in a mythology of the “glorious thirties” according to which the tertiarization of the economy was going to allow a general aspiration towards the top of the social structure. In fact, “as soon as growth slowed down, inequalities reappeared,” says Camille Peugny. The middle classes are not disappearing. But they must learn to live in a world of lower growth.