Class is a fundamental social category, expressing the relationships within and between large groups, each of which is characterized by a common economic condition. Class therefore provides an important cultural identity, as the focus for social solidarities and for the complex relationship between individuals and their social environment. It ranks along with nation and gender as one of the most powerful sources of identity.
Class identities embody the domination of particular classes at particular times, and the struggles and strategies of classes to secure or improve their relative social power. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries France has been acutely conscious of its class conflicts, and the decade which preceded World War II was one of the most class-conscious periods in its history. To a large extent these conflicts were suppressed during the Occupation, and they continued to be repressed by common consensus at the Liberation. The extent to which class identities were subordinated in the work of national reconstruction is one of the most remarkable features of the period. However, class conflicts re-emerged with renewed vigour in 1947, and have been a feature of fluctuating prominence since that time, with a second peak in the early 1970s after the May 1968 events. Class considerations inform the material conditions in which culture is produced, the forms and hierarchies of cultural production, and the images and narratives which it presents.
In so far as it depends on a degree of surplus, whether of time or money or other resources, culture has usually been associated with social elites, and the term 'culture' itself is often restricted to mean certain preferred leisure pursuits of the wealthiest classes. The dominant French Republican tradition has, however, usually presented a more universalistic aspiration, and has shown a concern to 'democratize' or broaden the class base of culture in three dimensions: what may be depicted, what activities are recognized as cultural, and who can gain access to culture.
The written and visual forms of culture since the nineteenth century have prided themselves on widening the range of what may be depicted in respectable culture, including the most harrowing depictions of life in the lower depths of society. The class-conscious realist classics of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Hugo and Zola have remained popular, and are frequently adapted for stage or screen, whether as period pieces, like Berri's Germinal of 1993 (after Zola), or in modernized settings, like Lelouch's Les Misérables of 1996 (after Hugo).
Class differences are most frequently explored in realist mode, in works such as Claire Etcherelli's novel Élise or the Real Life (Élise ou la vraie vie) of 1967 or Chatiliez's film La Vie est un long fleuve tranquille (1988). Both of these show class differences intersecting with ethnic differences, an increasing preoccupation in France as the layering of education, wealth and status have concentrated immigrant communities in the least-favoured economic sectors and geographical zones. However, the avant-garde culture of the 1960s and 1970s exhibited class in other aesthetic modes, often less sentimentally, as in Buñuel's film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie) of 1972,