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France's elephant in the room: A brutal, cinematic reminder Open in fullscreen

Hadani Ditmars

France's elephant in the room: A brutal, cinematic reminder

Theo, a 22-year-old youth worker required surgery after his arrest in Aulnay-sous-Bois [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 April, 2017

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Blog: Over 20 years since the cult classic 'La Haine', police brutality and racial segregation are worse than ever. Hadani Ditmars looks to French cinema for the real story.

No matter who wins the French elections in a fortnight - whether it's the neoliberal former Rothschild banker pretty boy Macron, with his vague policies and "optimism" or Marine Le Pen, with her explicitly racist agenda – for the black and Arab residents of France's run-down suburbs (banlieues), it may not amount to much more than a case of déjà vu.

Pessimistic though it may sound, I've seen this movie before, quite literally.

When I first moved to Paris in 1994 to cover Algerian intellectuals fleeing from Front Islamique du Salut death threats, and to document the growing movement of cinema beur (films by the French-born offspring of North African migrants), it was the era of films such as Mathieu Kassovitz's cult classic, La Haine.

The critically acclaimed film starred Vincent Cassel as Vinz, an angry young Jewish man obsessed with De Niro's Taxi Driver character and his brethren of the Parisian banlieue, the Franco-Algerian Said and French West African African Hubert.

Set in the aftermath of a riot, and the police violence towards their friend Abdel - who now lies unconscious - the film opens with Hubert's musings about a society in "free-fall". It follows the trio over 19 hours as they wander into a city where their status as outsiders is exacerbated by police humiliation and threats from skinheads. 

The filmmaker was inspired by the 1993 death of young Zairian Makome M'Bowol, who was handcuffed to a radiator and killed at point blank range while in police custody.

French cinema - as consistently and predictably as French racism and colonial denial - continues to document social reality

Filmed in the Parisian suburb of Chanteloup-les-Vignes (after permission was refused by eight separate local French councils), La Haine pulsated with the rage of a generation, and the songs of French hardcore rap group Assassin whose song Nique la Police ("F*&k the Police") was featured.

This was also the era of metro bombings by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), who brought Algeria's civil war to France, and routine police patrols - mainly round-ups of young black and Arab men - every night.

I spent a week hanging out in a banlieue with a former maghrebin gang member turned Islamist for a story I was working on. He told me of jobs he had applied for using a fake French name, only to be turned away at the in person interview.

Unemployment and poverty are endemic, and young people feel they have no future

Together we wandered into central Paris and I witnessed shop keepers turn from solicitous to contemptuous in the blink of an eye. 

But that was over two decades ago. Surely things must have changed since then?

Well if anything the situation has got worse.

Unemployment and poverty are endemic, and young people feel they have no future. Riots erupted this past February in the banlieue of Aulnay-sous-Bois north of Paris, when a young black resident was reportedly 'raped' by police. The banlieue - not far from Clichy-Sur-Bois where a 15-year-old black adolescent and 17-year-old beur teenager died of "accidental electrocution" while fleeing police in 2005, sparking weeks of widespread rioting.

Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed a policewoman and four people in a kosher supermarket siege during the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, hailed from one of France's most infamous banlieues, where over half the population live below the poverty line.

Although locals condemned Coulbaly's actions, rightly pointing out that his radicalisation likely happened in prison, it's easy to see  how the cycle of violence originates.

We wandered into central Paris and I witnessed shop keepers turn from solicitous to contemptuous in the blink of an eye

While France's political candidates all rightly condemned last week's killing of a policeman by Karim Cheurfi - a 39-year-old with a criminal record – Le Pen exploited the tragedy to promote her brand of xenophobic racism, and no-one addressed the real issue.

While right wingers and politicians of all stripes exploit "security issues" for political gain, it seems no-one wants to deal with the elephant in the room - save perhaps Prime Minister Manuel Valls who, in a rare moment of candour said in 2015 that there is a "territorial, social and ethnic apartheid in France".

Francois Hollande, who came to power promising to "end the ghettos", has been unsuccessful. And Macron doesn't even appear to acknowledge them - speaking euphemistically in his victory speech of a "united France" "without differences" - even as crowds of young people burned their electoral cards in Paris, shouting "No Marine and No Macron!"

Merci a Dieu then, for French cinema, which as consistently and predictably as French racism and colonial denial, continues to document social reality.

From Houda Benyamina's 2016 Divines - a sublime coming of age film about black and beur girls in the Parisian banlieue who try and fail to escape the crime and poverty of their world through the joy of dance and friendship – to Karim Dridi's Chouf – a kind of teen Goodfellas set in the badlands of Marseille's banlieue, France's spirited cinematic gems trump its political fictions every time.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars

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