The Movie That Predicted France’s Upheaval
A black-and-white shot frames a deejay preparing his equipment. After a few introductory turntable spins, he blasts an eclectic mash-up of modern hip hop and one instantly recognizable classic from the top floor of a grim apartment block. As the music swells, the camera pans from the deejay’s apartment to the courtyard below, followed by a wider shot of several other indistinguishable housing projects in the surrounding area. The stark cinematography, the abrasive music, and the brutal architecture convey the socio-economic status of the neighborhood’s residents without a word of dialogue being spoken.
From his style of dress to his choice of music, it’s clear that the deejay is immersed in hip hop culture, but this is not an American film. The centerpieces of the mash-up are “Nique la Police” by Cut Killer, a French deejay of Moroccan extraction, and Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je ne regrette rien,” perhaps the most recognizable Francophone pop song of the past hundred years.
The film is La Haine (“Hate”) and the setting is the Cité des Muguets, a public housing project on the outskirts of Paris. In the years since the film’s 1995 release, “banlieue,” the French word for suburb, has become synonymous with social dysfunction and failed assimilation. From the 2005 riots that wracked the French capital to the 2015 Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, the banlieues have been blamed for everything from crime to Islamic fundamentalism to a broader feeling of alienation within French immigrant communities.
La Haine was the canary in the coal mine. The film is a hard-edged, quasi-documentary look at a day in the life of three young residents of the cités, one black, one Jewish, and one Arab. The film was feted at Cannes and screened for the French cabinet at the insistence of then-prime minister Alain Juppé. And just as it borrowed liberally from American pop culture, it also foreshadowed our own law enforcement controversies: French officers protested the film’s depiction of police brutality by turning their backs on Director Mathieu Kassovitz and his crew at Cannes.
Over two decades after its theatrical release, La Haine’s visual storytelling is still compelling. The gulf between life in the cités and mainstream French society, embodied by the deejay’s mocking quotation of Edith Piaf, is a scab the movie picks at to great effect. Characters walk past graffiti-strewn portraits of Baudelaire and Rimbaud on the walls of housing projects, empty signifiers of a fading common culture. At one point in the film, one of the main characters sees (or perhaps hallucinates) a cow meandering through an apartment courtyard, a reminder of both the physical proximity and immense cultural distance between the suburban housing projects and “la France profonde,” the historical, “authentic” France of the countryside.
The harsh, unforgiving outlines of concrete and steel, the ubiquitous trash, and the near-total absence of vegetation all combine to suffocate the viewer. Rarely has the soul-sucking atmosphere of modern public housing been conveyed so effectively. But the problems on display in La Haine transcend national boundaries. The parallels between the French cités and America’s own inner-city housing projects is highlighted by the characters’ connection to hip hop. Similar problems have erupted in idyllic Sweden, where immigrant-heavy suburban housing complexes have become a breeding ground for gang violence and Islamic radicalism.
La Haine’s visceral depiction of police brutality is another reminder that some problems are borderless. The main characters’ escalating encounters with law enforcement, culminating in an accidental shooting, echo real events: Kassovitz has said that his script was inspired by the inadvertent killing of a black student by French police in 1993.
But La Haine is also notable for what it doesn’t say about the French underclass. While incisive and visually compelling, the movie’s central themes are not exactly novel. Alienated, easily excitable young men have been around as long as youth culture has existed. The dehumanizing effects of modern public housing were obvious at least as far back as 1972, when the city of St. Louis dynamited the massive Pruitt-Igoe complex. And tensions over police violence did not suddenly emerge in France in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In 1961, Paris police killed approximately 200 Algerian protesters during an anti-war demonstration.
In 2005, Kassovitz and Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior, engaged in a heated exchange about the Paris riots and the culpability of the rioters. The sad irony is that, despite their considerable political differences, the two men, both of Hungarian descent, are exemplars of an earlier generation’s successful assimilation into French society. The France of the 1930s had the largest foreign-born population of any country in the world. But for an older cohort of immigrants, mainstream French culture wasn’t alienating; it was aspirational.
The modern-day successors to the Sarkozys and Kassovitzs of yesteryear are a different story. Recent immigrants are increasingly likely to come from North Africa or the Middle East. Some of these new arrivals have a Francophone background, but the relationship of their home countries to France is likely to be antagonistic, rooted in a history of colonialism and religious conflict, whereas to an earlier generation of immigrants, France was the supreme exemplar of European civilization. Meanwhile, the alienating effects of popular culture so powerfully depicted in La Haine have been amplified a thousandfold by the rise of social media, which allows young people to immerse themselves in their own carefully curated online cocoons.
La Haine captures a transitional period in the history of French immigration. It takes place before the rise of social media but after a parallel youth culture had already taken hold inside the cités, shaped by the immigrants’ countries of origin and the popular movies, television, and music that dominate the airwaves. The film’s hotheaded Jewish character, Vinz, is a tangible link to earlier generations of Eastern European emigres. The identities of his two closest friends, one black and one Arab, are harbingers of France’s multi-ethnic future.
The ethnicities of all three characters is central to the film, but its omission of any reference to Islam is conspicuous. Viewed from the perspective of 2018, it is unclear if La Haine’s main characters could coexist, much less remain friends. In recent years, France has experienced a spate of anti-Semitic crimes committed by Islamic extremists. In La Haine, however, anti-Semitism appears only in the guise of a group of skinheads. Far-right anti-Semitism still exists in France, but it has been thoroughly eclipsed by the growth of Islamic radicalism. The meaning and direction so noticeably absent from the lives of the film’s three protagonists is now supplied, in many cases, by a brand of Islamic extremism that is fundamentally hostile to France’s Jewish community.
In his impassioned argument with Sarkozy, Kassovitz spoke of the lack of respect afforded to residents of Paris’s multi-ethnic cités, citing a paucity of economic opportunities and police brutality as contributing factors to the 2005 riots. There is more than a little truth to Kassovitz’s diagnosis, but it also begs the question: in 2018, where will this respect come from? It’s an especially urgent question given the rise of the gilets jaunes, demonstrators in yellow traffic vests protesting new taxes and inequality who have rocked Paris in recent days. “Les trente glorieuses,” the three decade-long postwar boom that helped create the modern French middle class, is long gone. It is unlikely that the French economy will suddenly develop a supply of lucrative, satisfying jobs for low-skilled immigrants. And if the banlieues have taught us anything, it’s that public housing and a government stipend are poor substitutes for meaningful employment.
Meanwhile, France has lost the gravitational pull it once exerted over earlier generations of new arrivals. A rigid culture of public secularism is seemingly unable to accommodate even modest displays of Islamic piety—witness the country’s sweeping 2010 ban on facial coverings, a move that managed to offend moderate Muslim sensibilities without doing anything to stymie the growth of Islamic radicalism. On issues of race and culture, the French approach to integration also seems ham-fisted. After France’s World Cup victory, the French ambassador to the United States publicly scolded a late night host for joking about the over-representation of Afro-French soccer players, insisting that a benign crack about the team’s ethnic composition was equivalent to the racialized rhetoric of neo-fascists. Such a thin-skinned response betrays a profound lack of confidence in the assimilative powers of modern French society.
French touchiness on issues of race and identity extends to their census takers, who are constrained from asking citizens about their religious affiliation or ethnic background. Consequently, it is difficult to gauge the impact of immigration or the growth of France’s Islamic community. Here is what we do know: according to the Pew Research Center, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of French citizens will be Muslim by 2050 under “medium” or “high” immigration scenarios. In the unlikely event that immigration levels drop to zero, the Muslim share of the French population is still projected to exceed 12 percent.
None of these scenarios portend a Michel Houellebecq-style Islamist takeover. Instead, the future is likely to look a lot like La Haine, with the unwelcome additions of Islamic radicalism and online alienation injected into an already combustible mix. This isn’t a particularly hopeful picture, but La Haine isn’t a particularly hopeful film. However, if you’re looking for a clear-eyed, albeit incomplete, picture of France’s (and increasingly Europe’s) fragmented future, Kassovitz’s film is a good place to start.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.