Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Regional Rehabilitation

A reader has asked me to comment on the film Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, which is currently breaking box-office records in France. I had thought of doing so earlier but was held back by a very simple consideration: I haven't seen the film. Of course, a critic for Esquire recently reviewed an album he hadn't heard (it hadn't been released at the time his review appeared), but various commentators treated this bit of critical impudence as an ethical lapse. I will therefore refrain from aesthetic judgment and discuss the film solely as un phénomène de société, which it certainly is, if only by virtue of having sold 5 million tickets in its first week of release. It is now closing in on La Grande vadrouille, a comedy of the Occupation, which has been the champion of French films on French territory since 1966 (with more than 17 million theater tickets sold; it is currently playing on TV5, so American subscribers can see it).

The title, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, may require a word of explanation for many outside of France. Les Ch'tis are the inhabitants of the northwestern corner of France, of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. They speak a dialect known as ch'timi, related to picard and wallon. I first encountered the Ch'tis and ch'timi when I gave a lecture at the University of Amiens. At the dinner afterwards, a graduate student who had grown up in the region regaled me with local lore and tales of the prowess of les Ch'tis. I never expected to see them featured in a film, however.

The region was of course at one time an industrial and mining stronghold, but like many former industrial regions it has seen better days. There is a tendency in France to mock the inhabitants of the area in terms similar to those sometimes applied to inhabitants of the American South: they are slow, it is said; their speech is strange; they remain wedded to a primitive world.

Time Magazine puts it this way:

When Americans want an iconic image of poverty, joblessness, alcoholism, and despair, they look to trailer parks. The rough French equivalent is the Nord Pas de Calais department, a swath of hardscrabble land that makes up about a third of France's northern border. While the neighboring Belgians remain the favorite butt of French jokes about simpletons, France has traditionally considered its indigenous northerners, known as Ch'ti, too miserable to even joke about.


Dany Boon, stand-up comic, actor, and filmmaker, grew up in the region and decided to make a film to puncture these myths. Is it significant that Boon's name mimics that of another backwoodsman (Daniel Boone), who also traded on a myth of backwardness to make his fortune in such sophisticated precincts as Washington, D.C.? Be that as it may, Boon is a gifted comedian, and American filmgoers may have appreciated his sensitive portrayal of a man enlisted by a ruthless and unsurprisingly friendless antiquaire to win a bet with a colleague in My Best Friend (2006). You can get a bit of the flavor of the new film from this trailer. The plot involves a postal worker who wants a post on the Côte d'Azur but is rewarded instead with a transfer to a desolate northern town. There, in a series of comic encounters, he discovers, I am told, the humanity of the Ch'tis beneath their bumpkinish ways.

This is a difficult genre of humor to pull off. Think of the portrayal of Clevis the Slack-Jawed Yokel in The Simpsons, which is more often cruel than affectionate. But by most of the accounts that I have seen (e.g., this one and this one), Boon succeeds.

Of course humor doesn't translate easily, and dialectal humor probably doesn't translate at all. Americans have a hard enough time understanding French tastes in comedy. The "Jerry Lewis problem" has long divided these two peoples perhaps more deeply than the "Charles de Gaulle problem." Jacques Tati? Louis de Funès? These were acquired tastes of American Francophiles in my youth, almost an affectation, like smoking Gauloises or wearing a beret in Manhattan. I never did acquire them, not really. French low comedy can be very low indeed (think of Les Bronzés). To judge by the trailer and various scenes excerpted on TV, the Boon film seems to continue the tradition.

Perhaps the remarkable response it has elicited should be put down to a reaction against the bling-bling president. Here, instead of tawdry luxury, we have the humblest of Frenchmen going about their daily business in the least lovely quarter of France. Americans may proudly announce that they've just returned from a week in Cannes or the Pyrenees, but does anyone ever say "I'm just back from Lille--you really must go there!"? I think not. But the Lillois and their compatriots now have Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis as compensation. As comic foils, they will soon outstrip the hapless Germans of La Grande vadrouille. That's something, I guess. But no doubt some readers have seen the film. Please let us know what you think of it, and how you explain its success.

Bernard Girard answers the call here.

Tilting at Windmills

The European Commission has approved a French grant of 99 million euros to launch a European search engine called Quaero, which hopes to compete with Google. The EU is also backing a German scheme to back another search engine called Theseus. Google spends $2 billion a year on research, so Quaero has a tough road ahead. (Hat tip to Frogsmoke.)

The Naked Public Square

For an eyewitness account of how the language of identity, ethnicity, religion, and race was deployed in one French suburb in the municipal elections, see here. Among the samples: "Vote for X, he's a Muslim like you." "If Y wins, the sale of alcohol will be prohibited, city hall will close on Fridays, and there will be separate entrances for men and women at the municipal pool." "X is un harki." "This is not Saudi Arabia."

It seems clear that the naked public square is not as easy to achieve as some proponents of le républicanisme du bon vieux temps would have you believe. Is denial really the best way to deal with the existence of "communities"? A community, after all, is a fictional construct with real effects. Its contours are fluid, its boundaries permeable, its members torn in many directions. But solidarity is an important part of political as well as individual life. The ascent from the particular to the general is part of the work of politics. Pace Rousseau, it does not happen without effort. It is not some sort of miraculous transmogrification. Politicians must work with the real in service of the ideal.

Islamophobia in the Media

Via Sarkozy the American, I learn of an op-ed in the egregious Washington Times, an American newspaper financed by Sun Myung Moon. The editorial is by Paul Beliën, a journalist close to the Belgian extreme right. His wife is a deputy of the Vlaams Belang, a xenophobic nationalist party. Beliën, whose op-ed is mainly taken up with an expression of his disappointment in Sarkozy, whose election he supported, has this to say about the Mediterranean Union:

Last week Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel gave a joint press conference announcing the establishment of a "Mediterranean Union," an international organization that will encompass the 27 EU member states plus all the countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This plan is the first step in merging Europe with the Islamic world. Mr. Sarkozy wants France and Algeria, a former French colony where many of the "thugs" in the French no-go zones come from, to form the axis of such a future Mediterranean Union.

If this bit of lunatic raving is typical of people who share Mr. Beliën's general views, Sarko may well have his work cut out for him in keeping the xenophobes among his supporters in his coalition, despite his effort yesterday in Toulon to re-emphasize his commitment to a tough immigration policy. This speech was intended, among other things, to give a boost to UMP candidates in Toulouse, Nice, and Marseille, where immigration is a central issue in close municipal races.

Ferry et Lang Font Équipe

Luc Ferry and Jack Lang, former education ministers of the right and left, respectively, have teamed up to excoriate Xavier Darcos's plan to reform primary education in France. They attack the Darcos plan as "educational populism."

McCain Aides Lobbied for EADS

Top campaign aides to John McCain lobbied for EADS to win the tanker contract, and the senator himself wrote letters to the Defense Department.