The TV shows that reveal the real France

The TV shows that reveal the real France

(Image credit: Canal Plus)

Baron Noir

French TV has never been more popular internationally – but the biggest shows at home reflect a conflicted nation, anxious about its place in the world, writes Benjamin Ramm.


During the long, lonely evenings of lockdown, the world turned to French television. Series such as Call My Agent!, The Bureau, and Lupin were streamed globally and acclaimed for their flair and originality. An industry once derided for producing derivative melodrama – and always in the shadow of French cinema – finally seems to have found its own voice.

Just as “Nordic Noir” captured the world’s imagination at the start of this century, the past decade has seen the evolution of television’s so-called “new French Wave”.

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Even before the pandemic, Anglophone audiences had started tuning into foreign-language series in record numbers, with the number of US viewers of Netflix’s foreign-language content leaping 50% in 2020. As Lupin became the streaming service’s most watched show of the first quarter of 2021, with 70 million views globally in its first month, the newspaper Libération reported that the world was now “chaud lupin” for French television (a pun on the phrase “hot bunny”, meaning horny).

The French thriller Lupin was Netflix's most-watched show in the first quarter of 2021 (Credit: Netflix)

The French thriller Lupin was Netflix’s most-watched show in the first quarter of 2021 (Credit: Netflix)

Yet the French series with greatest international appeal aren’t necessarily those that resonate at home. Lupin, adapted for television by British writer George Kay, received mixed reviews from French critics, some of whom felt it was just too smooth; the weekly magazine Le Point described it as: “flashy, predictable… the biggest flaw remains the poverty of the characters, all one-dimensional, caricatural and as thick as cigarette paper”. 

Needless to say, Netflix’s Emily in Paris was greeted with widespread derision. Like Lupin, it was accused of commodifying the city, using it as glitzy ornamentation, in a process that hides as much as it displays. Here Paris is the product, one that is endlessly kitschified (the accordion player by the Seine, the Louvre lit up like a jewel). The locals are “very disagreeable”, in the words of Emily’s friend; theirs is a vision of “France sans the French”.

In contrast to this sanitised image of Paris, Canal Plus’ Engrenages (Spiral) is peopled with trouble. According to the writer and critic Lauren Elkin, the crime drama tries to incorporate a larger picture of the city. “Engrenages doesn’t literally mean ‘spiral’,” she tells BBC Culture, “but the English title makes me think of the shape of the Parisian arrondissements – a spiral that begins in the first and extends outwards. Paris is very much not a museum city, where everybody rich lives inside the periphery and all the poor people are banished to the outside, and the show demonstrates that there are neighbourhoods within just as hopeless and desperate as anywhere outside”.

Engrenages' exploration of organised crime and corruption presents a far darker vision of Paris than the one in glossy shows like Emily in Paris (Credit: Canal Plus / BBC Three)

Engrenages’ exploration of organised crime and corruption presents a far darker vision of Paris than the one in glossy shows like Emily in Paris (Credit: Canal Plus / BBC Three)

For Elkin, “Spiral has a very grand Paris kind of vision, in the sense that it continues into the banlieues [suburbs] – the posh banlieues and the not-posh banlieues – which is something really missing not just from Emily in Paris but also more generally from foreign representations of the city. Emily in Paris should walk onto the set of Engrenages – that would be a show I’d watch!”

Ambivalence towards America

The TV popular within France during lockdown reveals a rather different picture: of a nation ill-at-ease, fearful for the future, and anxious about its place in the world. Far from opting for escapism during lockdown, French viewers binged on shows that highlighted their social crises: political gridlock, economic anxiety, and collective psychological trauma. A number of series (and films) were cast through the prism of one of France’s abiding obsessions: its ambivalent attitude towards American influence.

One of the most popular dramas during France’s first lockdown was Dérapages, released on Netflix as Inhuman Resources. Éric Cantona plays Alain Delambre, a 57-year-old father of two who has been unemployed for six years. Every day, Alain faces petty indignities, from potential employers and state bureaucrats, and the rage wells up inside him. He is now a “precarious worker”, taking odd night-time jobs, yet too ashamed to tell his wife. (He nurses what the sociologist Richard Sennett calls “the hidden injuries of class”). Alain’s former corporate employers cannibalised his labour – they consumed all his energies, then spat out the husk – and now he is bent on revenge.

In Dérapages (Inhuman Resources), Eric Cantona plays a rage-filled unemployed father of two bent on revenge (Credit: Netflix)

In Dérapages (Inhuman Resources), Eric Cantona plays a rage-filled unemployed father of two bent on revenge (Credit: Netflix)

The series is perceptive about France’s fraying social contract, and the chasm between corporate sheen – its sleek logos and effortless curved surfaces – and the sharp reality of the shop floor. It also captures the deep swell of resentment in France about the power of multinational companies and their unsentimental ruthlessness towards employees. “In the French imagination, globalisation and Americanisation are synonyms”, says James McAuley, a Paris-based columnist for the Washington Post. “The gilets jaunes – at least in the eyes of some of its protestors – was an uprising against the globalised market economy and thus what is called ‘Americanised society’. In my reporting, I would hear all the time: ‘we don’t want to have Walmart-style supermarkets in our town, which will ruin all the small businesses’.”

In Le Bureau des Légendes (The Bureau), a multi-award-winning spy drama starring Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine), a French agent betrays his country for love – and the assistance of the United States. McAuley notes that in this series, “the turning point is when he sells out to the Americans. The show presents the classic view of France as the little, good guy in a rigged playground”. In this analogy, America is a brash bully, encroaching on French territory – just as General de Gaulle had warned in the mid-20th Century. “We are still living in the house that de Gaulle built”, says McAuley. “There is no one who looms so large in the French political landscape – even today, decades after his death – and his antipathy to America, not so much as a country but as a concept, looms as large as he does.”

In spy drama The Bureau, Mathieu Kassovitz stars as a French agent who betrays his country for love (Credit: Federation Ent /Alamy)

In spy drama The Bureau, Mathieu Kassovitz stars as a French agent who betrays his country for love (Credit: Federation Ent /Alamy)

This tension is evident even in the critically acclaimed comedy Dix pour cent (Call My Agent!). The first episode of the opening season sets the tone: cultural icon Cécile de France is offered a major Hollywood role – on condition that she “update” her aging appearance. The episode hinges on whether the actress will physically morph herself into an American image of beauty, or stay with the supposedly French notion of “natural” beauty. This conundrum is presented in a witty, playful way, and while it is not the primary focus of the show, it is never far from the surface, nor from the national psyche.

Last summer, both the US and France witnessed nationwide protests against police brutality, with the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter and the campaign for Justice for Adama Traoré. Into this mix came Tout Simplement Noir (Simply Black), a mockumentary that explores the complexity of black identity in France. Created by Jean-Pascal Zadi, who won a 2021 César award for his performance, it features cameos from an all-star cast, including Claudia Tagbo, JoeyStarr, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Lupin’s Omar Sy. Due to Covid restrictions, this 90-minute feature film was streamed on Canal Plus (known as “the HBO of France”).

Simply Black is a portrait of a man in crisis. Tired of being typecast for lousy roles (in which he is asked to channel “the suffering of the African”), Zadi decides to take the streets, and calls for a Million Man March, mimicking Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 event in Washington DC. But from the outset his endeavours are fraught – who is black enough, and why only men? – and Zadi himself is denounced for being insufficiently radical. He soon concedes that there is nothing “simple” about being black.

Zadi’s film explores both the limitations of the Republic’s “colour-blind” policies and the perils of mapping the US racial model onto France. It is also astute about anti-racist activism in the social media age, poking fun at the savvy self-promoters (“Can you imagine? Me and Angela Davis – I’ll do a story on Insta live!”). Simply Black is, the culture writer Sandra Onana tells BBC Culture, “a formidably intelligent assessment of the state of race in France”, which takes us to “the heart of what comedy can accomplish”.

Growing in confidence

No series showcases France’s political anxieties quite as powerfully as Canal’s Baron Noir, essential viewing for audiences intrigued by next year’s presidential election. This show, dubbed “The Sopranos in The West Wing” by its creators, offers an insight into the horse-trading and back-stabbing that characterises party politics, and the emotional toll it takes on presidents. It also captures the widespread feeling of disillusionment with the state of French democracy – trapped in a perennial quintennial battle to keep out the far-right – while revealing how the economic alienation depicted in Dérapages is manufactured into populist politics.

Baron Noir’s thrilling final season, broadcast during lockdown, seemed particularly timely. It asked the same question that faces disgraced former president Nicolas Sarkozy: can a politician convicted in court ever win another election? (Like the show’s protagonist, Sarkozy must now wear an electronic tag). It also depicts how physical violence against a teacher can lead to a national controversy about secularism – just as the murder of Samuel Paty did earlier this year.

Canal Plus' Baron Noir – dubbed "The Sopranos in The West Wing" – offers insights into the horse-trading of French party politics (Credit: Canal Plus)

Canal Plus’ Baron Noir – dubbed “The Sopranos in The West Wing” – offers insights into the horse-trading of French party politics (Credit: Canal Plus)

“The anxieties expressed in Baron Noir reflect France’s anxieties,” the show’s co-creator Eric Benzekri tells BBC Culture, “and perhaps this explains part of the success of the series”. Indeed, Baron Noir’s predictions are said to have caused anxiety in the Elysée. In the final series, a confident centrist president runs for re-election, but has underestimated the extent of grassroots anger. Her opponent comes from an unlikely quarter: a science professor from outside the Parisian elite, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Marseille’s “maverick” doctor Didier Raoult. He mobilises the discontented – those millions who watched the French documentary Hold Up, a Covid “truther” film that roused public resentment during lockdown. “Conspiracy theorism is an anti-political movement; that’s the heart of it, the core of it”, says Benzekri. “Over the years, this kind of anti-system politics has changed its face, but it still operates with the same methods. It arrives in power as the expression of democracy but then supresses it… Baron Noir is a warning – a warning against ourselves”.

Another show that explored the embattled national psyche was Arte’s surprise success of lockdown, En thérapie. Although one of the many international adaptations of the Israeli series BeTipul, the French version is unique in situating the action in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. For the critic Daniel Schneidermann, the series captured “the state of mind, the ‘mood’ of the audience during lockdown,” by showing a symmetry of trauma: “the hard traumatised of terrorism talk to the soft traumatised of confinement”. Libération attributed En thérapie‘s “phenomenal success” to showing “France on the couch”, diagnosing that “the collective morale is fragile”.

Arte's surprise hit En thérapie situated the action in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terror attacks (Credit: Arte)

Arte’s surprise hit En thérapie situated the action in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terror attacks (Credit: Arte)

The term “new French Wave” of internationally-popular TV shows was coined by Pascal Breton, the producer of Marseille, Netflix’s first original French language drama. In contrast to the pale palette of Paris in Engrenages, Marseille is bathed in gorgeous Mediterranean light. Although mocked by critics for its lamentable dialogue (“Marseille is a difficult mistress: passionate, uncompromising…”) the series was popular with audiences both at home and abroad. It depicts the machinations of city hall, and its timing was impeccable – in 2020, Marseille changed its mayor for the first time in 25 years, just as the series had foreshadowed.

Netflix’s French-language output has improved rapidly, and The Eddy offers a guide in how to blend the best of French and American influences. With bilingual dialogue and jazz as its primary medium, the series offers a counterpoint to the sterile depictions of Paris. Set in Belleville, birthplace of Edith Piaf, this show captures the texture of a lived city, beyond the mere cliché of “grittiness” – its creativity, sensuality, and fragility.

Later this year, Netflix will release a comedy set during lockdown (8 Rue de l’Humanité) while Amazon Prime France has invested heavily in new television and film, including Le bal des folles, about the institutionalisation of “rebellious” women in fin-de-siècle France. This period was also the subject of Canal’s Paris Police 1900, the highlight of France’s third lockdown in the spring of 2021. Set at the height of the Belle Époque, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, it portrays a Republic teetering on the brink, threatened by nationalist forces and societal scandals. With an aesthetic of elegant decadence and the pace of a thriller, it is only a matter of time before this series is available globally.

Set in the French capital during the Belle Époque, Paris Police 1900 was a TV highlight of France's most recent lockdown of spring 2021 (Credit: Canal Plus)

Set in the French capital during the Belle Époque, Paris Police 1900 was a TV highlight of France’s most recent lockdown of spring 2021 (Credit: Canal Plus)

American streaming giants have benefitted from France’s well-funded, state-backed creative infrastructure, with production costs vastly lower than in the US. Similarly, French networks – for too long reliant on dubbing second-rate American dramas – have benefitted from home-grown productions, with rights sold across the world. But this relationship still has tensions, because the French themselves remain ambivalent about the influx of American finance, which (as the characters in The Bureau and Call My Agent! learn) can come with strings attached.

Benzekri hopes that lockdowns have shown the French one of the upsides of globalisation: “it allows us to travel from our own living rooms,” he says. Certainly, in return, it has enabled the world to discover how French writers are channelling the nation’s anxieties – social, political, and cultural – for artistic ends. Benzekri sees his colleagues growing in confidence: “For years we lived with the idea that we didn’t know how to write a series, but it isn’t true. Perhaps France is in the process of resuming this tradition – to speak to the world as the world speaks to us”.

New episodes of Lupin will be available on Netflix in summer 2021.

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