Universalism and Difference: The French Suburbs on Screen

It seems that hardly a month goes by in France without someone loudly criticizing “le wokisme” as the latest US cultural import that the country would be better off without. The most famous recent incident occurred when the French dictionary of record, Le Robert, decided to introduce gender neutral pronouns into its online version in 2021. President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, went on public record criticizing the decision, the latter arguing that French only has two pronouns. Just last month, Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote in The Atlantic about his experience witnessing French academics verbally attack another participant in a conference who spoke about race and ethnicity as meaningful categories of inquiry.

Such incidents are expressions of France’s deeply held belief in universalism. The idea is that citizenship in France rightly abstracts from individual particularisms such as race, ethnicity, and religion. These are matters for the private sphere whereas the public sphere requires a neutral conception of the citizen shared by all. This set of principles was a well-meaning corrective to French collaboration in the deportation of French Jewish communities during the Second World War. However, blindness to difference has made it difficult for many in France to come to grips with the country’s histories of decolonization and the increasingly diverse face it presents. As the latest episode in the country’s long history of immigration, many newcomers arrived in France during the second half of the 20th century to live and work. They are now French citizens with several generations of family history in the Hexagon.

My new book French B Movies examines these debates about universalism in the context of films about France’s banlieues or suburbs that surround French cities and some of which concentrate some of France’s minority communities that have struggled to find economic security and equality in the 21st century. There are of course also middle-class single-family suburbs that surround French cities. However, it is the impoverished suburban neighborhoods defined by apartment block housing and culturally diverse populations that have long dominated French images of and debates about globalization and multiculturalism. While it is often not possible to talk about race and ethnicity in the public sphere, it is possible to talk about space and, for better and worse, the suburbs function as a spatial shorthand for questions of migration, economic inequality, and cultural diversity.

The filmmakers I analyze in this book run the gambit from recognized auteurs like Mathieu Kassovitz, Jacques Audiard, and Céline Sciamma to commercial filmmakers like Luc Besson to lesser-known figures such as Audrey Estrougo, Ladj Ly, and the Kourtrajmé collective. All these filmmakers, to differing degrees and in different ways, turn to American genre traditions, such as horror, comedy, science fiction, gangster film, and the musical, among others, to make issues of racial and ethnic inequality visible on mainstream screens in a color-blind republic. In so doing, these filmmakers challenge dominant ways of making and valuing filmmaking in France. This too is part of a long history of French artists, intellectuals and activists looking across the Atlantic for cultural, theoretical, and political models to account for racial, ethnic, and cultural difference in France.

Auteurism and art cinema as France’s international brand functions as a kind of artistic universalism, defining how films and filmmakers acquire value in national and international marketplaces. French B Movies analyzes how filmmakers variously work within and challenge the parameters of art cinema when they represent suburban communities through appeals to American cinematic genres. Ultimately, the book shows that representing suburban communities on screen through appeals to genre is as just much about imagining new models for French film production in an age of globalization as it is about expanding who gets represented on mainstream screens. At a time when streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon are increasingly funding and exporting French suburban films and their filmmakers, it even more urgent to understand how genre, cultural diversity, and production models interact in France. Like Paris and the Eiffel Tower, the suburbs are well on their way to becoming one of France’s most recognizable international media brands in the 21st century.