La Haine attire la haine?

27 Sep

Rosanna Butters

To what extent does La Haine represent current social problems in France?

C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui tombe d’un immeuble de 50 étages. Au fur et à mesure de sa chute, il se répète sans cesse pour se rassurer :

« Jusqu’ici tout va bien…

 Jusqu’ici tout va bien…

 Jusqu’ici tout va bien. »

Mais l’important, c’est pas la chute. C’est l’atterrissage

Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine is structured around this analogy which suggests that the gravity of French social problems will not be fully realised until it is too late.  Yet although ‘l’histoire’ is now an iconic phrase, is it a true representation of the path which French society is taking?

The film opens with real footage of the riots and strikes which for many French people are a cherished symbol of the liberté so painfully achieved in the Revolution; indeed the right to strike is written into the French constitution.  Although the French value the immediate benefits of striking, there is a danger that riots and strikes will lead to long term damage to the French economy with the strikes of October 2010 estimated to have cost France up to €400million a day.  Yet there is evidence that in recent years the number of strikes has greatly declined with only 76.2 strikers per million in the 1990s compared to 168.4 in the 1970s.  If this trend continues, the power of the unions could be reduced and the tradition of striking broken.

The scenes of lawlessness in La Haine also relate to the issue of the authority and attitude of the French police.  Disrespect for the police, and graffiti such as Saïd’s ‘baise la police’, are by no means specific to France but there is evidence of mistrust between the French public and the police.  40% of French people admit that they believe the police to be racist and Kassowitz was actually partly inspired to make La Haine by the shooting of Makome M’Bowole while in police custody in 1993 which is reflected by Abdel’s death in the film.

The fact that M’Bowole, a zaïrois, and the protagonists of the film (an arab, a jew and a black person) are ‘immigrés’ brings us to the issue of racism in France.  Despite 2008 figures showing that an estimated 10% of French citizens have Arab or African roots only three of 36,000 elected mayors in France and only one member of the National Assembly at that time were black.  The issue of racism is, however, acknowledged to be a problem in France with groups like MRAP (Mouvement contre le racism et pour l’amitié entre les peoples) acting as watchdogs for discrimination in employment and housing.  Successful French immigrants like Oxmo Puccino, Zinedine Zidane and Djamel Debbouze also encourage France to be proud of its immigré population.

La Haine juxtaposes the banlieues with picture-postcard Paris to expose the class differences within a city where the top 20% earn eight times more than the bottom 20%.  This difference has become cultural as well as economic with the banlieusards creating their own identity and even having their own slang, the verlan.  Yet although Kassovitz’s juxtaposition of the two sides of Paris highlights their differences, he suggests that each could embrace and appreciate the culture of the other: in the film the DJ’s mix of Edith Piaf and rapper Cut Killer shows how the two can be compatible.  La Haine’s success across the French social spectrum together with the  outcry when the Minister of the Interior, Nicholas Sarkozy, dismissed the banlieusards as ‘la racaille’ indicates the emergence of a mutual acceptance; indeed, if the two sides of Paris learn to coexist, the rift between the police and the banlieusards may heal itself.

So although France still has social problems like those depicted in La Haine today, compared to the gravity of the strikes of the 1960s and 70s, and the attitude of the police in the1990s, France seems to be addressing if not entirely eliminating its issues.  Films like La Haine and Un Prophète along with successful banlieusards give an identity to those previously alienated from society.  As for Kassovitz’s warning that ‘l’important, c’est l’atterrissage’ it appears that as long as France recognises – and attempts to remedy – its social problems it need not become une société tombée.

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