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DAYS OF GLORY: VALOR, RACISM AND THE INGRATITUDE OF THE FRENCH REPUBLIC

Rachid Bouchareb

 

 

By Harold Hyman

PARIS, 10 January 2007— Americans have the Marines hoisting the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima. Now the French have a film poster, of Black African and Arab-Berber soldiers planting the Tricolore on a rocky Italian hill. Italy because the reconstituted French Army of 1943 was essentially "l'Armée d'Afrique", in other words, the colonial branch of the armed forces which escaped the dismantlement of the French Army on the Continent by Hitler. The movie, Indigènes—which means "natives"—was released this summer, and the President, Jacques Chirac, attended the inaugural screening with the cast. The movie showed in Algiers, to positive reviews. The King of Morocco had lent his country and army to the shoot. It is now released in America under the title Days of Glory. It is a world phenomenon of sorts.

 A Soldier's Story, and More

De Gaulle’s Free French are raising an army in 1943, in all non-occupied French territorial possessions, essentially in Africa. The movie begins with a tribal chieftain in the Atlas mountains of Algeria calling the men of his village to come to the aid of France. Four young men are among the volunteers, and they remain the stars throughout the film. The four get trained, and face battle in Southern Italy against the Wehrmacht. The characters have diverse motivations: one impish young fellow wants to prove himself. Another is patriotically pro French, but falls in love with a white French girl and has doubts about her sincerety—maybe she has used him for sex and then forgotten about him because he was Arab. (The woman turns out to be faithful, and it is the military administration that keeps "native" soldiers from corresponding with local white French women).  A third is interested in loot. A last one is an idealist, demanding equal promotion and food and respect from a white French military. Three of them die in battle, and the fourth one, the one who demands equality, alone survives close combat in Alsace. But he is passed over by the French military film crews in favor of white soldiers as a "liberator of Alsace". We then see him in his public housing project room, in Alsace, awaiting death, a forgotten hero. This is a reminder of French ingratitude. The dominant image of Indigènes is nonetheless the military valor, and the selflessness, of these native recruits fighting for what they themselves tend to see as their mother country.


Aurelie Eltvedt and Jamel Debbouze in Days of Glory

The Actors: All Arab, All French

Our four are already established actors, but this is the first "all French Arab cast" for a French feature. All four born in France. The famous comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze is the impish one. Roschdy Zem the patriot who falls in love, is now starring in a movie released after Indigenes called In Bad Faith in which he is the Muslim marrying a Jewish woman. Samy Naceri, the loot seeker, is famous for his main role in Taxi, a late 90s franchise in which he is a Marseille taxi driver, but sign of those times, he carries a Spanish name, as if the director did not dare give him an Arab name even though Marseille is a quarter Arab! The survivor, an activist for equality, is Sami Bouajila, with an impressive filmography  in French B movies and a few intellectual pearls. The director is Rachid Bouchareb, who has been shooting "immigration" films for 20 years. The life of immigrants in France, the passage from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, generally with humor. Bouchareb is a French national born around Paris in 1959 of Algerian Arab immigrant workers.


Roschdy Zem, Samy Naceri, Jamel Debbouze and Sami Bouajila in Days of Glory

Chirac is Moved, The Veterans Are Paid

The screening of Indigènes in early fall, also made political French history.  Chirac, under the celluloid spell, instructed his government to hike the "native" veterans' pensions,  which meant aligning them on those of French veterans. Commentators, always eager to cut down Chirac, derided his "sentimental governance", but recognized the correctness of his decision. Public opinion certainly followed Chirac. More concretely, a few tens of thousands of very old foreign veterans of French wars will get more Euros in Africa,  North and West, and Madagascar—no small matter in the Third World. This pension problem started off this way: these Black, Arab, Berber, Malgache, and even Indochinese veterans were pensioned in a special and unfair way. Those who, when the colonies gained independence in  the 50s and 60s, gained a new nationality and lost their French one, saw their pensions frozen at its level of the moment, and dissociated from all subsequent revisions pertaining to ordinary French citizens' veterans pensions. The French Treasury paid these foreign natives, but at the date of independence rate. This differentiation was not strictly racist because natives retaining full French citizenship got full French pensions.  The gap in pension levels, however, began a gulf over the years. Even though in the early 90s, some "purchasing power" adjustments were made by the French government, the unjust differentiation remained, in its form.

Be that as it may, the presidential decision is curious: Chirac, who has long cultivated extremely close links to Africa and to other far away places like Lebanon, Japan, China, India and Russia, was well aware of this imbalance. François Mitterrand before him as well. So why the sudden change of heart? The best answer was that the public mood was favorable. Justice for the former colonies has become a mature and trendy issue. There are now plenty of respectable Franco-Arabs and Franco-Africans in show biz, the mainstream economy, and on the social and political scene.  The liberal "bobo" (bourgeois Bohemian) Parisian establishment is well disposed towards these Franco-Maghrebians (the Maghreb is ex-French North Africa). The bobos are given to romantic visions of the Third World, and to ethnic exoticism… the old French Orientalisme is still well alive with the bobos and the conservative bourgeois alike.  And the bobo film establishment provided  funding and support for the director, Rachid Bouchareb.

Breaking Down the Ethnic Wall of Silence

Beyond Bouchareb, it is the whole of French society that is in a search of its "roots". As a quarter of the 60 million French citizens are foreign in origin (just take Nicolas Sarkozy, presidential contender of the conservative right, whose father is a Hungarian nobleman and whose mother traces back to Ottoman Jews), the legitimacy of Bouchareb's quest has become mainstream. For decades it was very uncool to speak of one’s foreign ancestors for more than ten seconds. Yet this new roots mania has a limit: roots are for personal enjoyment and not for political use. No one should seek to create an ethnic or religious identity, as this would supposedly tear the Republic asunder. Bouchareb agrees with this. Moreover, he believes he has a mission: giving historic dignity to Arabs, Berbers, Senegalese, Ivoirians. These natives volunteered in French Colonial Africa, fought in Italy,  in Provence, in Alsace, contributing massively to the French military’s resumption of war against the Reich. They numbered about 150,000 men in arms. Young Franco-Maghrebians and Franco-Senegalese etc. should be proud of their grandfathers.


Sami Bouajila and Jamel Debbouze in Days of Glory

This play on feelings is fruitful. All French feel sympathy for these colonial native soldiers in Indigènes. Same feeling even for their younger brothers who worked in French factories after the war, as did Bouchareb’s parents. On the other hand, this magic ceases to work for today’s young Arabs—the Beurs, their nickname. Most French feel some kind of fear of the children of the immigrant workers. From the midst of these maladjusted children has come massive vandalism in November 2005: burning of cars, buses and schools, pillaging frenzies and other acts of gratuitous and grievous violence. Then in March 2006 these same vandal and hooligan elements attacked middle-class white protesters involved in traditional style demonstrations against the government’s wage policies. This was a paradoxical mass mugging within a peaceful antigovernment demonstration. These nihilistic muggings and batterings were widely televised, and the left of center newspaper of reference Le Monde revolutionized its traditional progressiveness with the banner headline "Antiwhite Racism Rears Its Head". For the record: the hooligan car burners and muggers were mostly Beurs, and children of Black Africans. A few French Portuguese, some French West Indians,  a tiny number of classical French too. Practically no Chinese.  These realities suffice to generate class, race and religion fear and discrimination.

The Limits of Historical Films

So here we have Beur Days of Rage while ethnic reconciliation is at work on the screen. Why the contradiction? Any quick explanation is lame, but unavoidable. Therefore, these first generation French are probably seeking revenge against an inaccessible French society. The elitism and the hush-hush white racism of this French society; there truly was a glass ceiling for non-whites. Bouchareb—whose Indigènes was of course in the making years before the disturbances—is overtly trying to intervene in French social life, and he tells Le Monde :  "There are bad feelings out there, in France, and it's been going on too long. Something has to be done quickly for these immigrants' children, who are fully French, to feel at home in this country and get their share of the wealth on a par with other citizens. ... I lived in the suburban slums, and the gap is economic first and foremost. But something must bridge this gap immediately, or else the rot of American communitarianism will grip this country".

 Let us forget Bouchareb’s barb at Americans acceptances of ethnic communities: the barb functions as an attack on presumed enemies of the French assimilationist model and is never intended to show hostility to the US. What counts is that Bouchareb has offered the French public a feel-good movie, full of historical justice, and he thinks he can recast the young vandal rioters as something else than ethnic enemies: economic victims of French society. Implicitly, Bouchareb is telling the ordinary Frenchman: nothing to fear from ethnic and religious differences, no war against Islam, the problem is all economic! An obviously expeditious explanation. But it shows that in France the problem of Beur violence is no longer kept out of the hands of French Arabs.


Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory

From a didactic point of view, Indigènes is infinitely more intelligent than the nostalgic all-white fantasy Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) – which paradoxically casted Jamel Debbouze of Indigènes — but gives him a white non-Arab name and identity! Indigènes is simply a step in the process of French soul-searching and issue solving. Americans have some experience at race relations, Bouchareb and the French establishment should look at all examples including the French one which has not been a total failure. Bouchareb is not wrong about economic discrimination, but there are less palatable aspects to the riots, of which the "hatred of whites". Bouchareb must make other films to pass from an Alex Haley to a Spike Lee—or a whole new type.

The whole issue of France and its former colonies is still a massive cinematographic taboo. For all his talent, Bouchareb or any one else has yet to touch two hot potatoes: Firstly, the Arab uprising in Algeria, which lead to independence in 1962 after a frightful  colonial war. The only movies on that topic are intimiste portraits of disillusioned French soldiers. One big exception is the 1966 Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, squarely anticolonialist, but still only a cult film, unlike Indigènes. There are a few made for TV movies, and many documentaries, that deal with  these topics head on. No features.

Secondly, French cinema has stayed away from films about Al Qaida and their predecessors in Algeria, the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), the GIA (ultraviolent offshoot of the FIS which conducted terrorist attacks in France in the 1990s) and the GSPC (which recently proclaimed itself the Algerian Al Qaida). A touchy topic, as several French Muslims trained with these groups, or went to Afghanistan. Not even made for TV has touched this. Only documentaries.


Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory

Conclusion

Indigènes was long overdue. But as a social catharsis, it is incomplete. France needs a series of these. Yet the next ones will be much more touchy. Finally, to add to the confusion: one of the actors of Indigènes, Samy Naceri who played the loot-crazed character, was recently arrested for multiple-offense violence, this time on a black policeman whom he called "dirty Negro" (sale nègre). Samy Naceri has a wild temper and has insulted, manhandled, or struck many ordinary people: motorists (struck) he took for paparazzi, fashion workers (struck and wounded with glass), stewardess (jostled and insulted), policeman (insulted). Naceri grew up in a rough neighborhood, and is no stranger to the bottle of whisky. A remnant of his rough immigrant bakground in a suburban project? Possibly. But as an actor he will be forgiven, as always. At least equality has reached the Franco-Arab: they too are protected by the impunity afforded all bona fide French actors..

 

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Harold Hyman is a Franco-American journalist, based in Paris, specializing in foreign affairs. He has worked for Radio France Internationale, Courrier International, and Radio Classique (news section), and now works for BFM-TV.



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