Representing ethnicity in contemporary French visual culture
By Joseph McGonagle
The recent confirmation that the second round of the 2017 French Presidential election will be contested by Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen presents voters in France with a distinct choice between two diametrically opposed visions of Frenchness and the French Republic. If any doubted the divergence between them, the different ways in which their respective campaigns have referenced contemporary France’s ethnic diversity make this clear. Whereas the National Front candidate has been accused of advocating a predictably cynical blend of xenophobia and hatred towards various minority groups, Macron’s campaign has notably celebrated societal diversity as part of a more positive and inclusive vision of France’s future: one that clearly resonates with the French electorate.
Debates surrounding ethnicity in France, however, and particularly how it should and can be represented, are far from new. This is especially the case within the field of visual culture, and my new book, Representing ethnicity in contemporary French visual culture, explores some of the main ways in which different ethnicities and identities have been configured there visually since the 1980s. In doing so, it also highlights the important insights such representations can provide into wider trends across French society.
Cinema certainly provides a topical example. Given that France’s film industry is the largest in Europe, and that ethnic diversity remains a prominent hallmark of French society, recent remarks made by Houda Benyamina, the French director of Moroccan heritage who won the Caméra d’or for her début feature-length film Divines (2016) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, may come as a surprise. For her, however, the situation couldn’t be plainer: ‘Cinema is white, bourgeois and racist. That’s clear’. Her comments served as a timely reminder of how unusual her success actually remains within the French film industry – where many filmgoers might struggle to name any women filmmakers of minority ethnic heritage – and also of the institutional impediments in contemporary French society that persistently make it so difficult for voices like hers to be heard.
The extent to which the French Republic’s dominant political philosophy, French republican universalism, continues to condition debate and practice here simply cannot be underestimated, and the research that underpins Representing ethnicity in contemporary French visual culture was sparked by my fascination with an apparent paradox.
Namely, how can ethnic difference be represented visually in a culture where universalism and whiteness often appear synonymous, and cultural markers and identities affirming ethnicity, diversity and difference are routinely dismissed as divisive and discriminatory?
By analysing a broad range of case studies, Representing ethnicity in contemporary French visual culture duly examines how different practitioners across a variety of visual media – including cinema, photography, television and the visual arts – have explored some of the tensions that consequently arise between theoretical colour-blind equality and the everyday ethnic diversity that characterises contemporary France.
Via its focus on how sections of society have been portrayed since the 1980s across four key areas – French national identity; people of Algerian heritage; Jewishness; and the city of Marseille – the book shows how representations of different ethnicities have shifted over time and how the specificities of distinct media have impinged upon cultural production.
In order to do justice to the breadth of contemporary French visual culture, an eclectic range of works are analysed in detail: including some of the most successful French films of all time, such as Amélie, and both the Taxi and La Vérité si je mens! franchises; the hit daily soap opera Plus belle la vie and Yamina Benguigui’s popular Aïcha TV films; landmark photographic projects by Luc Choquer and Patrick Zachmann; and an important autobiographical text-image trilogy by the acclaimed Franco-Algerian writer Leïla Sebbar.
Ultimately, by tracing continuities across a wide spectrum of media and between different groups, Representing ethnicity in contemporary French visual culture demonstrates the multiplicity of responses adopted by practitioners to the challenges that French republican universalism presents as an institutional framework, and underlines how the politics of representing ethnicity within French society and culture will clearly remain a perennially topical concern.
Part of that concern automatically comprises engagement with the complex legacies of French history and memory that permeate this area, and the myriad ways in which the past continues to inform the present. This is certainly so with regard to the heritage of many minority groups in contemporary French society. Indeed, as second round campaigning by Macron and Le Pen now gets underway, the involvement of both candidates in two earlier polemics illustrate well the stakes at play.
First, during Macron’s visit to Algiers in February 2017, his comments that French colonisation in Algeria constituted a crime against humanity for which France should seek repentance attracted widespread criticism from rivals, especially on the political right. Later, a fortnight before the first round, Le Pen reignited a different debate from French history that many had considered closed. By denying France’s role during la rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv, a notorious round-up of over 13,000 Jews that took place in occupied Paris during July 1942 that culminated in their deportation to concentration camps, she pitted herself firmly at odds with the mainstream political consensus that has grown since President Jacques Chirac’s 1995 landmark commemoration speech, which explicitly acknowledged French complicity.
While they look to the future, the upcoming choice made by French voters may therefore well be guided by how they view France’s past, and which interpretations of it they share. Given that their decision will directly inform how France grapples with questions of ethnicity, and help position the parameters in which difference is perceived and represented there, the outcome could not be more crucial.
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