|Post-Colonial Cultures and Globalization in France
Alec G Hargreaves
Florida State University
In 1995, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “In France, the only art that matters is street culture.” Photographed on the cover is French rapper MC Solaar. Behind him, almost squeezed out of the frame, is the entrance to that temple of museum culture, the Louvre. Inside, reporter Marcus Mabry declares that the Senegalese-born rapper has become “the most widely known French recording artist in the world”, personifying “the rise of street culture from France’s suburbs [banlieues] to the mainstream – as well as its multicultural roots” (Newsweek 1996: 42). Also featured are interviews with Mathieu Kassovitz, winner of the 1995 best director award at the Cannes film festival for his stunning portrayal of the banlieues in La Haine, and with a graffiti artist calling himself Megaton making a handsome living selling his work in upmarket galleries in chic Paris neighborhoods:
This [say Mabry and co-writer John Leland] is the new cultural energy in France: blunt, assertive, nurtured in hardscrabble housing projects rather than the French academies. It is the culture of the banlieue, a multiethnic mix of Arab, American, Caribbean, African and French idioms that is influencing the way French young people talk and define themselves. […] The high culture that for centuries has been the nation’s pride – the fine arts, literature, classical music, even the couture houses and culinary arts – has stagnated.
Newsweek (1996: 38)
A couple of years later, the French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard gave an interview to Roger Célestin in the US journal Sites. Asked about the contribution of post-colonial minorities to popular culture in France, Baudrillard replied:
There isn’t any …
[…] there is no Arab culture, that is, no Muslim culture, that has developed independently. It’s not at all the same here [as in the United States]. I don’t believe there is any basic culture that they imported or that they revived… No, they have really been dispossessed. […] Of course there are groups… in music, perhaps in dance, but I’m not much of an expert on all that, no doubt in terms of music, some groups, some theatrical companies among the younger generations… the most recent generation, the one that was born here. But precisely, the generation that was born here is extremely, is entirely assimilated. […]
One is accepted – there have been many, many elements that have come from outside, in painting for example – but still, one is only accepted when one enters the French cultural zone, when one is assimilated. There is a force that perhaps comes from tradition, I don’t really know, but we [the French] are not very receptive to heterogeneity. It has to be transformed, metabolized into French culture.
Baudrillard (1997: 7-8)
To judge by these remarks, it is almost as if Newsweek and Baudrillard are on different planets. There are, to put it mildly, some pretty sweeping assertions in Baudrillard’s comments as well as a highly simplistic vision of cultural dynamics. Baudrillard rightly notes that France has a long tradition of attracting foreign artists who in many cases became both permanent residents and integral parts of the French cultural scene. But it is absurd to suggest that they simply assimilated into some pre-existing cultural mould. On the contrary, they were attracted to France and helped to keep France at the edge of cutting edge of cultural experimentation partly because the freedom to innovate and resonate appeared greater in France than in their countries of origin. One thinks, for example, of poets such as Apollinaire, painters such as Picasso and playwrights such as Beckett and Ionesco. If France’s new immigrant minorities appear to Baudrillard especially ill-equipped to contribute anything new to French culture this is no doubt in part because he implicitly equates the core of French culture with highly literate – in every sense of the word – uses of the French language. The few cultural forms in which Baudrillard concedes that second-generation members of minority ethnic groups may be active – music, dance and theatre – all function primarily through symbolic codes other than those of the written word. This is, of course, also true of the cultural forms conveyed to mass audiences through today’s electronic media, which are powerful stimulants for artists in the banlieues but heartily despised by many intellectuals outside them.
Baudrillard acknowledges that he knows very little about young minority ethnic artists working in what he clearly regards as “vulgar” orally- and/or electronically-based cultural forms. The fact that he feels able to dismiss them as insignificant without bothering to find out anything them about them tells us a lot about the mind-set of many French intellectuals towards the mass media and the cultural forms associated with them. There is a very real sense in which, adapting a phrase of Homi Bhabha’s (1994), we may say that the location – or perhaps more properly, locations – of culture is or are today very different from where they were a generation or more ago. Post-colonial minorities are doubly troublesome from the point of view of France’s established intellectual élites because they erode not only the familiar hierarchy between “high” and “low” culture but also the national boundaries within which those élites have been accustomed to setting the cultural agenda. Baudrillard’s remarks about cultural assimilation are implicitly posited on assumptions about the power of nationally bounded cultural institutions which are proving increasingly untenable in the face of the gathering strength of the dynamic which has come to be known as globalization.
When mass communications were still dominated by print media, linguistic and technological constraints generally limited their impact to the same nationally-bounded spaces in which state-constructed cultural institutions – the educational systems, for example, through which intellectuals such as Baudrillard built their careers – held sway. Today, the global reach of privately owned audio-visual media based outside France – most obviously, US-controlled multinational corporations – constitutes a constantly growing challenge to cultural élites operating within more traditional, nationally-bounded frames of reference. At the same time, the settlement of post-colonial minorities has brought the emergence on French soil of a new generation whose cultural references are in multi-polar, drawing as freely on American as on French, African, Arab and other models. The banlieue streets in which these new hybrid cultures are being forged, like the electronic media on which they draw, are largely beyond the control of France’s traditional intellectual élites.
My discussion of these developments falls into three main parts. I will begin by considering the language policies adopted by the French state and the effects of these on post-colonial minorities. Secondly, I will examine cultural spheres in which established élites have largely marginalized these minorities. Finally, I will consider other cultural fields in which post-colonial cultural actors have broken through into the mainstream. In the course of my analysis I will suggest that in contemporary cultural dynamics, older public service institutions are steadily being supplanted by newer, privately-owned, commercially driven organizations which are often more porous to minority ethnic groups.
The mid-twentieth century was marked by what, in a memorable phrase, Geoffrey Barraclough (1964) called the dwarfing of Europe. There were two main strands in this process: the loss of Europe’s overseas empires and the rise of a new world order dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. A new term, “superpower”, was coined to reflect this quantum leap in the global status of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., superseding an international system long dominated by European states which had been accustomed to thinking of themselves as great powers. Nowhere were these trends resisted more fiercely than in France. While Britain divested herself more or less voluntarily of her empire, beginning with the jewel in the crown, India, in 1947, France engaged in a series of bloody and ultimately futile military campaigns, most notably in Indochina and then in Algeria, in unsuccessful attempts to resist decolonization. Returning to power amid the political turmoil provoked by the Algerian imbroglio, de Gaulle resolved to cut France’s losses and liquidate the overseas empire so as to better reassert the national independence and international standing of France in the face of American hegemony. While the nomenclature of empire disappeared, behind the new vocabulary which replaced it – coopération, francophonie, etc. – lay a neo-colonial project through which France was to retain considerable visibility and power in formerly colonized regions. At the same time, France pursued a range of policies designed to limit American power. The two strands in this strategy, offensive and defensive, overlapped in the field of language policy.
While the francophonie movement fueled hopes that French influence overseas would continue in one form at least through the enduring use of the French language, there were deep anxieties that this most precious symbol of national identity was under threat within the very heartland of France itself. The alarm was sounded in 1964 by Etiemble in his anti-American diatribe, Parlez-vous franglais?. Within a couple of years, the Haut Comité pour la Défense et l’Expansion de la Langue Française was set up, with the dual brief of protecting the purity of the French language from the invasion of Americanisms and promoting the widest possible use of French around the globe. Since then, a long succession of similar organizations have engaged in an increasingly hopeless battle to halt the seemingly relentless pollution of the French language by American loan-words.
While the language policies adopted by successive French governments have addressed a number of other matters, including the languages of regional and immigrant minorities, these have always been a secondary consideration compared with the protection of French from American linguistic hegemony and the global promotion of French. These twin imperatives have often been thinly disguised in official discourses, the latest versions of which champion the notion of “diversité culturelle” [cultural diversity]. In February 2003, for example, President Jacques Chirac announced that he would press for the adoption through UNESCO of “une convention mondiale sur la diversité culturelle” [a world convention on cultural diversity] (Chirac 2003). At first sight, it might appear that such a convention would bring benefits to linguistic and other minorities which are currently marginalized or repressed in many countries. Yet far from weakening the power of the state over such minorities, the central feature of Chirac’s proposal was the strengthening of the state in the field of culture, above all by permitting national governments to retain protective measures over the circulation of cultural goods and services while liberalizing international trade in other respects. Although the United States was not explicitly mentioned by Chirac, it was abundantly clear in this and other official pronouncements that “la diversité culturelle” was simply a coded way of referring to the perceived need to resist American cultural hegemony and protect the national culture of France.
Since the establishment of the Haut Comité pour la Défense et l’Expansion de la Langue Française in 1968, there have been countless government initiatives in pursuit of those twin objectives. Framed initially in the context of France and her former colonies, these measures have increasingly included a European dimension, with France pressing her EU partners to back protective trade measures in the field of culture, notably through a system of quotas designed to limit American audio-visual imports. Chirac’s proposal for a UNESCO-backed world convention was simply an extension of this policy.
France has been far less active in promoting the languages of regional and immigrant minorities. It was not until 1999 that France signed the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which had been drawn up seven years earlier. France’s signature was hedged around with important conditions guaranteeing the primacy of the French language and implementation was to be limited to only selected parts of the Charter. Even this was considered to be a bridge too far by France’s Constitutional Council, which ruled that the Charter could not be ratified without a constitutional amendment, which Chirac refused to facilitate. While some of the Charter provisions have been implemented without a constitutional amendment, regional languages in France continue to receive very little state support. According to official statistics, in 1997 less than 3 per cent of the nation’s children were learning regional languages at school (Bronner 1999). In the same year, France 3, the principal public channel responsible for regional television broadcasting, aired a total of only 324 hours of programs (less than one hour a day) in regional languages; the rest were in French or foreign (mainly English-language) programs sub-titled in French (Journal officiel 2001).
At first sight, the languages of immigrants may appear less marginalized. In 1998, almost a fifth of children eligible for lessons in immigrant languages under a program known as Enseignement des langues et cultures d’origine (ELCO) were receiving them But the numbers were falling. In 2002/03, only 70,000 schoolchildren were enrolled, compared with 140,000 twenty years earlier. The number of teachers supporting the program had also been halved. (Petek 2004: 49). Moreover, the French state did not contribute a cent to the cost of these lessons. The ELCO program is paid for entirely by the governments of countries from which migrants come. An important consequence of this is that the languages in the ELCO program are often other than the mother tongues of the children to whom they are taught. This is because the governments concerned are prepared to fund only their official national languages, whereas many migrants and their children speak regional dialects or completely different languages. Thus many children of North African origin learn Berber from their parents, rather than Arabic, the official language of their country of origin. For them, the ELCO program is in effect an encounter with a foreign language rather than support for their mother tongue. And as the program provides only a few hours of tuition each week, often for only a year or two, the competence acquired by pupils is very limited.
Not surprisingly, French has rapidly overtaken the mother tongue as the principal language of most young people of immigrant origin (Tribalat 1996: 188-213). Very few are able to read and write in their mother tongue, making French the only practical option for those with literary aspirations. Many retain at least fragmentary oral competence in the parental language, on which they are able to draw in non-written cultural forms such as music. A smattering of Arabic, Berber and other immigrant languages is certainly present in the music produced by many second- and third-generation members of immigrant minorities and such borrowings are now becoming fashionable among majority ethnic youths (Caubet 2004: 42). But except for performers of raï (a popular musical form originating in Algeria) and a few groups and solo artists such as the now disbanded Carte de Séjour and its former lead singer, Rachid Taha, it is rare for them to write and/or perform entire songs in a language other than French. In many songs, English is at least as audible as Arabic or Berber and not uncommonly it outweighs them.
The mass media have of course played a crucial role in this linguistic mix. In 1964, when Etiemble fired off his broadside, 60 per cent of French households did not yet own a television set, and those that did had access to only a single state-owned channel over which the Gaullist government of the day jealously exercised its prerogatives as guardian of the nation’s moral and cultural interests (Kuhn 1995: 111). Today, with television now an integral part of daily life in practically every home, half of France’s six terrestrially-based channels, including TF1, by far the most popular, are in private hands, and most of them give high prominence to American-made programs despite government regulations designed to limit US imports. As if this were not enough, satellite and cable broadcasting now gave access to a vastly expanded range of channels, many of them in English, over which the French state has little or no control.
In the age of wall-to-wall 24-hour global television, a huge range of information and entertainment requiring only limited skills of literacy is now available to mass audiences with only dwindling regulatory controls operated by the state. When the state held a near-monopoly over key cultural institutions, it was easy to marginalize sub-national orally-based forms of popular culture. Today, national cultures are themselves being dwarfed by global forms of popular culture transmitted by privately owned media empires.
To add insult to injury, television programs are also being broadcast from former colonial territories directly into the homes of minority ethnic groups in France. Starved of programs catering for their interests by regulatory controls hostile to multiculturalism, France’s Arabic-speaking population leapt at the chance of receiving satellite broadcasts from the Mediterranean basin. Within a few years of the technology first becoming available, more than half of Arabic-speaking households had acquired satellite receivers, compared with less than 7 per cent of the general population in France (Carat Expert 1997).
Relegated to the margins of the economic and political structures of French society, stereotypically encapsulated in the banlieues, France’s post-colonial minorities can access, at the flick of a switch, a whole world of information and entertainment. This is on top of the rich array of orally-based cultural capital carried by migrant families from their home countries. The seemingly grey expanses of the banlieues are thus the site of an exceptionally dynamic set of cultural exchanges which have given rise to a rapidly growing body of imaginative literature, often marked by heavily “oral” features, and to numerous other forms expression such as the ethnically-mixed rap bands which have mushroomed in the banlieues of Paris, Lyon and Marseilles during the last twenty years. These young voices are triply problematic in the eyes of French élites. Because of their colonial origins, they are liable to be perceived as Francophone, rather than as French, yet most were in fact born in France and are French citizens. At the same time, they draw unashamedly on Anglophone (often African American) models, transgressing one of the cardinal prohibitions of the francophone movement. To cap it all, they employ the idioms of working class street culture rather than the polished prose of the nation’s educated elites. For all these reasons, the natural instincts of established élites have been to marginalize the cultural productions of post-colonial minorities.
The reception of contemporary cultural artifacts is conditioned by a complex web of political, economic, technological and other factors, in which gatekeepers such as record company executives, publishers, film distributors, academic and media critics, law-makers and educationalists can all play significant roles. Their impact may vary considerably between different cultural forms and spaces. Writers from the banlieues, for example, have been studied and debated far more extensively in the Anglophone world than within the French academic community. Symptomatic of this, the first book-length studies of post-colonial writers in France were the work of a British researcher (Hargreaves 1991) and a French academic based in the US (Laronde 1993). More recently, an anthology of new French writing published in London in English translation gives pride of place to minority ethnic authors (De Chamberet 1999). As the title of the collection, XCiTés, implies, the street culture of the banlieues is at the heart of it.1 Interviewed by Le Monde about the anthology, the French publisher Olivier Cohen confessed to being perplexed by it: “With a few exceptions, it gives the impression that the French novel today consists of Blacks, Beurs, the banlieues, drugs and homosexuals… It’s like some sort of minorities literature, which is completely wrong, for there is no such thing here [in France], except in a very embryonic state.” (Le Monde 1999).
At least three sets of factors linked with dominant conceptions of French nationhood appear to have contributed to this blinkered attitude. The first of these has been the traumatic legacy of decolonization. After the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), most people in France wanted to forget as far as possible the pain and humiliation in which the colonial enterprise had foundered (Stora 1991). The last thing they expected or wanted was the rise of a permanently settled Maghrebi minority within the former colonial heartland itself. But that is exactly what happened. At both élite and popular levels, it has been difficult for the majority ethnic population to come to terms with the idea of incorporating into its midst a minority group originating in a people that fought an uncompromising war in order to be independent from France. Significantly, where the writings of post-colonial minorities are studied in French universities, this is generally in departments of francophone or comparative literature, rather than in departments of French. As commonly understood in France, francophone writing is that which is produced in the French language but which does not belong to the national literature of France. In categorizing post-colonial writers from the banlieues as francophone rather than French, academics have contributed to public perceptions of these minorities as essentially extraneous to France (Hargreaves 1996)
A second factor contributing to this marginalization lies in the reluctance of many French academics to abandon rigidly defined distinctions between “high” and “low” culture. While Literature departments in Anglophone countries have increasingly transformed their teaching and research programs, repositioning themselves in the wider field of cultural studies, French universities remain far more wedded to narrowly based literary studies. Popular cultural forms such as film and television are generally shunned by French academics. The writings of post-colonial authors from the banlieues are strewn with oral street vernacular from many parts of the world and copious borrowings from the audio-visual media. As such, they appear to many French academics to be a sub-culture in the most negatively connoted sense and by the same token unworthy of scholarly attention (Keil 1991).
Within this optic, the idea of cultural creativity in the banlieues appears to be quite literally a contradiction in terms. This kind of thinking is evident, for example, in a manifesto signed by scores of leading intellectuals denouncing Education Ministry plans to give less weight in the school curriculum to literary classics and more to other types of writing as well as oral forms of communication. The authors of the manifesto, who included such luminaries as Régis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut and Philippe Sollers, argued that this would be unfair to disadvantaged youngsters, exemplified in their thinking by “Beurs [i.e. second-generation Maghrebis]: what greater proof could we give of our esteem, interest and respect for them than by giving them the chance to share in culture instead of slamming the door in their face and saying ‘No literature for you’” (Le Monde 2000a). Equating culture with classical forms of literature, the manifesto is similarly dismissive of earlier initiatives by Jack Lang, who as Culture Minister gave support to taggers and introduced an annual street festival of poetry. “At the end of the day,” says the manifesto, “how can poetry be celebrated in the street when it is being killed at school? […] How can one possibly believe that poetry can be improvised one fine evening in the street by people who have never opened a book?” (Le Monde 2000a).
Fear of losing control of the cultural agenda connects up with a third factor contributing to the resistance of French academics in the face of the hybrid cultural practices emanating from the banlieues. In shunning the work of post-colonial minorities, many academics probably believe that they are helping to protect the nation from Americanization. In the US, universities have pursued vigorous policies of affirmative action designed to increase the proportion of minority ethnic teachers and researchers whose presence has helped to strengthen the implementation of a multicultural educational agenda (Bernheimer 1995). With no comparable commitment to greater ethnic diversity, the protectionist reflexes of many French intellectuals have been strengthened by the conviction that multiculturalism is an American import and must as such be rejected.
In general, exponents of street culture have achieved their greatest public successes in cultural forms where economics, technology and politics have combined to effectively bypass traditional élites and state controls. The popular music industry is the clearest example of this. Privately-owned and profit-oriented, recording companies and an ever growing part of the communications media have very different priorities from the public service ethos of older broadcasting organizations and other publicly run cultural institutions such as the national educational system. Mediated by these private companies, French-made rap has become the country’s best-selling form of popular music.
The American roots of rap, anathema to much of France’s intellectual establishment, are by the same token attractive to young people seeking to establish their independence from older mentors, and this appeal has been strengthened by the contestatory and subversive aspects of rap. Since the early 1980s, with advent of FM and now digital technology, the previously narrow range of general interest French radio stations has been overtaken by a plethora of specialist and themed channels, mainly privately owned, which are able to target youth and other markets far more intensively than in the past. These privately owned stations have no inhibitions about responding to market demand for new musical fashions. Paradoxically and quite unintentionally, efforts by the nation’s political élites to impose public controls on these stations gave a major boost to French rap bands. The Pelchat amendment to the 1994 Carignon media law requires commercial radio stations to ensure that at least 40 per cent of the songs they broadcast are in French. To encourage creativity, half of the minimum quota has to be allocated to artists still in the early stages of their careers. Multi-ethnic rap bands newly contracted to French recording companies met these criteria to a tee. As a result of this, they gained exceptional levels of exposure on stations such as Skyrock and NRJ, the market leaders among young listeners in France (Davet and Mortaigne 1996, Hare 1997). In this way, a legal instrument designed to protect France from American cultural imports has in practice helped to promote a new fashion in popular music which is heavily impregnated with American, African and other influences originating outside France, fused together in the streets of the banlieues.
The ineffectiveness of the Pelchat amendment and of many similar initiatives designed to curb foreign, especially American, cultural influences vividly illustrates the weakened capacity of the state to set the cultural agenda. Increasingly, public bodies are having to adjust to the new cultural forms which in recent years have emerged and gathered momentum beyond their control. The school curriculum reforms giving greater emphasis to non-literary forms of communication, denounced in the manifesto which I quoted earlier, are symptomatic of this shift. Even the Académie Française, the epitome of cultural conservatism in France, has shown signs of beginning to catch up. The same Academy that has lent its support to the campaign against school curriculum reform, complaining that “schools are no longer compensating for the inferiorities than can arise from culturally starved social backgrounds […] it is a counsel of despair to say that schools are now fundamentally incapable of initiating young people of diverse origins into the pleasures of understanding our literary masterpieces” (Le Monde 2000b), has awarded its “grande médaille de la chanson française” to none other than MC Solaar. Meanwhile government ministries and city councils across the country are investing heavily in neighbourhood facilities for practitioners of hip-hop, fueling a growing debate about the extent to which autonomous and/or contestatory voices are now being subsumed or neutered within the nation’s cultural mainstream (Mouvements 2000, Le Monde 2000c).
A similar debate has surrounded the work of minority ethnic film-makers ever since the release of the first feature-length movie of this kind, Mehdi Charef’s Le Thé au harem d’Archimède (1985). The economics of commercial film-making are in general such that minority ethnic audiences are on their own insufficiently large to cover production costs and generate a profit. Whether they like it or not, minority ethnic directors must cater in their work at least partly if not indeed primarily for majority ethnic audiences. In a trenchant critique of Le Thé au harem d’Archimède, Farida Belghoul complained that the characters were tamely subordinated to the eye of a majority ethnic Big Brother: “The film is governed by an audience outside the banlieues. […] The whole film is haunted by the desire to be liked by the “right” people, generous patrons. As a result, the film forfeits its own truth.” (Belghoul 1985) One of the reasons why La Haine made such an impact ten years later is that it broke with the relatively accommodating approach of Charef and many other minority ethnic directors towards the public outside the banlieues. A recurring image in La Haine is the fiercely intimidating gesture of Vinz pointing a revolver directly at the camera and, thereby, at the audience. While a number of so-called banlieue movies have followed a similar tack, focusing on the defenders of micro-territories hostile to outside forces, minority ethnic film-makers have generally been willing to engage more or less openly in a dialogue with the majority ethnic public (Hargreaves 1999). No less significantly, post-colonial minorities have now become a staple ingredient in numerous movies by majority ethnic directors.
Until recently, these minorities were relatively marginal figures in French cinema. Today they have a major presence through leading production and/or acting roles in top box-office successes such as the three Taxi movies (1998, 2000, 2003), La Vérité si je mens (1997) and its sequel, La Vérité si je mens 2 (2001), Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) and Astérix et Obélix : Mission Cléopâtre (2002). The last two of these feature the comedian Jamel Debbouze, a second-generation Moroccan brought up in Trappes, a western banlieue of Paris, who in 2002 surged ahead of Gérard Depardieu to become the best paid actor in France (Boisseau 2004). His casting in Amélie as a majority ethnic green-grocer’s shop assistant named Lucien in the Montmartre neighborhood where the movie is set sparked off a fierce controversy over claims that the film was racist. Noting the almost total absence of any minority ethnic characters and the apparent obliteration of the ethnicity of the one actor who might have brought such a dimension to the film, a reviewer in Libération castigated the film’s image of “une France rétrograde, ethniquement nettoyée, nauséabonde” [a nauseous, backward-looking, ethnically cleansed France] which, he argued, exemplified the reactionary and racist dreams of ethnic purity championed by Jean-Marie Le Pen (Kaganski 2001). Yet Jamel is such a well known figure in France that few people watching the film can have been unaware of the actor’s ethnic origins. His casting as a majority ethnic character in Amélie could therefore be interpreted as a sign of integrated casting, demonstrating that talented actors can participate in successful mainstream movies irrespective of their origins.
There are now dozens of new films every year set in France featuring actors of African, Caribbean and Asian origin. Of course not all of these represent a genuine widening of French cinema towards cultural models reflecting the diverse origins of France’s post-colonial minorities. In many mainstream entertainment movies, such as Amélie, the ethnicity of minority ethnic actors is blurred over or elided altogether. But France’s post-colonial minorities are now present in such a wide range of movies – including many in which ethnicity features as a significant social marker – that it is no longer possible to claim that they are systematically marginalized by the film industry.
While now integral features of the French movie scene, these minorities have yet to achieve a comparable degree of exposure in transnational cinema markets. The primary reason for this lies no doubt in the more general weakness of French-made films in a global marketplace dominated by Anglophone products. Very few home-grown box office hits within France score a comparable degree of success in non-francophone countries. Language barriers and the resistance of consumers in the huge American market to dubbed or sub-titled movies greatly limit the penetration of French-made films. Less constrained by linguistic barriers, minority ethnic musicians have gained more substantial footholds in transnational markets. Promoted by the global reach of multinational recording companies to whom they are contracted through French subsidiaries and aided by high profile performances in the US and elsewhere, rappers such as MC Solaar and raï artists such as Faudel now enjoy notoriety outside France on a far greater scale than any film director or actor originating in the banlieues (Cannon 1997, Le Monde 2001).
In 1997, the extreme right-wing Front National took control of Vitrolles, in the banlieue of Marseilles. Setting out her policy agenda, the newly elected FN mayor, Catherine Mégret declared that she was determined to “re-establish cultural order” by attacking “rap culture and everything that goes with it, which isn’t ours at all” (Le Monde 1997b). Her husband Bruno Mégret, who at that time was number two to Jean-Marie Le Pen in the FN hierarchy, explained: “If we want to send all the Arabs, Africans and Asians back home, it isn’t because we hate them, but because their presence is polluting our national identity.” (Le Monde 1997a). In a variety of open and subterranean ways, this kind of thinking has influenced a significant part of the majority ethnic population, including a number of influential cultural gatekeepers. But the popular successes of French rap and raï and the increasing visibility of post-colonial minorities in French-made films show that the cultural mainstream is steadily being widened to include new elements reflecting the nation’s ethnically diverse population. The attention gained outside France by artists from the banlieues, especially in the field of music, illustrates the transnational impact of these minorities. The road from post-colonial street culture to global highway is in many ways bumpy and uneven, but the traffic moving along it is gaining momentum.
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