A New French Film Hints at Unity

Amid the political cacophony, Alice Diop offers an alternative vision in ‘Nous’

A New French Film Hints at Unity
President Emmanuel Macron rallies supporters during a campaign visit to Chatenois, eastern France, just after the preliminary round of his reelection effort. Leader of a centrist party, Macron faces right-wing candidate Marie Le Pen in the final round on April 24 / Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images

On April 10, France voted in the first round of presidential elections. Much as expected and feared, the current president, Emmanuel Macron of the center-right party, La République En Marche (LREM), and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (RN) won the two top spots, with Macron leading by less than five points. They will be facing off in the final elections on April 24. Macron and Le Pen had already competed in the presidential elections in 2017, but this time it is expected that it will be a far tighter race than the one Macron won in a landslide victory five years ago.

Most French, no matter their political beliefs, agree that the campaign was disjointed and uninspiring, with many voters left perplexed by the new political landscape that lacks a traditional left-right choice. There were four newcomers on the scene, and Macron confirmed a mere 38 days before the first round that he would be running. In total, 12 candidates, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right, campaigned with the combined extreme-right parties winning approximately 32% in the first round of elections. The seasoned far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 70, came third in the first round and is most popular among the 24-34-year-old age group, while Macron, the youngest president since Napoleon at age 44, appeals most to those 70 years and older. The left and right have all but disintegrated in a country that once had strong communist and socialist parties as well as a traditional right. Moreover, most topics barring purchasing power have been pushed aside since the war in Ukraine, and several candidates lost ground during the campaign over past comments praising Russia’s Putin.

Candidate hopefuls began mudslinging last fall, with the far-right spewing invective about France having descended into utter chaos, invaded by immigrants. Some French cities and their suburbs can be compared to Afghanistan, the far right-wing candidate Éric Zemmour, a journalist new to politics, proclaimed on France Inter radio in February. Zemmour came fourth in the first round of elections and immediately called for voters to support Le Pen on April 24.

Zemmour’s anti-immigrant stance is the subject of much cultural commentary, including from comedians.

“Walla, I didn’t want to talk about you [referring to Zemmour], but I had to, you talk about us every day. … You talk about Islam more often than an imam,” joked Djamil Bounani, a French humorist known as Djamil le Shlag, also on France Inter.

Although Zemmour’s parents are Algerian Jews who immigrated to France in 1952, his political stock-in-trade has been to push the racist conspiracy theory of far-right author Renaud Camus — “le grand remplacement” (the great replacement) — according to which the French population is at risk of being “replaced” by people of North African and sub-Saharan African origins. Islam is not compatible with the French Republic, Zemmour has repeatedly said. Over the past decade the candidate has been prosecuted 15 times for inciting hatred, racial abuse, and denial of a crime against humanity, and convicted three times (most recently in January 2022) for inciting hatred.

As France addresses its colonial past on the 60th anniversary of the Algerian war for independence, it is also on the cusp of becoming populist and right wing, according to several studies carried out by think tanks such as the “Fondation pour l’innovation politique” (Fondapol). Before the first round of elections, an article in Le Monde newspaper profiled a growing number of young people who, far from being disengaged — their interests lie in climate change, fighting racism, LGBTQ+, feminism, or sexual violence — had chosen not to vote in the presidential election because they didn’t feel a connection to any candidate. Now, left-wing voters feel even more disillusioned as their choice lies with voting for the center-right or the extreme right. The risk of abstention in the final vote is high.

Against this disturbing and jarring backdrop, Alice Diop’s beautiful and profoundly sociopolitical documentary, “Nous” (We), is a clear and evenhanded portrayal of France and an alternative to the current political scene. Serendipitously released in French cinemas in February, it soothes amid the cacophony and calls for a deeper reflection on universalism, offering a calm space in which voters can consider the diversity that makes up their country. Diop’s film won best documentary in the 2021 Berlin International Festival’s Encounters section, but its release was delayed because of the pandemic.

Diop, whose parents were from Senegal, grew up in Paris’ northern suburbs and lived as a young child in the massive 1970s housing project in Aulnay-sous-Bois called the Cité des 3000, built near the now-defunct Citroën car factory where many immigrants worked. Her previous documentary work has been on these much-maligned suburbs, but in “Nous,” not only was she inspired by a book that had been at the back of her mind for over a decade, but she also integrated her own family history into the film as a way of carving a space for an immigrant family’s story alongside the history of France. Diop, who studied history and sociology, says that cinema can introduce a sociological aspect to a work in a way that a book can’t.

François Maspero’s 1990 book “Les passagers du Roissy-Express” (Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs) is a travelogue about the Paris area’s RER B express subway line, which runs from the city’s main airport in Roissy through the underprivileged northern suburbs to Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse in the bucolic, privileged southern suburbs. Maspero and photographer Anaïk Frantz set out in the summer of 1989 crisscrossing on foot the 30-mile route, documenting the everyday life of inhabitants, whether they were Portuguese or North Africans fixing their cars on a sunny day along the Saint-Denis Canal, or a Franco-Vietnamese mail carrier named Benoît who talks about how 24% of people vote for the National Front — now Marine Le Pen’s party — in his community because of the increasing number of immigrants who he says lack respect for French society. Maspero and Frantz stay in small hotels in the evening, they have lunch with an Algerian family, and they get told off by a group of Malians for trying to take their photograph without asking their permission. Frantz photographs Black children playing, and Maspero writes, “they are beautiful, these children of France’s plateau.” In the southern train station of Sceaux, which is “pleasantly old-fashioned,” there are “rich people’s villas” and “rich people’s dogs.”

What Diop found so inspiring in Maspero’s book was that he documented people and places — including the Cité des 3000 — usually overlooked in cultural production, something she has sought to show in her films. At a recent screening of “Nous” in Paris, Diop said she wanted to bring the voices of invisible people on the periphery who don’t think they have a right to a narrative, toward the mainstream center.

When you live in Paris’ northern suburbs, it’s nearly impossible not to become intimately acquainted with the RER B line, which ferries people to the center of Paris for work. Diop, like everyone else, spent time traveling on it. It’s a “symbolic space” that she has a personal relationship with, she said. In “Nous,” she films people and communities along the train line, which she weaves together to ask the question who the “We” in France is.

The RER B crosses through the urban and peri-urban Île de France region, where 18.3% of France’s total population of 67.8 million live. The socioeconomic sampling is vast and a good representation of what France is today. Although the region is the wealthiest in the country, it also includes the northern Seine-Saint-Denis department, the second poorest in the country. According to the French national statistics bureau, in Aulnay-sous-Bois, Aubervilliers and Drancy, all in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, from 30% to 46% of the population are immigrants, the definition being a person born abroad and residing in France. Their place of birth is overwhelmingly the African continent. In contrast, in the southern suburbs of Gif-sur-Yvette or Saint-Rémy-Lès-Chevreuse, from 9% to 12% of the population are immigrants. Most of these immigrants were born in Europe, with a smaller percentage born in Asia.

During the first round of recent elections, half the people in the Seine-Saint-Denis department voted for Mélenchon. In the Essonne department, where Gif-sur-Yvette is located, Mélenchon came in first, ahead of Macron, and in the Yvelines department, where Saint-Rémy-Lès-Chevreuse is located, Mélenchon came in second, following Macron. The combined far-right parties in Seine-Saint-Denis won 18% of the vote, while in Essonne they reached 26.5%, and in the Yvelines the figure was 24%. The fault line is consistent.

Diop’s film begins in a forest, with hunters patiently waiting to spot a deer. A stag appears out of range but visible with binoculars, and the two parties appear to contemplate one another. The stag begins to roar. We don’t yet understand where we are. The scene cuts to an urban landscape of train lines, and we’re off, starting in the northern suburbs, where we’re introduced to Ismaël, an undocumented immigrant from Mali who has lived in France for 20 years working as a mechanic and lives in a van under a highway. We follow him getting up on a cold morning, drinking his coffee before going to work under the hood of a car, calling his mother and telling her in a gravelly voice that he’s all right and she should keep praying for him. Another vignette shows the Sevran Beaudottes train station packed at 5 a.m., the silent faces of an invisible workforce going toward Paris to clean office buildings. Diop’s mother was a cleaner who left for work before she woke up.

We spend time with Diop’s sister N’deye, a home visit nurse to lower-middle-class homes in Drancy, also a northern suburb, where during World War II an unfinished portion of the 1930s housing project, Cité de la Muette, was used as a transit camp for the deportation of Jews, run first by the French police, then by the Nazis. Diop records an exhibit of heartbreaking letters in the local museum from detainees, most of whom never returned. In the small, detached houses that Diop’s sister visits, Diop is able to film intimate portraits of her sister’s patients, including an older woman from Brittany who recalls meeting her husband, an Italian immigrant who never paid for her drinks when they first met because he had to send any money he earned back to his family in Italy.

The burial site of French kings in the gothic Saint-Denis cathedral is also located in Paris’ northern suburbs. Just as locals don’t know enough about it to visit the “Mémorial de la Shoah,” the Holocaust museum in Drancy, Diop admitted that as a child, even though she grew up in the vicinity of Saint-Denis, she had never been to the cathedral. For “Nous,” she did, and it provides one of the film’s most striking sequences. Once again, the viewer is not entirely sure what they are witnessing at first. Diop films an annual mass held each January in the cathedral by royalists to honor the memory of Louis XVI, who was guillotined in 1793 during the French Revolution. Extracts from his last will written the day before his execution are read solemnly. Diop’s camera pans the blindingly white crowd, the faces serious and some in tears.

In an interview with the film magazine “Débordements,” Diop recounts after filming the mass sequence how one young churchgoer handed her a royalist, far-right magazine before going off to eat a plate of couscous — a North African offering — in a nearby cafe. (For years the French have chosen couscous as one of their favorite dishes.)

Directly following the royalist mass, Diop introduces her father’s story of immigration. The dignified white-haired man tells his daughter in recordings she had made before his death about his arrival in Paris. He shows her his boat ticket from Senegal to France and tells her proudly that since his arrival, he was never once unemployed. When she asks him dubiously if he considers that his immigration was a success, he answers without hesitation yes, citing his house, and his children’s upbringing. Diop purposely edited her father’s portrait to follow the mass for Louis XVI because she considers it important that her father’s history be thought of as essential as that of a king. “I’m questioning who has legitimacy concerning this memory,” she told Rokhaya Diallo, a writer and anti-racism activist, at a recent public forum.

“You can watch people celebrating a mass for Louis XVI, and you don’t have to understand it, but you can observe it. … And for others it will be scandalous how I place my parents or the story of Italian immigrants next to it,” Diop said.

As Diop says in a voiceover in the film, “ ‘We’ doesn’t mean ‘my people,’ everyone who’s like me. But it means everyone with a potential stake in that ‘we.’ To claim it, appropriate it, feel its strength.”

Carving out a place in French history for the experience of immigrants and their families is a claim that has been put forth in artistic production for many years by French children of immigrants who constantly feel they must prove they are French and that the country’s universalist model excludes certain ethnic backgrounds. With Zemmour bewilderingly bemoaning the losses of Joan of Arc, Louis XVI, Notre Dame and village churches, authors like Kaoutar Harchi (“Comme nous existons” — The Way We Are) and Faïza Guène ( “La discrétion” — Discretion) show the history that brought their mothers and fathers to France and that these stories deserve a space in the nation’s history. Frédéric Laffont’s 2021 documentary “La vie devant nous” (The Life Ahead of Us), co-written by Ariane Chemin and Marianne Tighanimine, explores the recruitment of 80,000 Moroccans to become miners in France and who today are the parents and grandparents of 600,000 French citizens. One of these miners was Tighanimine’s father, who is given the opportunity to tell his story, part of an overlooked chapter of France’s history.

Diop’s parents didn’t tell their children about their past, but “it is part of this history, we are here, and I want to leave traces of this history,” she said. “It’s the paradox of a society that pushes you towards assimilation and at the same time refuses you within the universalist space.”

As Diop pushes south in her documentary, she interviews the writer-philosopher Pierre Bergounioux in the pastoral upper-middle-class suburb of Gif-sur-Yvette, where she has him read an excerpt from his “Carnet de notes” (Notebook). Bergounioux describes his work as a way to “clarify the painful question of origins and uprooting, not only geographical, but existential.”

Diop said that although Bergounioux’s life had nothing in common with the life of a Black woman who grew up in the northern suburbs, his idea that all lives carry a universality touched her. So often the northern suburbs are shown as places of violence, delinquency and misery, Diop says, and her mission was to show the humanity in the banality of everyday life, an art at which Bergounioux is a master.

In the national park of the Vallée de la Chevreuse, we connect the dots with the opening scene of Diop’s film. She accompanies a hunting party with hounds, another facet of the French population that Parisians don’t often encounter, even if one-third of France’s population lives in rural areas and hunting is the country’s third favorite hobby. Amid a swirl of frock coats, hunting horns, and barking dogs, Diop takes us just outside Paris near the RER B line to witness the traditional hunt where she told “Débordements” that she was warmly welcomed and that despite the exoticness of the setting, both she and one of the hunters could share their fascination for the stag they were observing.

In all of Diop’s portraits, we are given very few solid facts — locations and names are barely mentioned; rather, the lives that make up contemporary French society are given equal time. Although the society is fractured, Diop says that “this film is addressed to people who want to think collectively. I’m trying to create a space of resistance where people can think differently together.”

As Macron and Le Pen crisscross France in a last campaign dash before the final vote on April 24, a good half of the population is faced with a choice it is unhappy about. The question Diop poses in her film, just who is the “we” in France, comes to the fore. Mélenchon, the left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI) candidate who came in third place closely behind Le Pen, repeated four times in his concession speech following the first round of elections, “We must not give a single vote to Le Pen.” But in not calling specifically for the French to vote for Macron, as many other candidates did, Mélenchon expressed the ambiguity many feel about voting for the current president. Still, the vastly different communities that live side by side in Diop’s film will choose the path France takes for the next five years.

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