Netflix Satire Puts French Universalism to the Test

The new show 'En Place' ('Represent') pokes fun at French politics while celebrating the country's diversity

Netflix Satire Puts French Universalism to the Test
A production still from the Netflix show “Represent.” (Gaël Turpo/Netflix)

Rarely does a show have the courage to address the great themes of the day — class, race, gender, religion, sex, identity, climate change, populism, paranoia, political correctness and the tyranny of social media — much less do so with humor and self-effacing charm. Released on Jan. 20, Netflix’s new French original “En Place” (“Represent”) not only tackles each with biting originality but does so with a wicked playfulness, too.

Like the great English-language comedies of the past 20 years — “30 Rock,” “Vice,” “In the Thick of It” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — “Represent” brings a fresh and irreverent take on contemporary French society to a global audience. Here, though, there is one great caveat: It is told from the humorous and unapologetic perspective of the ’hood.

A six-part miniseries, the show tells the story of Stéphane Blé (Jean-Pascal Zadi), an affable Black 30-something youth worker from one of the notoriously disenfranchised Parisian banlieues who unexpectedly finds himself running for president. If that sounds crazy, remember that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was once a comedian, Israel’s former Prime Minister Golda Meir was a Milwaukee schoolteacher and the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was a pig farmer. Stranger things have happened in politics.

Like many in the age of social media, Blé is catapulted to national fame by a fluke. When the former mayor of his district, Eric Andrei, the leading contender in France’s upcoming presidential elections, comes to campaign in the old neighborhood, Blé gives him a piece of his mind in front of the cameras. With the rapid-fire skill of a (failed) rapper, his takedown of Andrei goes viral. By dinnertime, one news channel has asked pollsters whether Blé himself should run for president. The result? Four per cent of French voters now support him. Fate, it seems, has spoken.

Eager to bring awareness to the social realities of France’s marginalized communities, Blé considers throwing his hat in the ring. “What’s your conception of secularism?” the press asks him the morning after his ad hoc TV appearance. “Are you running against Andrei?” “I’ll tell you what I’m against,” he responds. “I’m against candidates coming here to kiss our ass every five years, then ignoring us the rest of the time.” The solution to France’s problems, he argues, must come from below. From French revolution-era political theorist Jean-Paul Marat to film director Agnès Varda, it’s a hallowed train of thought in French political life, only this time as told from the often-disregarded range of voices from the urban periphery.

Admittedly, we’ve seen the French banlieues before. From classics such as “La Haine” (1995) to “Stress” (2008), “Dheepan” (2015) and the controversial Netflix original “Athena” (2022), the terror and heartbreak of the suburban Parisian ghetto is a timeworn tale. Yet most of these have been told by various enfants dorés of French cinema: Matthieu Kassovitz, Jacques Audiard and Romain Gavras, men born into France’s cinematographic aristocracy. If they treated their themes with empathy, skill and intelligence, they were still privileged outsiders depicting what viewers perhaps most wanted to see: the banlieues as a socially insoluble snafu.

That’s what makes “Represent” so refreshing. Rather than the usual recipe of violence, despair and social breakdown, here we get a more mundane, complex and much funnier view of how the other half lives. Surprise, surprise: They’re as hardworking, funny, loving, loyal, warm, welcoming, patriotic, divisive, racist, paranoid, petty-minded and prejudiced as anyone else. In the first episodes alone, intra-cultural digs are made about Ivorians, Beninois, Togolese, Malians, Algerians, Senegalese, Arabs, Turks and Antilleans. France is not just France, “Represent” likes to remind us: France is global. In that regard, “Represent” is very much a patriotic show. But people are still people. Can they jumble together a functioning democracy from the crooked timber of humanity?

The show’s co-writers Jean-Pascal Zadi and François Uzan spend the next six episodes probing the many humorous angles of that question. If episodes vary in quality, it’s a recipe that makes for wonderfully inappropriate encounters. When first pressuring Blé to run, for example, his future campaign manager, a conniving middle-class Creole man named William, tries to bait him with facile race politics.

“Aren’t you sick of all these whites in politics?” he exclaims. “There’s no one that represents guys like you and me!” The joke is that William is ambiguously light-skinned. “You’re Black?” Blé responds, incredulously. “I took you for a Turk, my dude.” William is scandalized. “You’ve just Arabized — worse, Islamicized — the grandnephew of Aimé Césaire! The inventor himself of négritude!” But he quickly recovers his composure: “Seriously, though, apart from the teeth, you’re perfect. You been in prison?” No. “Married?” Yes. “Children?” No. “Well, you’d better start making a bunch of them.”

“You gay?” he asks, continuing his political due diligence. “You crazy? What do I look like?” Blé retorts from the back stairwell of the housing project, as if William had threatened his honor. “See! That’s the kind of revolting (homophobic) idea you’re gonna have to get rid of. Otherwise, you’ve got what it takes,” William responds, a sort of joke-within-a-joke that Blé shouldn’t be gay, but he shouldn’t be homophobic either. “Think about it. You and me: the first two brothers in the Elysée Palace! Barack and Michelle!” But not before Blé backtracks. “Just a second,” he asks. “Which one of us is Barack and which Michelle?”

Like Armando Iannucci, the writers of “Represent” spare no one. From far-right rabble-rousers to center-left opportunists and self-righteous eco-feminists, the entire French political spectrum comes under the gun — and none more so than Blé’s own fractious band of supporters. His only white staffer, for example, is an amicable old pervert. His chief strategist, on the other hand, is a veiled Muslim graduate of France’s elite École Nationale d’Administration. “They let people like you graduate from there?” Blé blunderingly asks when she first volunteers. His chief of security, an old pal and local ruffian, dislikes Arabs, Muslims and Masons in equal measure. “You have to watch for all those elements against a Blé presidency,” he warns, before introducing the usual trifecta for conspiracies. “Freemasons. The State. And obviously Israel.” Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of “Represent” is to make light of our personal and collective stupidity and ignorance, rather than simply rebuke it.

If greater parts parody than social drama, “Represent” does take itself seriously enough to ask the important questions. Namely: Who gets to be a real, live, first-class French citizen, and what rights and responsibilities does the privilege confer?

Born in France to Ivorian parents who were naturalized under the socialist presidency of François Mitterrand, Blé’s creator Jean-Paul Zadi is well-placed to ask these questions. Tall, funny, sharp, kind, acerbic and honest, Zadi’s Blé is a beloved beacon of his community. Bald and lanky with an enormous overbite, he’s no Sidney Poitier either. But his looks are crucial to the show’s off-kilter charm. “Sorry,” says a police sergeant who comes under pressure from a political rival to interfere with Blé’s campaign, “but there’s no law against ugliness.”

Like “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Represent” reminds us that social commentary can and should be funny. Before he’s decided to run for president, Blé is taken into custody for protesting the arrest of one of his charges. “It’s perfect!” says William, who turns up brimming with ideas for how to spin it. “Now you’re a political prisoner! It’s all very Mandela. Sure, he did 27 years, while you’ve only done 90 minutes — but it’s a start. I’ll drum up the community to start protesting for your release. Then, you announce your candidacy.”

Before long, dozens of locals have gathered outside the police department. “Liberate Stéphane Blé!” they chant in unison. William, drunk on power, threatens the chief of police — “No justice, no peace!” — in one of many nods to the Americanization of French culture, particularly in the ‘hood. “Gas them!” comes the cop’s casual reply. In the ensuing chaos, a cute Arab girl waves a French flag in slow motion as she escapes a barrage of tear gas, a chintzy “Marianne moment” that plays on the famous Eugène Delacroix painting, “Lady Liberty Guiding the People,” a staple of French revolutionary symbolism.

Should Blé really run though? His wife doesn’t think so. “Are you crazy? This is not the United States! Here [in France] they like black people who are funny, who bring home the World Cup, or who sing gospel!”

“Well I’m not funny, I don’t dance and I don’t do gospel,” he responds. “And I don’t care about winning either. The point is to shine a light on real people. People like us. But I can’t do it without you. Mandela without Winnie isn’t Mandela,” he says. Her biting reply says it all. “You know they got divorced?”

Like most identities worth having, that of the French is forever in the making — “a daily referendum,” as Ernest Renan famously put it. “What I want to prove is this,” says Blé as he launches his campaign: “That you can be Black, come from the banlieues, not wear a suit and still love France. Because France belongs to us! To everyone!” At the end of the day, “Represent” is a delightfully unconventional defense of the French universal project — an affirmation, despite many hurdles, of France’s tremendous postcolonial promise. “Men are neither slaves to race, language, nor religion, neither to the course of rivers nor the chain of mountains,” wrote Renan in 1882. “A great mass of men, healthy of spirit and sound of heart, forge a moral conscience that calls itself a nation.”

Beyond the vagaries of electoral politics, “Represent” is also a hilarious history lesson in la Francophonie. When trying to inspire Blé from prison, William quotes Franz Fanon on the struggle for Algerian independence, albeit in Creole. A bewildered Blé responds: “They speak Creole in Algeria?”

During a later kerfuffle with his wife, who wants him to drop out because Andrei has offered to pay off her beauty parlor loan, Blé accuses her of selling out. “He waves a few dollars in your face and you forget about négritude and Franz Fanon?” he says disingenuously. “You resume all the problems of Africa,” he continues. “You’re nothing but a Bokassa!” (the former dictator of the Central African Republic from 1966 to 1979). “And you, Mobutu!” she replies, “with that ugly mug of yours!” The only insult he can muster in response is: “Giscard d’Estaing!” calling her the aristocratic French president from 1974 to 1981.

The focal turning point comes when he sets out to campaign in Corrèze, a forgotten province deep in rural France. Showing up in the conservative, overwhelmingly white countryside with a retinue of black and brown staffers, one of whom is veiled, is tricky. “Can’t you take that thing off?” Blé asks his top advisor, motioning to her hijab. “I’ll take it off when you stop being Black!” she replies. “I’m sorry,” he says in one of the most Charlie Hebdo-reminiscent lines of the show. “But no one forced me to be Black.”

Yet the locals in Corrèze are receptive to his message and the local mayor confides in him. “The post office closed last year, the last bakery shut down two months ago,” he says, a nod to the internal migration that has emptied departments (administrative areas) like Corrèze. “We’ve been completely abandoned.” Blé seems to sense that Corrèze lies within France’s notorious “Empty diagonal,” a 900-mile stretch of land from northeastern to southwestern France in which 21 of the country’s 96 departments have seen their population decline substantially over the past 10 years. Indeed, this plays perfectly with Blé’s chief campaign slogan, “Eat Well, Pay Nothing,” a scheme that will subsidize farmers to produce healthy organic foods for people in the cities; a win-win for country and city folk alike.

“With full stomachs, you’ll have better educational outcomes, higher employment, more efficient workers, richer farmers, less crime and far less mental health problems,” Blé says. “The scheme will pay for itself.” For a country obsessed with two things — the fate of the countryside and the seeming in-assimilability of the suburbs — it’s not a bad approach.

Yet not everyone’s buying it. “All the cash has been sent to the suburbs!” a local in Corrèze taunts them. “There’s nothing left for us French.” “People in the banlieues are just as French as you!” replies one of Blé’s young black staffers. “With you people, it’s no longer ‘Made in France,’ but ‘Mohammad in France,’” retorts the man, a statement that makes Blé’s chief of security chuckle. A moment later, the local church bells ring and William encourages him to flaunt his Christian credentials and make an appearance.

At the entrance, Blé encounters a stereotypical white French couple who have just returned from visiting New York. “We were up in Harlem and just had to go see a gospel,” the well-dressed middle-class 40-somethings tell him. “We know you’re from a very religious family so we wondered if you wouldn’t perform a little gospel for us, too.” He politely declines, but William insists that he try to appeal to his constituents. “Giscard played the accordion; why can’t you sing?” Blé, embarrassed, eventually concedes. “Oh happy day,” he hums faintly and out of tune. “Oh happy day-uh!” his voice rises. “Wen een yee oh … Wen ee-een yee oh-oh …”

“Those aren’t the lyrics,” says someone in the audience. “It must be the Wolof version,” responds another, wrongly assuming he’s of Senegalese rather than Ivorian heritage. Nevertheless, Blé continues to blag his way through the song. Before long, the whole white crowd is singing along to his made-up version of the famous gospel tune. Naturally, this goes viral, too, cementing his ability to connect with rural France. Half his staff are singing along, the other half disgusted at the collective idiocy they have just witnessed. Watching from Paris, his rival is furious. “At this rate, he won’t be the president — he’ll be the pope!”

“Represent” has been released at an important time in French political history. For a sensitive, confident and intelligent people with a rich sense of humor, the country has recently grown prone to brooding. Of the five major candidates that ran for the presidency in 2022, at least three were doom-and-gloomers. Though Emmanuel Macron, a much-unloved milquetoast-in-the-middle, handily won, France’s “Overton window” was nearly shattered by two far-right candidates, one of whom called for mass deportations and the banning of the first name “Muhammad,” along with a firebrand leftist calling for a new constitution. Despite low unemployment and sensible pandemic-era policies, the French are in the doldrums — a cultural depression that wasn’t helped by the Great Mustard Shortage of 2022, brought on by the war in Ukraine — or an alarming drought that saw many of its major rivers run dry.

“What’s missing in the world today?” William asks Blé early on in the show. “Hope. And how is hope born? From a spark. And you could be that spark.

“Or not. What do I know?”

Beyond this comic effect, one of the great joys of “Represent” is watching Blé stay loyal to his banlieue roots. For a country that prides itself on its poetic political rhetoric, it is both comical and refreshing to see a presidential candidate give press conferences in verlan (a special French form of slang), rocking Sambas shoes, Carhartt clothing and his signature black bucket cap as if he were an American hip-hop star from the early ’90s.

“I rarely drink,” he tells reporters, during one particularly moving scene. “But the last time I did I got a little tore up and saw some things,” he continues, using the verlan-slang term foncedé (“drunk”) to make a play on Martin Luther King’s greatest speech. “In my foncedé, I saw my mother sleeping peacefully at night, without having to listen to Niska,” (a popular French rapper). “In my foncedé, I saw young women be able to walk down the street in leggings or in a veil, without anyone giving a damn. In my foncedé, I saw adolescents walking with their heads held high without worrying about ID checks or failing another job interview because of how they look. In my foncedé, my country was united, reconciled, and could look itself in the mirror and say to all of its children, you belong here.”

In the end — spoiler alert! — a series of scandals scuttle the mainstream candidates and Blé goes on to the runoff election against far-left eco-feminist Corinne Douanier, a septalingual lesbian who washes her own laundry in the river and shames anyone with more than two children. Despite several good puns, she soundly defeats him in the debates and appears to be heading toward a landslide. But surprise, surprise, “the French people have lied to the pollsters,” a disgusted journalist announces. “They preferred to vote for an incompetent man over a woman.” If that sounds hauntingly familiar to American voters, tip your hat to the writers of “Represent.” Democracy is a foul business, they suggest, but it doesn’t have to result in victory for the Donald; our baser instincts don’t always win.

“The French people have chosen me as their president,” Blé soberly says in his victory speech. “Alright, just those who were registered to vote. Or really, just those who were registered and voted. Saying ‘the French people’ is a bit of a stretch. But still, it’s a lot of people.”

“I’ll be everyone’s president,” he continues. “No one will be left behind. Neither in the cities, the countryside, nor the overseas territories. I’ll be president of the whites, the blacks and the Chinese.” A collective gasp erupts in the crowd. “Sorry, I mean the Asians.” “Don’t blow this just yet, Stéphane!” someone yells. “I’ll be president of the bobos; of the thugs; of women; of women who wear the veil; of dwarves; of redheads; of everyone. I’ll be a free president. A president who never gives up.

“Long live France! Long live the Republic! With a few caveats, of course.”

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