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France’s Oscar Nominee 'Les Miserables' Offers Fresh Look at Country’s Changing Suburbs


Producer Christophe Barral, from left, director Ladj Ly and producer Toufik Ayadi pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Les Miserables' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, May 16, 2019.

Toxic relations between police and teenagers in this working-class suburb are the focus of "Les Miserables", a grim French Movie vying for best foreign language film at Sunday's Academy awards in Los Angeles.

The director, 40-year-old Ladj Ly, was born and raised and still lives here. The nomination marks the first time a black director will represent France at the Oscars.

French Movie Les Miserables Unleashes Debate in France
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Also among its residents is Senegalese-born Mousba Harb, who has a part in the movie, and who, during her nearly quarter-century here, has endured crime-infested housing projects and lurking drug dealers.

She saw simmering tensions between youngsters and police explode into riots in 2005, after two teens were electrocuted hiding from officers in an electricity substation the neighboring town of Clichy-sous-Bois.

Mousba Harb plays the mother of a policeman in Ladj Ly's Les Miserables. (L. Bryant/VOA)
Mousba Harb plays the mother of a policeman in Ladj Ly's Les Miserables. (L. Bryant/VOA)

"During the riots, the police were everywhere,” Harb recalled of the violence that spread to other parts of France, “The young people were angry because their brothers had died. And it was hard for us mothers to see these young deaths.”

Ly’s wrenching, 21st-century take on the classic by Victor Hugo, who wrote parts of it in this town, is also sparking debate for other reasons; notably, what has changed in France’s gritty suburbs, or banlieues, since the riots and what has not.

"The images in the movie could have been captured in Montfermeil 15 years ago,” said the town’s mayor, Xavier Lemoine, “but 15 years later, Montfermeil isn’t the same.

Montfermeil Mayor Xavier Lemoine says the town has fundamentally changed since teh 2005 riots. (L. Bryant/VOA)
Montfermeil Mayor Xavier Lemoine says the town has fundamentally changed since teh 2005 riots. (L. Bryant/VOA)

"Everything has been demolished, everything has been rebuilt. This area has recovered its serenity,” he said.

"Les Miserables" is set more recently—in 2018, after France won the World Cup against Croatia. It captures the jubilation of banlieue youngsters, who descend to Paris for the match, rooting for their multi-ethnic team.

However, the youths soon return to depressing normality, or what some experts call the "desert" of the banlieues, where the state, except for patrolling police, has abandoned them. In real-life Montfermeil, Ly once covertly filmed police brutality , sparking an internal police investigation. “

The story of "Les Miserables" was also part of my history,” Lemoine, who has been Montfermeil’s mayor since 2002, said.“

Police were basically left to deal with all the public services or intermediaries that were defective or unable to do anything.”

Actors Damien Bonnard, from left, Djebril Zonga and Alexis Manenti pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Les Miserables' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, May 16, 2019.
Actors Damien Bonnard, from left, Djebril Zonga and Alexis Manenti pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Les Miserables' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, May 16, 2019.

Post-riot makeover

Thanks to a massive injection of post-riot funds, small, cheerfully painted apartment buildings have all but eclipsed peeling grim high-rises. A new tram line links Montfermeil to Paris and a muddy construction site promises to become a future station of a vast, regional transit network.

Today, Harb lives in a cheerful apartment overlooking a quiet square. Family members drop by. A North African neighbor pauses to chat. There is no graffiti in sight, and the elevators work.

Harb pointed to another nondescript apartment building overlooking tram tracks, which, she said, is Ly’s home. “

I know him well, he’s from the neighborhood,” she said, describing meeting the director one day and asking for a role in a future movie. “He said, ‘there’s no problem auntie.’ A week later, he calls me up and said his manager would be calling.”

Harb found herself reliving past violence in Les Miserables, tapped by Ly to play the mother of a police officer.

Lamine Kelbite criticizes the new construction for erasing past solidarity among residents. (L. Bryant/VOA)
Lamine Kelbite criticizes the new construction for erasing past solidarity among residents. (L. Bryant/VOA)

At Montfermeil’s bustling, twice-weekly market, plying Middle Eastern scents, North African rugs and French lettuce, shopper Lamine Kelbite said he enjoyed Les Miserables but is more critical of the real-life aftermath.

"It talks about the reality we lived through,” said Kelbite, who has lived in Montfermeil since 1967. “We have security now, but we don’t have enough solidarity. Our old building was like a village. But they’ve demolished the buildings and dispersed the residents.”

Along with new infrastructure, relations between Montfermeil’s police and residents have improved substantially, locals and observers say.

Social worker Kamel Adjal says interaction between Montfermeil's police and youngsters has improved. (L. Bryant/VOA)
Social worker Kamel Adjal says interaction between Montfermeil's police and youngsters has improved. (L. Bryant/VOA)

"The police know the youngsters well, and young people know the police,” said Kamel Adjal, Montfermeil head of specialized prevention and child services at Arrimages, a local social services association.

"There’s a real communication between the two. There are always slips, but not like before,” he said.

Lemoine said local authorities restored a more thoughtful form of neighborhood policing, which included training officers on cultural sensitivities. Sri Lankan residents, for example, might look away when speaking to an officer, he said, as a sign of respect, not disdain.

"If there had been a fraction of the police violence in the banlieues that we saw during the yellow vest protests, it would have been carnage,” Lemoine added, referring to alleged police excesses during recent social demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere.

"The state knows that with the banlieues, it must be irreproachable in form to stay strong,” he said.

Discrimination and poverty

Lemoine acknowledges, though, that not all banlieues have changed.

A poll by the survey organization Odoxa in October painted a less-positive picture. It found most French surveyed still view banlieues as places of discrimination, poverty and insecurity. Many also believe the same explosive factors that were present in 2005 exist today.

French President Emmanuel Macron was "shaken by the accuracy" of Les Miserables, according to a news report, while a former minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, who was tapped to draft a comprehensive banlieue overhaul strategy the government ultimately shelved, tweeted “bravo” to the movie.

Contrary to Montfermeil's experience, some experts say the film’s portrayal of police behavior reflects the reality of many banlieues today.

Local officers still “patrol in the neighborhoods without uniforms, without a precise mission, chasing infractions without strategy,” sociologist Sebastien Roche told the daily, Le Parisien, adding, “are they really doing police work?”

At a local workshop for high school dropouts aimed at opening jobs and training opportunities, youngsters interviewed agreed that Montfermeil had changed, but other challenges remain.

"If we don’t have a diploma, we can’t get training,” said Malika Mehadji, 18, who hoped instead to pass a competition for nursing training the government may now be scrapping.

Moreover, Montfermeil’s unemployment rate remains high and experts say that working-class youngsters of ethnic descent still face discrimination based their names or where they live.

"I’ve been rejected for jobs because I’m from here,” said Marjane Ben-Radhia, aspiring for a communications career, adding that potential employers fear she will have trouble arriving to work because of poor transportation, although, she added, "the new tramway might change things.”

Sophie Ibazizen, a youth counselor conducting the workshop, confirmed the problem, saying the young people she works with are often unfairly stigmatized "as the bad guys."

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