There are many things you can admire about the French: their literary output and their cinema.
They also encourage art through government subsidies and are willing to confront racism with a giggle.
A film entitled What Have We Done to Deserve This? is filling cinemas with audiences who are lapping up a comedy about ethnic tensions – one week after voters flocked to far-right parties during European elections in which the anti-immigrant Far Right made significant gains.
The film, which is uproariously funny, highlights France’s difficulties in wrestling with its multicultural identity with a comical style that has attracted almost six million people since its opening three weeks ago.
The comedy revolves around a well-heeled bourgeois couple whose four daughters pick husbands from ethnic minorities. It had cinema-goers in hysterics but some are not amused by the flippant treatment of the subject, which the French in general regard as taboo.
Le Monde, read by the intellectually-leaning elite, described the film as ‘one hour and fifty-eight minutes of racial clichés’, accusing it of making light of deep-rooted prejudices. Others criticised it for dispensing with the dark side of racism for the sake of a few easy laughs.
However, for some, it is a worthy exercise to remind people – if only for the length of the film – of the euphoria in 1998 when victory in the World Cup by a multi-ethnic football team gripped the nation and united France as never before.
The film’s popularity might have had a positive effect, as reports of veiled Muslim women laughing as loudly as conservative ladies in Hermès scarves.
Some pundits are predicting the film could break all records as being the most successful in recent French box office history.
The film’s protagonists are Claude and Marie Verneuil, pillars of bourgeois respectability who aspire to marry their daughters to well-off Catholics such as them. But the first picks a Muslim lawyer of North African origin, the second a Jewish entrepreneur, and the third an Asian banker.
The Verneuils are cock-a-hoop when their youngest announces she’s engaged to a Catholic, but to their utter dismay in walks a West African. However, things turn out well in the end. The fathers bond over a fishing trip and a long wine-fuelled lunch must have replaced any misgivings.
The moral of the story is expressed by one of the sons-in-law: ‘In the end, we’re all a bit racist.’
One critic dismissed the film as an example of celluloid patriotism and Marseilles therapy in which recent French films, a bit like Love Thy Neighbour and other British television sitcoms of the 1970s, present a fantasy world designed to make people feel better about their racially-divided society.
‘Everyone has prejudices about everyone else,’ says Philippe de Chauveron, the director. ‘We have no choice but to live together and understand each other.’
In the real world, though, racial tensions in France have never seemed more fraught. Unemployment and anxieties about immigrants and insecurity have been the major factor in the rise of the far right National Front. The mood in France under the socialist government is causing great concern, not only to the rich but to those whose livelihoods depends on the prosperity of the nation – which seems to be hitting the rocks at the present time.
What Have We Done to Deserve This? is at least a temporary respite to the gloomy atmosphere that has beset France since the election of President Francois Hollande, whose tenure has so far been appalling to say the least.
He needs to reinvent himself and seek the wisdom of The Almighty if he is to survive the vicissitudes of time. And at present, this looks rather improbable.