French lessons

The new French film The Class offers some profound insights into the crisis of legitimacy of the Fifth Republic.

Is it possible for a work of art to be damned by high praise? That certainly seems to be the peculiar fate that has befallen Laurent Cantet’s The Class, a social-realist drama based in a multicultural classroom in an inner-city school in Paris. Cantet’s film provides an intelligent, at times even profound, insight into the crisis of legitimacy of the Fifth Republic, yet it has been hailed by most British critics merely for capturing the ‘apathy, aggression, insolence and general lack of respect’ of modern ‘multicultural youth’ (1).

The film, which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes, is based on Entre les murs (Between the Walls), the 2006 novel by François Bégaudeau about his time as a teacher in a midde school in Paris. Unusually, and intriguingly, Bégaudeau plays the lead role in The Class, a teacher called Monsieur Marin, which means he is playing a celluloid version of a fictionalised version of himself. Marin teaches French language to a class of ill-disciplined 14- and 15-year-olds. The offspring of Malian, Moroccan, Caribbean, Chinese and immigrants of various other nationalities, they embrace their cultural identities – cheering African football teams or showing off their Islamic tattoos – against what they mock as the ‘bourgeois’ values held by Marin.

The kids are a nightmare: lippy, slouchy, easily distracted. Every day they have to be reminded to remove their baseball caps or take down their hoods. Most of the teachers at the school see themselves as managers of difficult children rather than as pedagogues. On the first day of term, they introduce themselves in a circle meeting in the staffroom, the older, more grizzled teachers wishing the newcomers ‘courage’ in their struggle ahead. One teacher runs through a list of pupils with a new member of staff and says for each one: ‘gentil’ or ‘pas gentil’ (‘nice’ or ‘not nice’). There are far more pas gentils.

Eventually, affable Marin reaches boiling point. When two girls from his French class tell troubled boy Souleymane what Marin said about him at a staff meeting, to which the girls had been invited as student representatives in confidence, Marin accuses them of behaving like ‘pétasses’ (‘skanks’). The students are outraged. In a desperate attempt to placate them, Marin is forced to enter their territory, the chaotic playground (the first time the action leaves the confines of the school), and argue that for him ‘pétasses’ does not mean skank or prostitute but something more innocent. It’s an extraordinary moment: the French language teacher reduced to arguing about young people’s slang language in the bearpit of an inner-city playground. There’s no structure, no blackboard, no books, just students crowding around Marin and shouting at him about ‘skanks’ and ‘prostitutes’ and whether he’d also call a student a ‘fucker’. Marin looks defeated, and there is little he can do: his use of the p-word has already set in motion a chain of events that threatens to unravel his class.

As a snapshot of life in a rough French classroom, The Class is brilliant. But it is not some simple indictment of what happens when you turn ‘learning spaces’ into ‘a melting pot of multicultural society’, as a disillusioned former teacher argued in the Daily Telegraph (2). More intelligently than that, more profoundly, The Class explores the teachers’ own inability to uphold French values, Republican values, or even basic educational standards. It is the subtle signals sent by the teachers that the French Republic is something embarrassing which makes the children uncertain of – even ashamed by – their Frenchness.

Marin hides anything to do with the Enlightenment. When a history teacher tells him that he is teaching the same class of boys and girls about the ancien régime, and asks Marin if he has any advice on what books to cover, Marin says: ‘The Enlightenment will be tough for them.’ What about Candide? Again, no. Voltaire’s classic, a satire that rips to shreds the Catholic Church and the un-Enlightened governments of pre-revolutionary Europe, was once widely taught to French teens, yet Marin vetoes it. He is shown teaching his students Anne Frank’s diary, the book that has become a moral prop for teachers who come out in a rash at any mention of the classics.

Marin frequently caves in to his students’ wilful challenges to French values. When he tries to teach them the imperfect subjunctive, and creates long, seemingly strange sentences to illustrate the rule, the students bombard him with complaints: ‘Nobody talks like that!’. Marin confesses that, yes, only ‘snobs’ think the imperfect subjunctive is important, but still the students must learn it. Of course they’re not convinced. They slam his ‘bourgeois’ beliefs, strikingly making the bourgeoisie – around whose values the First French Republic was built – into a dirty word. They ask why he always uses Western names like ‘Bill’ in his sample sentences, rather than ethnic names like Aissata or Fatou. ‘But you are French’, he reminds them. Almost in unison, and loudly, they tell him they are not.

If the students feel estranged from Frenchness, it isn’t hard to see why: the texts of modern France, even the complexities of its language, are hidden from them, or occasionally provided in a shamefaced fashion. It is the glaring lack of overarching values that makes disciplining the children all but impossible, too. The teachers consider instituting a ‘points system’ to punish wayward pupils, until one of them points out that it would be like the ‘driver’s licence system’ – that is, officious, distant, aloof.

Director Cantet is sensitive to the difficulties of integrating newly arrived immigrant children or the French-born children of immigrants who do not speak French. (The scene in which Souleymane, sitting before a disciplinary committee, has to translate his Malian mother’s insistence that he is a ‘good boy’ and a ‘good son’ – even though everyone, including Souleymane, knows it isn’t true – is heartbreaking.) Yet he is equally interested in the teachers’ abandonment of excellence. One of the ‘skanks’, Esmerelda, tells Marin that she doesn’t read the books he recommends because they are ‘shite’. He thinks she is being typically dumb until she tells him that, instead, she read her law student sister’s copy of Plato’s Republic. Her summary of Republic is crude – ‘this guy, Socrates, asks everyone why they believe what they believe, and they get confused’ – but her autodidactic discovery of the original Republican text is a shocking indictment of Marin.

The Class is not, as British critics would have us believe, an exposé of what happens when you mix combustible foreign cultures in one space; it’s an insight into the inability of the French classroom, and by extension France, to incorporate combustible cultures into its body Republic. It is this which feels familiar in Britain, where there is also a top-down crisis in the education system, a profound uncertainty about which ‘version of history’ and which values to impress on the next generation. Towards the end of term, the children tell Marin what they learned during the year: little bits of chemistry, gym, geography, French. He kids himself into thinking this represents educational progress. But one girl, a black girl who hasn’t spoken throughout the film, lingers behind. ‘I learned nothing’, she says. You must have, replies Marin, telling her she’s just forgotten it. His face sinks upon her reply: ‘I don’t know why we do what we do.’ If there’s a more devastating moment in cinema this year, I’ll eat my copy of Plato’s Republic.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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(1) The Class tells the truth about inner-city schools, Telegraph, 1 March 2009

(2) The Class tells the truth about inner-city schools, Telegraph, 1 March 2009

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