French Oscars nod stirs local pride in hard-pressed housing project

Tiphaine LE LIBOUX
Ladj Ly, the 40-year-old director of 'Les Miserables,' is a son of the suburbs where he says some young people live in a 'state of rage'

A quarter of a century ago, as France was gripped by mass strikes over pension reforms, a gritty black-and-white film set in the high-rise housing projects north of Paris burst onto global cinema screens.

Mathieu Kassovitz's thriller "La Haine," about the tensions between police and youths in a predominantly immigrant housing estate, was the first box-office hit to be made in the notorious French "banlieues" and remained the gold standard of the genre for a generation.

Fast-forward 25 years, with Paris again paralysed by strikes over pension reforms, and a new film set in its tinderbox suburbs is again the toast of the town after being nominated for an Oscar.

Unlike Kassovitz, however, the 40-year-old director of "Les Miserables," Ladj Ly, is a son of the suburbs.

At a street market this week in his suburb of Clichy-Montfermeil, residents expressed their pride over the success of his film, with its warts-and-all portrayal of the powerful forces pulling local youths in different directions.

"It's proper payback -- for him and all the inhabitants of the 93," a 44-year-old shopper who gave her name as Rahma told AFP, referring to the northeast of Paris by its postcode.

Cyril, a 29-year-old social worker, said he was "very moved" by the film, which takes its name from Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel, part of which is set in Montfermeil.

"I recognised the suburb I know," he said.

- Youth rage -

"Les Miserables" begins with scenes of rejoicing in an apparently united Paris as France lifts the 2018 World Cup.

But the deep rifts in French society are quickly laid bare, with youngsters growing up in the ghettos that ring the French capital left to fend for themselves in a world teeming with unscrupulous police officers, drug dealers and Islamists.

Ly, who covertly filmed an act of police brutality in 2008 that led to officers being suspended, said he drew on his own experiences in making the film, which depicts the fury unleashed by a wrongful police shooting.

"There's not just violence here, but it's true that some young people in the banlieue live in a state of rage," Cyril said.

Many in France remember Clichy-Montfermeil as the place where riots broke out in 2005 after two youths, one black, the other of Arab origin, were electrocuted and killed in an electrical substation where they hid while fleeing the police.

Ly, whose parents are Malian, made his first documentary during the three weeks of unrest that ripped through the suburbs.

Fifteen years and countless government action plans later, a gleaming tram line now links Clichy-Montfermeil to other suburbs, and some of the more neglected housing blocks have been torn down.

The next few years will bring a metro station, as part of the Grand Paris scheme that aims to push back the capital's frontiers to include more outlying areas.

For Clement, a 35-year-old resident who has a walk-on part in "Les Miserables," the urban renewal is welcome.

"But it's not enough," he said, adding that what France's poorest "departement," or administrative region, needed most was jobs.

- Rallying cry -

Despite making for at-times uncomfortable viewing, "Les Miserables" has been a hit with French critics and audiences alike, with half a million people flocking to see it during its first week.

While one longtime Clichy-Montfermeil resident told AFP she found the film, which won one of the top prizes at the Cannes film festival, "too negative," most said they felt inspired by the film's success.

"Now, the Americans know where to find us!" Clement joked.

Speaking after his Academy Award nomination, Ly said his experience showed "that you can start out with nothing, at the bottom of the ladder, like me, and wind up at the Oscars."