TV political thriller Baron Noir mirrors real-life politics in France
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Five weeks ahead of crucial municipal elections in France, with strikes, demonstrations and heightened tensions putting President Emmanuel Macron and his party on the defence, the new season of a hit political thriller TV series has viewers and voters on the edge of their seats.
As populists gain ground in France, a young, self-assured president from the country’s top schools who was elected on a centrist platform, is feeling the heat.
Sound familiar? The resemblance to France and President Emmanuel Macron is clear, but this is the storyline at the start of the third season of the hit French political thriller “Baron Noir” (distributed in some countries as “Republican Gangsters”), released in France on Monday, February 10, on the pay-TV network Canal+.
The series, created by Eric Benzekri and Jean-Baptiste Delafon and directed by Ziad Doueiri, tells the story of a former deputy and mayor of the northern French city of Dunkirk, a political strategist for the French Socialist Party.
Its second season saw the election of a 39-year-old centrist, Amélie Dorendeu (played by Anna Mouglalis), whose background and experience mirrors Macron’s.
Several other characters are also immediately recognisable to French viewers, from a prime minister appointed by Dorendeu from the moderate right (just like Édouard Philippe), to the character of Michel Vidal – played by François Morel – the brilliant far-left orator with origins in the Socialist Party, who appeals to the working class and the young (just like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of the real far-left party La France Insoumise (France unbowed).
The main character, Philippe Rickwaert – played to great critical acclaim by Kad Merad – is a Socialist who in the first season was at war with his former mentor and ended up in prison for corruption, only to come back in the second season fighting for his political career.
‘Sopranos in The West Wing’
In the brand new third season, Rickwaert sees an opportunity in the disastrous state of the country and the mistakes of President Dorendeu (echoing the mass strikes and protests in real-life France and their handling by Macron) and decides to run for president himself.
The main character of the series is said to have been inspired by Julien Dray, a member of the French Socialist Party and a former member of the Assemblée Nationale. (And Merad, the actor chosen to depict the black baron, is French-Algerian, like Dray.)
Benzekri, the co-writer of the series, is a former Socialist Party member himself and had worked for Dray – and for Mélenchon – before turning to screenwriting. But he says the black baron’s character was inspired by several Socialist politicians, not only Dray.
“It’s a question I get almost every season,” Benzekri said in an interview for the website of the French daily 20 Minutes. “I worked with Dray for a very long time, so of course that inspired me…. But the character's a composite. There is a resemblance, in that Philippe Rickwaert is a certain type of socialist – one who doesn’t come from the elite schools. Julien Dray, of course, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, Manuel Valls, Harlem Désir... are political leaders who come from social movements, so they have a different relationship to politics than those we might know better, like François Hollande, Ségolène Royal, Emmanuel Macron, etc,” he said.
“But all the characters in Baron Noir are completely emancipated from their supposed inspirations. They’re even emancipated from me. That is, at some point they begin to live in their own right and it’s because I see them do something that I change my writing. Now, after three seasons, that is, after 24 episodes, 24 hours of film, these characters have become autonomous,” he said.
Benzekri says the American series The Sopranos and The West Wing also served as inspiration. He began writing “Baron Noir” as a film about a politician and his assistant, but soon came to the conclusion, along with Delafon, his co-writer, that it would work better as a series.
“We sent an e-mail to Canal telling them that what we wanted to do was the Sopranos in The West Wing. That is, mix the very sophisticated political universe of The West Wing with the family ambiance of a clan of the Sopranos – so with an ambiance that’s neither black nor white, but grey,” he told 20 Minutes.
Real-life politics in France
Nearly five weeks ahead of crucial nationwide municipal elections in France, Macron, like his female alter ego in the series, is feeling the heat. The elections, which begin on March 15, nearly three years after he became president, could be a bellwether for the 2022 presidential vote.
With the country gridlocked by ongoing strikes and demonstrations, Macron’s approval ratings are at about 40 percent and his party, La République En Marche, is losing support, with 14 of its deputies in the National Assembly recently jumping ship, bringing the party’s majority down to 300 seats out of 577.
The third season of Baron Noir depicts the strengthening of the populists, fueled by a grassroots movement headed by a science teacher, Christophe Mercier – played by Frédéric Saurel – who is followed by millions on social media as he preaches his antagonism to the political elites, much like the leaders of the real-life yellow vest movement.
“Something is happening in the world. Something we need to talk about. This season talks about the tension between representative democracy on one side, with all its problems that need to be solved, and what I call the democracy of the social networks on the other, that is, the public expression of billions of people all at once,” Benzekri told France Inter radio in an interview.
In the third season, will Rickwaert and the Socialist Party make a comeback, somehow squeezing themselves in between the fictional centrist young president and the fictional far-left charismatic populist?
No spoilers – but the outcome of the series might give French viewers and voters a glimpse of a possible scenario for 2022.
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