Opening the Mic

A new generation of comedians examines what it means to be French

In March, Fary’s show Hexagone drew fifteen thousand people at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris, and he is the first French comedian to host a Netflix special. BERTRAND RINDOFF PETROFF/ GETTY IMAGES
01 September, 2019

As I walked past the barbershops and dimly lit bars on the right bank of the Seine, young men, mostly Malian and Ivorian, called out, offering manicures and haircuts. The east-central boroughs of the tenth and eighteenth arrondissements of Paris are a haven for African touts, Turkish cafes, Pakistani shops, migrant tenements, hipster joints and a few shady ones too. But when I reached the Comédia, a concert hall built in 1858, the crowd queuing on the pavement was posh, fashionable and as mixed race as it can get in Paris. The audience of over six hundred people was here to watch Fary Lopes, a 28-year-old comedian who is one of the biggest stars of the French stand-up scene.

“We have a problem here in France,” Fary said during his act. “We don’t say we love our country enough.” The comedian, whose parents came from Cape Verde, questioned our relationship with the French nation and its complicated history of immigration. He talked about identity politics, feminism and self-respect—“Does being integrated mean you have to forget who you are?” He made sure that each punch line drew laughs, applause and cheering. As he ended the ninety-minute show with a rousing “Long live the Republic! Long live France!” to the beats of the Congolese-French rapper Youssoupha, I could not help wondering whether I had been attending a political rally.

“There is a long tradition of bouffonerie and humour as a counter power in France, but till the 1960s or 1970s, it was popularised through concert theatres and singing items,” Nelly Quemener, a sociologist at Sorbonne University who specialises in the politics of humour, told me. “The scene changed thanks to important figures such as Coluche. His style defied all theatre conventions. Artists like him directly addressed the public, without props or gimmicks.”

Coluche was the stage name of Michel Gérard Joseph Colucci, a comedian and actor whose political irreverence and working-class aesthetic made him a household name during the 1970s. In October 1980, he announced that he would run for president the following year, against the incumbent, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and the Socialist Party’s candidate, François Mitterrand. Although he did not expect to win, he was appealing, he said, “for the votes of the lazy, the dirty, the drug-addicted, and the alcoholic, of queers, women, parasites, the young, the old, artists and jail-birds … blacks, pedestrians, Arabs, the French, the hirsute, the mad and the transvestite, everyone whom the politicians don’t give a stuff for.” The humour magazine Charlie Hebdo organised his campaign, and published his manifesto. In December, an opinion poll gave him 16 percent of the vote.

Coluche withdrew his candidacy and endorsed Mitter and shortly before the first round of voting, but his support among those disaffected by French politics would remain. Forty years on, Coluche’s portrait adorns the signs of the “yellow vest” protestors. In neighbouring Italy, the Five Star Movement, which was co-founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo and harbours similar disenchantment with the political class, is part of the ruling coalition.

Coluche, Quemener told me, marked a profound shift in French humour. “Suddenly, political satires and social critics were much more present. It paved the way for a new generation of artists.” In the 1990s, France discovered a vocal, yet stuttering young adult, who was short, brown, hiding his paralysed right arm and always dressed in street wear. The Moroccan-French comedian Jamel Debbouze, who described life in Trappes, the troubled southern suburb of Paris, as “always a sketch,” rapidly became the radical new face of French comedy. “He was brilliant!” Alexis le Rossignol, a 28-year-old stand-up artist, told me. “He had his own style and language. He didn’t need to incarnate someone else to be funny. People could identify with him, as he brought issues such as being of immigrant parents, suffering from inequalities or from the regular clash with police.”

Le Rossignol aspires to be the voice of the forgotten rural regions of France through his comedy. “My dad works with vets and poor farmers in an ugly region,” he told me. “That’s a France no one wants to hear about.” It is a France at the forefront of a social crisis, struggling to survive amidst welfare cuts and labour reforms, filled with people whom the author Édouard Louis describes as a “category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.”

A similar feeling animates 22-year-old Rémi Lufuta Kuamba. “French politics is useless, but with stand-up comedy I can create awareness about climate change, corruption or pollution, especially where I come from,” the former undergraduate in political science from Gorges-lès-Gonesse, a northern suburb of Paris, told me. We were meeting at the Café Paname, which the playwright and director Kader Aoun called a “factory for stand-uppers.” Aoun worked closely with Debbouze during the 1990s. “Politics has always been present in French humour, but stand-up brought forward a whole population left out by the system, the poor, uneducated sons and daughters of immigrants,” he told me. Aoun still lives in the suburbs of Paris, and his work focusses on “peripheric France,” as “it can bring as much art as anywhere else.”

For years, the performers and audiences at Paris’s comedic theatres were overwhelmingly white. Thanks to people such as Debbouze and Aoun, Quemener said, “a whole new public found an avenue to express itself.” Today, the emerging voices of French comedy have established a contrast with the Debbouze years. Kuamba, who hosts a web-radio talk show, told me he wanted to avoid the “usual clichés about being a black guy from a backward suburb.” He said that he was “trying to draw kids to politics in a way they are not used to. I usually say that life in the projects is very much like life in the French parliament.”

Shirley Souagnon, a 32-year-old comedian and producer of Ivorian descent, who is openly lesbian and uses her own multiple identities to discuss gender, sexuality, discrimination and inequality on stage, said that “French identity is multiple, but also more open to the world today. As I grew up, people like me were very rarely represented in the French elite or media. Little has changed today. So stand-up offers such a platform.”

“Getting on stage is always a political act,” Bun Hay Mean, a comedian who had recently returned from an international tour of various Asian and francophone countries, told me. Born to Cambodian and Chinese parents in France, Bun performs under the name Chinois Marrant—“funny Chinese”—and often denounces the discrimination faced by the Asian community in France, as well as other immigrants. “Laughing allows you to enter one’s mind. We still live in a society dominated by white, heterosexual, capitalist men. I want to show there is more to that.” His producer, Fanny Jourdan, makes it a point to represent artists who defend ideas of togetherness. “They can say anything they want, as long as it is done cleverly,” she said. “But the public knows best.”

Last December, Donel Jacks’man, one of the artists Jourdan represents, was called a “filthy black” by a member of the audience while discussing right-wing politics during a performance in Nice. Jacks’man used the incident to condemn all forms of racism. During another performance, at a packed venue in Paris’s Quartier Pigalle, he pointed out what the French people should work on: empathy, tolerance and love for each other. “We have the values of the French Republic on our side,” he said. His latest show, which launches in September, is appropriately named Together.

“We can be, and have been, the voice of many people,” Olivier Balestriero, who performs under the stage name Vérino, told me. Aoun, however, was sceptical of the politics of the new generation of French comedians. “Most of them are caught up by the neoliberal system,” he said. “They lack decent education, musical or even political culture, and often they have no sense of history.”

In May this year, Fary, who was one of Aoun’s protégés, introduced the award for best comedic play at the Molières ceremony, the prestigious theatre awards. “Salut les blancs!”—Hello, white people!—he began, drawing groans from the audience. They were soon laughing along, as he joked about the lack of diversity that still persists on the French stage, calling for the addition of an “urban” category at the Molières. Many people lauded his speech as radical truth-telling; many others called him a racist. The controversy only underscored the popularity he has achieved—in March, his show Hexagone drew fifteen thousand people at the Accor Hotels Arena in Paris, and he is the first French comedian to host a Netflix special. By picking at the crucial question of what it means to be French in the twenty-first century, a new generation of comedians is finding its audience, and its political voice.