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.