Lost youth

Young French people are deeply frustrated by lack of opportunity and a lack of respect from their pa

"Unemployment and instability make us feel vulnerable," says Marion, a 23-year-old Master's student of communications taking part in a youth debate on the main issues of the French presidential campaign. "Our generation has to cope with a health insurance deficit, and pay for our parents' pensions, while spending half of our small salaries on rent. We'd be happy to reach our parents' standard of living. No matter how qualified we are, we fear for the future."

Like many young people in France, Marion has good reason to be worried. The biggest challenge facing her is that it now takes longer to find a proper job. In 1982, only 10 per cent of young people in France failed to find a steady job within three years of leaving education. In 2004, the figure stood at more than a quarter, and finding permanent work can take up to several years of internships and temporary contracts. Tired of working for little or no money, one group of disaffected interns has even formed a campaign group, Génération-Précaire (www.generation-precaire.org), to oppose what it sees as a latter-day form of slavery.

Those people lucky enough to find work will discover that the pay gap between generations has also widened. In 1975, workers aged 50 earned 15 per cent more, on average, than workers aged 30. Today this gap stands at 40 per cent, according to the sociologist Louis Chauvel.

And it's not just the jobs market that is proving difficult for young French people, who are less well represented politically than they used to be. In 1982, the average age of a politician or a trade-union delegate was 45. In 2000, according to the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies, it was 59.

Studying hard doesn't offer the guarantees it once did. After the government's efforts to increase the number of people in further education in the 1980s, the proportion of students in a single age group passing the baccalauréat rose from 30 per cent to 62 per cent between 1988 and 1994. Over the same period, the proportion of university graduates in a single age group rose from 10 per cent to more than 20 per cent. However, writes Chauvel, "because there are more graduates than jobs available, a significant portion of university leavers are unable to follow the same careers as the generation that went before them".

Gaëtan and Camille, aged 19 and 18 respectively, are studying arts management in Paris and they already know that life will be harder for them than it was for their parents, "when you could find a job even without training". The situation is worse still if you're black or Arab.

"When you say you're from here and you have an Arab name, there's no chance of being employed," says Fatima, 25, who works at a children's play centre in Villeparisis, to the east of Paris. Even finding a place to live is a hassle, says her friend Sabrina, 22. "Take me, for example. I don't look particularly Arab. I was about to sign a lease for a flat when the landlady saw that my husband had a Maghrebi name. She asked what nationality he was. French, we said. She replied: 'But you're of Algerian origin.' And she refused to let the apartment to us!" Renting, even if you are white and have a job, is so difficult that young people have formed a protest group, Black Thursday (www.jeudi-noir.org), which holds demonstrations in the form of parties, with champagne and music, during appointments to view properties.

Young people's anger and frustration ends up boiling over. In the suburbs, with their high concentrations of immigrants and poverty and their excessive police checks, this anger took the form of riots in the autumn of 2005. In the cities, at the beginning of 2006, schoolchildren and students joined forces with workers to demonstrate against the planned law for a CPE ("contrat première embauche"), which would allow employers to dismiss workers as they pleased during the first two years of a job.

These two phenomena differ, of course. The suburban riots were sparked by the acci dental deaths of two youths running from the police in Clichy-sous-Bois. The unrest was then ex acerbated by the one-upmanship of teenagers from rival areas, only too happy to profit from the surrounding chaos. The anti-CPE movement, on the other hand, was the continuation of a tradition of student and teacher activism that has opposed every national education reform for the past 20 years. That the CPE didn't directly target education is unimportant: young people simply felt that their professional future was threatened.

Riots and demonstrations "are two kinds of reaction by young people to the risks of social exclusion and a drop in social status", says Anne Muxel, director of research at Cevipof, the Centre for Political Research at Sciences-Po in Paris. Young people feel a lack of control over their own destinies. They have little faith in the actions of politicians, and if many of them continue to consider voting a duty, they don't expect it to deliver any improvement in their daily lives.

The result is that political activism often takes to the streets - against the CPE, for example - to return home only once the storm has passed, in anticipation of the next demonstration. People are turning away from conventional forms of power (politics, business and the media) in fa vour of direct action. In the eyes of many young people, the fact that in February parliament voted for a law obliging public bodies to give better help to the poorly housed, is thanks mainly to the actions of Les Enfants de Don Quichotte, a collective that donated about a hundred tents to the Paris homeless last winter.

In an opinion poll that asked young French people which values they would most like to see upheld, respect came first, followed by solidarity and then equality. According to Stéphane Wahnich, anthropologist and director of SCP Communication, which carried out the study, young French people want three things: genuine equality of opportunity at the political level and not just a theoretical framework of rights; respect for individuals, regardless of their race or social background; and solidarity for the poorest in the form of material support. The old-fashioned word fraternity no longer means much to most people. The term liberty placed right near the bottom of the survey list.

Far from the stereotype that a 35-hour week has bred laziness among French workers, young people place a great deal of importance on jobs: half of all young French people say they want to become civil servants, mainly for the job security. According to the sociologists Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, work remains an essential way to branch out and forge networks.

Forty years after the libertarian explosion of May 1968, French youths have a respect for authority. Not in the reactionary sense, but in order to retain the lessons learned from the past few decades' experiments in human relationships - between parents and children, couples, and so on. Tolerance is still the guiding factor, but it now has its limits.

This partly explains the wave of young French people moving to the UK. "Emigrating allows you to regain control over your fate, to choose your life freely," says Wahnich. Many French people are also attracted by the legendary British tolerance: you can dress how you want - in a miniskirt, with pink hair - without attracting remarks, and police make fewer identity checks than their French counterparts.

Is this simply due to indifference to one another? Young French people prefer to see it as the respect to which they aspire.

Frédéric Niel is a journalist with La Croix.

This article was translated by Daniel Trilling

Kamini
Rural rapper

The internet buzz was enormous: over a few weeks at the end of 2006, millions of people watched a hilarious video clip of a black rapper from the middle of nowhere - aka a tiny village in Picardy called Marly-Gomont, where the only daily events are the passing of the postman, a tractor and a cow. Arriving as a baby with his father, a doctor from the Congo, Kamini, now 26, trained as a nurse in Lille while writing songs on the side. Far from the usual rap clichés of suburban violence, he recounts the boredom of a youth spent in the countryside. He shot the video with friends in three days for just €100. Overnight, Kamini became a star, his film was voted video clip of the year and he signed a deal with a major record label. He was even able to afford a webcam for his home. http://www.kamini.fr

Aurélie Filippetti
Political novelist

While remaining proud of her working-class origins, Aurélie Filippetti studied to become a French teacher. Her Italian-born father worked as a coal miner in Lorraine, where he was elected communist mayor of his village, badly hit by deindustrialisation. In her first novel, Les derniers jours de la classe ouvrière ("The Last Days of the Working Class", Éditions Stock), Filippetti, 33, tells of the dignity and suffering of workers when only work matters: "beauty can wait, and health, too". She campaigned for seven years for the Greens, but after they refused to put her on the ballot for the 2007 Lorraine regional elections, she joined Ségolène Royal's campaign team.

Marion Poussier
Activist photographer

Guards at the electoral headquarters of Sarkozy, Royal and Bayrou saw nothing when, in the dead of night, Marion Poussier and her friends glued posters, demanding the right for foreigners living in France to vote, on to the buildings' façades. The operation had particular meaning for Poussier: the 26-year-old photographer used her portraits of immigrants for this nocturnal exhibition. She draws her energy from encounters with young people and has photographed them like no one else. "Even when it seems like nothing's happening with young people, other than boredom, there's a huge sense of expectation with regard to other people and to life itself," she says.

Frederic Niel is a French journalist based in Paris, who has worked for Reuters, Phosphore magazine and other news organisations.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile