Les Noms des Gens (2010)

This post was submitted by Anna Lekas Miller who is a writer for Alternet

Director: Michel Leclerc

English Title: The Names of Love

So, France has a new president.

In a close election, François Hollande, of the French Socialist Party, defeated the infamous Nicolas Sarkozy. There were many symbolic moments—instead of celebrating in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, as Sarkozy’s supporters had the year before, Hollande’s supporters gathered to rejoice at the other end of the city at Place de La Bastille—the historic site of the French revolution and the numerous social movements, general strikes, protests, marches and celebrations that have characterized the French Left ever since.

François Hollande is part of a growing electoral theme in Europe—tired by austerity measures, and the successive, costly bailouts, the results at the polls are swinging towards the (politically palatable) left.

But will the election of a socialist president translate to a socialist re-configuration of society, where wealth is radically redistributed, bailouts that save the asses of the elite while sacrificing the well-being of the people are off the table, and everyone—immigrants, nationals, bourgeoisie and working classes—lives in harmonious, indistinguishable equity?

Probably not.

Instead of sorting through twitter, and trying to find the balance between the cynics who see a reflection of Barack Obama’s unfulfilled promises in François Hollande and my French friends surrounding me celebrating the end of Sarkozy, I decided to do what any sensible, politically-engaged woman trying to make sense of the left would do on the night of a significant election. I opened a bottle of red wine, lit some candles and watched my favorite French movie in the world, Les Noms des Gens for what has to finally be the ten millionth time.

Les Noms des Gens—translated as “People’s Names”—is a love story based in French identity politics. It opens with Arthur Martin, an ordinary and at first mundane man who makes his living doing autopsies on dead geese. He is predictable, and as his name might imply, comes off as very classically and comfortably French.

Quickly, the camera cuts to Baya Benmahmoud—his polar opposite. She is young, vivaciously sexual and rabidly outspoken, and as she says, “No one in France shares my name.” She is half-Algerian, and half French—and like many French children of Algerian immigrants, struggles with reconciling her white skin and French appearance with her disgust towards racism, colonialism, and the treatment of immigrants.

She has an unabated adoration of the left—which she displays through only sleeping with right-wingers with the sole purpose of converting them to the left.

“When I say I fuck them, I really do,” she says, while explaining her practices to Arthur. “Someone from the Front National takes about ten days. But a centrist, he can be converted in an afternoon.”

Gradually, the two polar opposites begin to fall in love—but not without hilarious moments of political differences punctuating their relationship. In one scene, Baya’s ebulliently leftist mother tries to convince Arthur to marry one of her friends for her citizenship. In another, Arthur tells Baya all the topics of conversation that she must avoid when she meets his parents. Exasperated, she blurts out,

“So what are we supposed to talk about? The weather?”

“Yes! That is perfect!” he replies.

Baya finds out that Arthur is actually Jewish—and his mother’s family experienced the genuine suffering of the Holocaust. She falls even more deeply in love with him.

“This is great,” she says as they are sitting at a bar, “I am Arab, and you are Jewish! Together we are two forgotten pieces of France’s history. We wont have true world peace until we are all mixed.”

In a flurry of personal emotions, Arthur suddenly decides to cut things off with Baya. The relationship has become too serious, and he fears that Baya is making too many waves in his once quiet, predicatable life. However, life without Baya—and her unabated adoration of all that makes the left and how she manifests this in her daily actions—is a dull life. There is no one to hold the subway doors open while an elderly couple struggles to make the train, no one to save the crabs at the market place from being eaten, and no one to blame everyone who doesn’t ardently adhere to the left for being a fascist.

Also, there is far less sex.

In the end, the two lovers reunite—this time when they are at the polling place together, Baya is very pregnant. At one point, she looks down and realizes that she accidently voted for Sarkozy. Her blood curdling screams cut to her in the hospital in labor, giving birth and looking at the TV in horror as Nicolas Sarkozy is elected to La Marseillaise.

“His name?” the nurse asks

“Chung. Martin. Benmahmoud” they say

“His background?”

“His background, we don’t care,” the two reply, smiling at one another.

Baya would have celebrated in the streets when François Hollande was elected—but will he really be the leader that the left wants to see transform France? Perhaps the deregulation and austerity measures started under Sarkozy will be halted and curbed, but the racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and remnants of a colonial past that still plague France, and the many different types of people who make up France won’t be washed away overnight. These aspects of French culture—or any culture—are ingrained in the history, in the family tree that traces its French origins back to the 1500s and in the awkward dinner conversations where a daughter brings her Algerian boyfriend home to meet her father who had also been in Algeria for “different reasons.”

It’s in the streets and the schools, the micro-aggressions and conversations that dictate whether one population feels tolerated or welcomed far more than political parties or policies. It’s in the unlikely friendships and relationships—and, as more and more opposites make love and create a new generation of multiple identities, differences become less distinct and more celebrated and, as Baya says, as our identities mix and mingle we get a little bit closer to world peace.

So, I’m not so sure that an elected leader—especially one who despite his socialist label seems ready to pander to neoliberalism, and doesn’t seem to have anything particularly radical to say about anything—will change France, or any country for that matter. But maybe the people—through meeting one another, sharing stories, being frank about their identity politics, opening each others minds through personal relationships, and making lots and lots and lots of love just might.

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