In France: Aired on Canal+ in February/March
In the UK: Available on Amazon Prime
There can be few channels around the world as reliable as Canal+ when it comes to producing quality TV. Chances are, provided it sticks to French, any Canal+ series you watch is going to be HBO-good.
A case in point is Baron Noir, a remarkably prescient and impressive political series that is everything that Les Hommes de L’ombre (Spin) and Marseille should have been but weren’t. Airing in France in February and March this year, but available in the UK on Amazon, the show somehow managed to anticipate both this year’s Brexit and the Corbyn/Smith Labour leadership competition and relocate them to France, taking in all of left-wing French politics along the way.
And when I say ‘all’, I mean all.
The show is about the mayor of Dunkirk, Kad Merad (Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis), an old-school socialist who’s spent years fighting (sometimes literally, with a baseball bat) for the poor, oppressed working classes. He’s best friends with fellow socialist and presidential candidate Niels Arestrup (Un prophète, De battre mon cœur s’est arrêté, Quai d’Orsay), to the extent that he’s willing to steal money from social housing projects to help fund his campaign. However, soon there are ructions between the two friends and before you know it, Merad and Arestrup – both sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by new-wave technocrat Anna Mouglalis (Romanzo Criminale, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) – are pulling strings and levers behind the scenes of French politics to block each other and further their own, the party’s and the country’s interests, all while trying to avoid ending up in prison through Mutually Assured Destruction.
While the opening episode of the show gives the impression that this is going to be a show about corruption – and certainly that is an element – most of the first season is about political dirty-tricks and manipulations at every level of politics: everything from how to disrupt a local council election through how to manipulate the media and use party rules to counter your enemy’s plans through manipulating the Assemblée nationale all the way up to the EU and how to play it off against your own national interests by threatening to leave it to ‘ensure your country’s sovereignty’. Advised behind the scenes by real-life French politicians, it’s a real eye-opener, not least because it actually manages to film inside the Palais Bourbon itself, but also because of the differences between French and British politics – it’s a long time since anyone had to take Troskyites and communists seriously here. Well, it used to be, anyway.
If Baron Noir has a message, it’s that there are no friends in politics yet if you do screw over your friends in the short-term, chances are that things will go badly for you in the long-term – you just have to know how to balance all the options and bring people back on side. Merad spends most of the season in a whirl of plots and counter-plots, playing one person against another, usually with their knowledge, often by giving inspiring speeches about the left and the need to look after the oppressed/fight the National Front – think Jeremy Corbyn if he had charisma and leadership skills.
Beautifully shot and acted with some cracking music, the show nevertheless isn’t without flaws. Merad is implausibly attractive to women of all ages and there’s one relationship involving him where not only the audience but the couple themselves are surprised it’s taking place at all. It also meanders a little, dropping interesting plotlines and characters, and focusing too much in later episodes on that housing project, which so dominates the first episode. For English speakers, there’s also the subtitling, which starts off fine but starts to lose it a little mid-season, such as by switching the French-Algerian’s Mercad’s reason for entering politics from helping ‘les Arabs’ to helping ‘minorities’ and frequently taming down some of the more interesting, fruitier language (it’s a real tragedy that the marvellous ‘putain ville de merde’ ends up as ‘this town sucks’, for example).
But if you want a House of Cards that’s not only European but better than Netflix’s, Baron Noir‘s your boy. Give it a whirl – there’s a second season on the way in France next year. Here’s a French-language trailer for you to get an idea of what it’s like.