Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité? Tracing police violence in Kassovitz’s 'La Haine'

C/N: discussion of police brutality and racism

In 1995, France inhaled sharply when Kassovitz’s La Haine hit the box offices. Set in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris in the aftermath of an urban riot, the film’s denouement pictures Vinz, a young Jewish man, being shot accidentally by the police officer who was taunting him with a loaded gun to his head. It seems difficult not to draw parallels with the recent murder of George Floyd as well as the 2005 riots in the banlieues, when two Muslim teenage boys died from electrocution whilst trying to hide from police interrogators. As the BFI marks the film’s 25th anniversary with its return to cinemas in September 2020, police violence against minority groups continues, and Kassovitz’s narrative sadly remains pertinent today.

The banlieues are home to a large percentage of immigrant populations from France’s ex-colonies, and where unemployment, poverty and crime rates are especially high. But this is not a coincidence. During the Second French Empire (1852-1870), Baron Haussmann, under Napoleon III, expanded the dilapidated capital city. This urban renewal brought affluence and consumerism to central Paris, and effectively kept the working classes at arm’s length. As a result, the banlieues increasingly became an epicentre for those underrepresented and disenfranchised by the alienating wealth of the capital city. 

Set in these banlieues, La Haine portrays the immediate reaction to the hospitalisation, and later the death, of Abdel Ichacha at the hands of the police during street riots. His character is based on real events, after Makomé M’Bowolé was shot in the head by a policeman in 1993, intending to intimidate Makomé. The viewer observes approximately 20 consecutive hours in the lives of three of Abdel’s friends (Vinz, Hubert and Saïd), who are all from immigrant families. The three protagonists find themselves reeling from the news of Ichacha’s attack, whilst encountering police violence and hostility themselves on the streets of Paris. Later on, after Vinz is shot by a policeman, an ambiguous ending of gunshots suggests that Hubert, who is of Afro-French nationality, may also have been shot. Saïd, who is a North African Muslim, observes the events, dumstruck at the murder which appears to be so arbitary.

Kassovitz’s cinematic portrayal of police brutality, based on real events, sits uneasily within Paris’s romanticised stereotype of the ‘city of love’. Looking at France’s violent colonial history reveals a darker side to the way that travel guides might portray France through rose-tinted spectacles. The Mission Civilisatrice (Civilising Mission) was used to justify the French’s barbaric policy of assimilation, which involved degrading and undermining any language and culture but the French ones, subordinating the languages of the colonised. French citizenship was placed on a pedestal, which remains difficult to deconstruct within the post-colonial psyche, even to this day. This is clear from the way that post-colonial novels, written to recalibrate a sense of colonial identity, will almost always be written in French, the language of the coloniser, rather than in a creole language, formed by slave populations as a means of communication.

These tensions between the depictions of Paris and its reality are never more evident than in the scene when the sound of KRS-One’s track, ‘Sound of da Police’ is mixed with Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, heard throughout the HLM (housing estate) where Vinz, Hubert and Saïd live. KRS-One is a black rapper from New York, who formed the ‘Stop the Violence Movement’ of 1988, in response to violence in African American communities, and Edith Piaf was a Parisian cabaret performer who has become one of the most celebrated French performers of the 20th century. This track fuses the voices of immigrant populations with Paris’s quintessential image, and is a nod towards the idealised depiction of Paris that doesn’t allow for any deviation from the norm.

In light of these discrepancies, France’s widespread revolutionary slogan, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, seems horribly ironic. Engraved on almost every state-owned building in Paris, it conjures up sentiments of civility, inclusivity and freedom yet is difficult to reconcile with the lived experiences of France’s citizens, both during the revolutionary period and subsequently. La Haine shows us that Paris has become a locus of tension, where inhabitants of France’s ex-colonies feel a sense of belonging, but equally that of othering, as a result of their skin colour and/or their class.

Vinz, Hubert and Saïd are the first to be interviewed by the press in the aftermath of the riots, who target the three boys due to their minority backgrounds and their class. The boys’ reactions to the questioning reveal their indignance at being profiled so overtly. The journalists appear to believe that they are more likely to have been involved, since their idle behaviour in the streets during the day suggests that they may be unemployed, suggesting a problematic causation between class and crime. For the three boys, the suspicion they are faced with is enough to alienate them from the oppressive French metropolis; it is clear that they will never be accepted into Parisian high society. As Hubert aptly summarises, « La haine attire la haine! »  (hatred breeds hatred). They are imprisoned in a vicious cycle of racism and prejudice that quite literally threatens their lives. 

It’s notable that Kassovitz chose to use the three actors’ real names in the film to create a sense of reality; although his mise en scène is constructed, the problem it depicts is very much real. Kassovitz is not going to lure his viewers in by using A-list actors; he wants them to be lured in by a desire to fight the inequalities and injustices of the banlieues and beyond. A modern-day viewing of the film confirms that police violence and systemic racism are not issues unique to America.

The film warns us that Paris is rife with prejudice and police violence, and very little is done to stop it. Vinz, Hubert and Saïd simply try to stand up for their friend who dies an innocent death at the hands of a policeman, but their background means that they have already been excluded from the society which now threatens their lives. Although France has benefited economically from those whom it has colonised, it seems unwilling to grant them the same liberties and rights that they have used to their advantage.

Despite the fact that French legislation appears to be anti-racist, in 2018, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights released information suggesting that the number of hate crimes and xenophobia reached its peak, showing an increase of 10.6% in the last five years. Although the French President at the time, Alain Juppe, commissioned a compulsory screening of the film for his cabinet to watch and learn from, I cannot help but think that Kassovitz must be very disappointed that the lessons he tries to teach in La Haine have not been heeded, 25 years later.