Maria Vendetti, St Olaf College
With the first volume of Les Sauvages in early 2012, French novelist Sabri Louatah began an ambitious project, a “croisement de la série américaine et le roman russe” (“a meeting of American TV shows and the Russian novel”), that would center around the attempted assassination of Idder Chaouch, the first French presidential candidate of Algerian origin, and the vast Nerrouche family of Saint-Étienne. The characters’ storylines weave around questions of immigration, identity, and integration, and they overlap in a suspected terror plot that—rest assured—goes all the way to the top. The four volumes of the series, the first two of which have been translated into English by Gavin Bowd with the subtitles The Wedding and The Spectre, are immersive and gripping, toggling between painstaking narrative detail and a sweeping view of twenty-first-century politics in what the author paints as a decidedly divided France.
This review focuses on the two volumes that have been translated into English thus far, as well as the series that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and began screening the same month on Canal+. It’s impossible to ignore that over the course of the publication of the original quartet, between 2012 and 2016, the production of the miniseries, and the translation of the books into English, terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November of 2015 changed the political landscape of France, causing some of the earlier works’ references to real events to take on new meanings. For instance, in the second volume, the police and secret service repeatedly talk of the riots of 2005 in the Parisian banlieues as the specter that haunts their interactions with angry youths of Maghrebian origin; a repeat of that kind of furious dissent against the French Republic, they say, would be the worst possible outcome. Readers familiar with the terrorist attacks that have taken place in France since 2012 may see this as an ironic foreshadowing or as a commentary on the short-sightedness of police responses to perceived domestic threats.
As in Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel Soumission (Flammarion, 2015), real political players and parties are combined with fictional characters and events. The cynicism and despair of Houellebecq’s work, however, are in stark contrast to what comes across as Louatah’s optimism and hope, as well as his belief in fiction’s “mission” to move beyond a passive engagement with reality. In an interview on public radio station France Bleu, in which he discusses the terrorist attacks and charged national debates that occurred between Volume 3 and Volume 4, the author states, “je ne suis pas intéressé par la réalité. Moi j’assigne au roman une mission plus haute qui est de transcender la réalité pour fabriquer des héros.” (“I’m not interested in reality. I assign the novel a higher calling: to transcend reality in order to create heroes.”). It’s true that the first and second volumes of Savages offer up an embarrassment of heroes, multiplying characters and subplots in such a way that the reader has difficulty giving one character or another adequate attention as a potential protagonist. While our attention may be divided, Louatah’s insistence on depicting characters who are “issus de l’immigration”—primarily second- and third-generation Algerian immigrants to France—as vividly rendered individuals with complex motivations creates a literary world that feels intriguing and new, even as it gestures towards its familiar cultural influences.
Sabri Louatah freely admits his own fascination for Russian novels and fast-paced American TV series, as well as for Balzac’s approach, which he sees as privileging story over style: “Je préfère Balzac à Flaubert. Je suis un vrai beauf.” (“I prefer Balzac to Flaubert. I’m a real boor.”)  While I disagree with the characterization of Balzac’s style as unforgivably middle-brow, or even basic, it is true that Louatah is fond of creating rapid character sketches that bring to life a stereotype that we hadn’t yet known existed even as they describe a singular personality. Rabia, for example, a Nerrouche daughter of the middle generation represented in the novels, is an immediate blur of gossipy, run-on sentences punctuated by Kabyle expressions. Through her son Krim’s eyes, she is introduced mid-anecdote: “Aunt Rabia’s joie de vivre was a profound mystery the family no longer questioned. It magnetized her nieces, her sisters and their men, and no humiliation ever managed to dent it.” Although his mother’s enthusiasm provokes a “vague sense of fatigue” in Krim, her role as an unstoppable force within the family is clear from her first appearance (The Wedding 48).
Narrated primarily through Krim’s free indirect speech, Slim Nerrouche’s wedding, the event that takes up most of the first volume of Savages, provides many such quick character appraisals. These sketches focus not on motivations or thoughts, but on capturing an essence through Krim’s eyes. Zoran, an unhappy Romanian man looking for Slim, wears “low-cut jeans faded at the thighs, with studded back pockets, iridescent ballet shoes; and a spangled t-shirt decorated with the Union Jack” (The Wedding 42). As Luna, Krim’s tough teenage sister, storms away from him, “[h]er resolute stride broke into a run: fists clenched, arms outstretched like a gymnast charging towards a pommel horse” (The Wedding 29). These snapshots give readers the sense that they are scrolling through social media, catching glimpses of people they do not know, but recognize.
Louatah’s keen observational style continues in The Spectre, which spends much time on French legal and political machinations. Here, nepotistic tendencies and moral corruption are readily legible on facial features. A right-wing journalist, Xavier Puteoli “had shiny cheeks pulled between a pair of menacing and obsequious eyes and the smile of an eternal business school student—even though he had never been one,” while a prosecutor “had the most spectacular face in the Paris court system, like Daumier’s caricature of a pear—except in this case the pear was overfed and looked like a true GMO” (The Spectre 35-6; 128).
The social, ethnic, and political context of Saint-Étienne in 2012 on the day of the second round of the presidential election is revealed in the same quick, precise style. A headline “THE ELECTION OF THE CENTURY” is on the front page of the free local paper, as the Nerrouche family worries about whether all the guests should crowd the town hall for the marriage service. In a flurry of details, we see the racial tension emerge: the former mayor banned weddings on Saturdays “to spare the town’s peaceful residents all the honking, Rai, and flashy cars draped with Algerian flags. … In spite of his right-leaning tendencies, the new mayor had lifted the ban, but threatened to reimpose it every time an overexcited tribe wreaked havoc in the house of the Republic” (The Wedding 19). For those reading in English, the underlying anti-Arab racism may not be as evident as it is in the original French, but it becomes increasingly flagrant in interactions between the police and their Arab suspects in Volume 2, as the investigation of the assassination attempt focuses on the Nerrouche family.
Readers interested in recent debates around the role of race and ethnicity in France, particularly the claims from some that merely discussing racial inequity is a threat to the Republic, will find a lot to think about in Savages. While anti-Arab racism is a theme woven through the novels, in The Wedding, the Nerrouches are more concerned about the cultural and linguistic differences between themselves, ethnic Kabyles, and the Arab family that Slim’s wedding unites them with. By asking the reader to observe the differences between Kabyle and Arab culture in France from the outset, Louatah asserts his voice as a chronicler of a different view of contemporary France. In The Spectre, however, the interactions with the police and the secret service provide more unvarnished episodes of anti-Arab racism, especially towards young men of Maghrebian descent.
Saint-Étienne—also the birthplace of the author—has a central role in the novel, even as the events that complicate the plot frequently take place in Paris and Grogny, the fictional town in Seine-Saint-Denis where presidential candidate Idder Chaouch is mayor. Saint-Étienne, a medium-sized city in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, symbolizes France’s industrial and military past as an important mining and weapon manufacturing center. Like many French cities, in the second half of the twentieth century it relied on immigration, particularly immigration from North Africa, as a source of labor. The decline of the mining industry was mirrored in Saint-Étienne’s socio-economic and demographic decline, and in Savages, the slag heaps of the Couriot mine—piles of waste left after extraction—loom over the city as a reminder of its history. Saint-Étienne’s post-industrial status makes it an excellent setting for the thorny questions of an allegedly color-blind (or perhaps deracialized) twenty-first-century France.
Much of the subtleties of identity and difference in Savages are tied to dialogue, from the slippery banlieusard slang of Krim and his friends to the prim threats of high-up bureaucrats. Unsurprisingly, many of these particularities are lost in translation to English, even as Bowd succeeds in capturing the jump-cut rhythms of the text. Compare Uncle Bouzid’s comment to Krim about Idder Chaouch’s presumed electoral win: “Chaouch qui va devenir président inch’Allah? Un président ralbi, wollah rien que pour voir la tête des céfrans au taf j’ai envie qu’il soit élu, pas toi?” (Tome 1 35). In the English translation, the joyous mash-up of dialectal Arabic and French verlan is lost: “Aren’t you pleased, Chaouch’s becoming president, insh’Allah? An Arab president, just to see the faces of those shit-scared Frenchies I want to see him elected, don’t you?” (The Wedding 40). In the translated work, Bowd has made choices to clarify the language and political references for non-Francophone readers. Even in the original version, the multiplication of acronyms and abbreviations of groups, parties, and places that are given without explanation are a lot to wade through. Bowd’s decision to avoid footnotes or clumsy explanations by omitting some acronyms and eliminating some political specificities certainly makes the novel more approachable. Notably, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who is Chaouch’s fictional rival and whose name is chanted during the uprisings (“Sarko Assassin!”) disappears, replaced by a fictional center-right president, Noyer. This change is also made in the TV series, presumably to update the political backdrop. The decision to add a prologue to The Wedding to explain Chaouch’s importance and his background—in the original, this appears much later—also makes sense given the complexity and clamor of the first chapters that take place in Saint-Étienne. But while this choice removes what could be seen as a barrier to entry in the text and sets in place the central intrigue of the saga more clearly, it also somewhat diminishes the importance of the Nerrouche family, of Algerian-ness and of Saint-Étienne in which the reader is immersed from page one of Volume 1.
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The stakes of the questions identitaires at the heart of the mini-series Les Sauvages are spelled out in the opening episode, during which presidential candidate Idder Chaouch (Roschdy Zem) is described as both not French enough by his electoral rival and too French by an Algerian elder who refuses to vote for him. This identity double game is alluded to throughout the series with the musical piece composed by Rameau that inspired the name of the saga. In ‘Les Sauvages,’ the final act of the opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes (The Amorous Indies, 1735), Rameau stages an encounter between American natives and European colonizers. In the series, Krim (Ilies Kadri) performs the piece for a conservatory audition just prior to shooting candidate Chaouch, and it is heard repeatedly throughout the episodes. Perhaps Louatah and Zlotowski are gesturing towards the anti-Wagnerian, nationalist reappraisal of Rameau in France in the late nineteenth century, commenting on the ways that cultural items are taken up under different flags for very different purposes. Perhaps Krim’s mastery of a complicated eighteenth-century musical piece connected to the ideas of the Enlightenment symbolizes his relationship with a country in which he does not feel integrated or welcome. Whatever the case, the musical themes that run through the novels and series, and their connection to themes of belonging and Frenchness, deserve attention.
With its multiple subplots and many vividly-described characters, channeling the Savages saga into a tightly-wound six-episode series seems impossible. Sabri Louatah and writer and director Rebecca Zlotowski have stripped away the subplots and character portraits that make up the universe of the novels to create something perfectly suited to our current age of streaming and multitasking. Louatah and Zlotowski’s ruthlessness feels successful and exciting: the expansiveness of the novels is lost in the transition to the mini-series format, but is compensated for by the frenetic pace and coherence of the six episodes. Louatah has often spoken of his appreciation for US series like 24 and The Wire, and his embrace of television genres and their restrictions makes Les Sauvages feel like a companion piece to his novels, rather than an adaptation.
Zlotowski, who most recently directed Une fille facile (2019), also borrows from recent episodic television’s visual style, using rapid cuts and the occasional handheld camera to underscore the panic and urgency of the assassination attempt and its aftermath. She avoids familiar images of Paris by setting scenes there in police stations, lawyers’ offices, and crowded restaurants. We see far more of Saint-Étienne, however, including its storied football stadium, which emphasizes that Les Sauvages is a story of its place as much as it is one of its times.
The distance between the publication of the first volume of the quartet in 2012 and the making of the series in 2019 is keenly felt in the portrayal of increased security and hypervigilance around terrorism. At the same time, the episodes show the flaws in policing and legal systems that can be narrowly focused on religious extremism. The shift in the discourse around Islamophobia, radicalization, and integration, as well as the perceived influence of “American” ideas about race and racism, are an interesting subtext for the series. Microaggressions like the mispronunciation of Krim’s name, the repeated tutoiement of non-white suspects, and the elision of the Kabyle and Arabic languages in front page headlines stand out. More revealing, perhaps, are the forms of self-effacement that the younger Nerrouches undertake: Luna pretends to be Spanish to fit in with her racist boyfriend’s friends, but she also blows up at Fouad, a successful actor, whom she correctly accuses of only playing roles with European names and therefore for letting himself pass as white. She screams at him: “Vas-y rappelle-moi comment tu t’appelles toi dans tes dix derniers films. Tu t’appelles comment ? Tu t’appelles Frank ? Putain ! Tu t’appelles Frank, tu t’appelles Sam, tu t’appelles JB. Tu t’appelles pas Mouloud. Tu t’appelles pas Mohammed. Tu t’appelles pas Mourad, non ? Tu crois pas que ça commence up petit peu à se voir ?” (“Go on, tell me what your name is in your last ten movies. What’s your name? Frank? Fuck! Your name’s Frank, Sam, JB. You’re not Mouloud. Or Mohammed. You’re not called Mourad, right? Don’t you think it’s getting pretty obvious?” (Episode 4, 0:24:10))
The necessary simplification of the plot for the television format means that the action focuses more closely on a few major characters, often casting them in opposition to one another. Fouad and Nazir Nerrouche (Dali Benssalah and Sofiane Zermani) are set up as jealous brothers, divided over their concept of family loyalty and ideological differences. Jasmine Chaouch (Souheila Yacoub), Idder’s daughter who is promoted to campaign director in the series, is determined to hold onto power at any cost and cast against both her mother and Fouad. Marion Ribheiro, the candidate’s head of security who is immediately fired after the assassination attempt, becomes the series’ lone wolf and outsider. Played by Marina Foïs, she is the only white main character, and she is not shown to have any familial or professional ties. She and Fouad form a kind of alliance as they try to investigate Nazir’s involvement in the assassination attempt, but the connection between them is tenuous, and neither is willing to tell the other what they discover; Fouad because he is protecting his family, and Marion for reasons that are not made clear. Marion is determined and overly independent, which could come off as a cliché for a woman in a traditionally masculine career, but Foïs makes her toughness appear shaky and necessary. The scenes in the two final episodes in which she tries to navigate Saint-Étienne without police credentials or a clear idea of what she is up against are some of the more stressful of the series.
The political context has also been stripped down. Chaouch is still a Socialist candidate, but the affiliations of other politicians are not spelled out. He is running against a right-wing candidate, Noyer, who unsubtly brings up “tradition” when debating Chaouch. Similar anxieties are evoked by the president of the Senate, who worries that Chaouch will not appeal to white voters now that the attempt on his life has stirred up racial violence. The forces that criticize and target Chaouch quickly establish themselves as caricatural in the rapid pace of the series: the white nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists are as bigoted and single-minded as any in Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the president of the Senate and other politicians who appear briefly are like Daumier caricatures: just a glimpse reveals their grotesqueness. These oversimplifications allow for the plot to move forward, but also lionize Chaouch and the possibility of a leftist president of the French Republic in a way that the novels do not; for example, in the novels, Chaouch is shot in the face and disfigured, whereas in the series he is shot in the chest, which makes the scenes of his wife and daughter at his bedside and his rapid return to political life more telegenic and allows his handsomeness to reassure the viewer as to his competence.
The mini-series makes the parallels between Chaouch and a 2008 Barack Obama explicit: Roschdy Zem’s lanky build and close-cropped hair, a montage that shows him playing basketball in shirtsleeves, and the repeated word “L’ESPOIR” on posters and lanyards worn by campaign members and chanted by a crowd of supporters. Chaouch wins the second-round vote, but his historic victory is immediately overshadowed by the assassination attempt carried out by Krim. The compacted pace of the series means that as we watch Krim make his way through the election night crowd wearing a hoodie and brightly colored backpack, we already know his connections to his cousin Fouad, Fouad’s fiancée Jasmine, and therefore to the Chaouch campaign. We also know that he is in contact with Nazir, who is currently imprisoned for “appel à la haine” (incitement to hatred) linked to his fundamentalist beliefs.
In Episode One of Les Sauvages, the raucous party of the wedding reception is interrupted by Nazir’s arrival—he has a half-day of leave from prison—as he is carried into the party on the shoulders of his friends, surrounded by red smoke from emergency flares. The image is diabolical, and overdetermined, but Nazir Nerrouche is an excellent villain. His beliefs or goals are never stated—he plots with both Islamic extremists and white supremacists and is able to convince both groups that they have common enemies and therefore common interests. Even without an explicit manifesto, viewers can see that Nazir has the gaze and posture of a zealot, and that his target is more than a presidential candidate, a football stadium, or a mosque. The menace of his character makes the climax of the final two episodes, in which he kidnaps his brother Fouad who is trying to thwart his plan to blow up a mosque, seem a little drab. Nazir is an anti-hero who deserves a grander conspiracy than the six-part series gives him.
The arc of the show demands an ending in which loose ends are tied up, and Louatah and Zlotowski deliver this by closing with a speech by President Chaouch that reveals the ideological engagement of the project. The president gives an acceptance speech, to a small crowd of his allies and Algerian veterans of the War of Independence, that directly evokes the colonial relationship between France and Algeria for the first time. Chaouch states: “Je viens de cette autre histoire de France : mes ancêtres ne sont pas devenus français par choix mais par la contrainte, par les massacres, par la violence.” (“I come from the other history of France: my ancestors did not become French by choice but by obligation, by massacres, by violence.”) He goes on to decry “le fait colonial et ses non-dits qui nous empoisonnent, ces vérités, qui, à force d’être tues, sont devenues mortelles,” (“the colonial reality and what it leaves unsaid poison these truths which have become deadly from being silenced for so long”) insisting that we—the French, in this case—are “[l]es plus civilisés des hommes, les plus parfaits sauvages.” (“the most civilized of men, the most perfect savages.” (Episode 6, 0:53:49-0:57:30)) The potential corniness of ending the series with an eloquent speech is avoided by the timely sentiment of the writing. While the memory of the Algerian War is often a topic for debate in French political discourse, the shift in recognition in the past decade towards a politics of memory that includes French responsibility and (possible) apology, makes Chaouch’s words more immediate than they might have been in 2012.
If, as Louatah asserts, we buy that Les Sauvages “même en série, c’est … notre roman national réactualisé, dépoussiéré” (“even as a TV series, it’s still … our national novel updated and dusted off”), then this novel is allowed a bittersweet ending that promises that reconciliation is possible. However, this victory over the long silence around the Algerian War and the “fait colonial” comes at the expense of the generation that Sabri Louatah is part of, and that Idder Chaouch most wants to reach. Krim and Nazir, both villains and victims in very different ways, are not part of the solemn speech and do not have a place in the France that Chaouch promises to rebuild.
In the final measure, Les Sauvages is not optimistic because it imagines a French person of Algerian descent becoming president, or because it imagines a world where a presidential election brings out 89% of the voting public. Instead, it is optimistic because it shows us characters from a perceived minority who are represented as complex and realistic. Characters of Algerian descent are the stars of the series, and they are its voice and heart. Louatah and Zlotowski make this rare occurrence seem self-evident and essential: the music, accents, and histories of Algerians in France fill the screen.
Louatah describes himself as a “feuilletoniste,” rather than a novelist, and his approach to episodic and compelling drama illustrates this distinction. The novels and the series come across as loving homages to the respective genres to which they owe their style and form: the nineteenth-century serialized novel, and late twentieth-century US episodic television dramas. Since debates around race, nationalism, and belonging are unlikely to subside in France, particularly in the wake of the recent presidential election that pitted Emmanuel Macron against right-wing Marine Le Pen, the novels and the series offer a compelling example of how fiction can bring to light the social issues that underpin systemic inequity and erasure.
Sabri Louatah, Savages:The Wedding, trans. Gavin Bowd (London: Corsair, 2018)
Sabri Louatah, Savages2:The Spectre, trans. Gavin Bowd (London: Corsair, 2018)
Sabri Louatah and Rebecca Zlotowski, Les Sauvages (2019)CPB Films; Scarlett Production. Originally broadcast on Canal+ (France). Also available on Amazon Prime.
Elvire von Bardeleben, “Sabri Louatah. Balzac 2013?” Libération, August 20, 2012, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.liberation.fr/livres/2013/08/20/sabri-louatah-balzac-2013_925902/
François Busnel, “Sabri Louatah,” May 2, 2012, in Le Grand Entretien, produced by Anne Kobylak, radio program, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/le-grand-entretien/le-grand-entretien-02-mai-2012
Sonia Devillers, “Les Sauvages”, la série politique de l’impensé,” September 23, 2019, in L’Instant M, produced by Anne-Cécile Perrin, radio program, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/l-instant-m/l-instant-m-23-septembre-2019
Sandrine Morin, “Les Sauvages: point final à la saga haletante basée à Saint-Étienne, “ January 12, 2016, on France Bleu Saint-Étienne Loire, radio program, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.francebleu.fr/infos/faits-divers-justice/les-sauvages-saint-etienne-1452615661
 From an interview with François Busnel, Le Grand Entretien, May 2, 2012 (0:01:00).
 I’ll refer to the English translations by their subtitles, The Wedding and The Spectre, and to the novels collectively as Savages. To differentiate, I will be referring to the TV series as Les Sauvages.
 As of July 2021, the series is available in French with subtitles on the streaming service Topic, via Amazon Prime Video.
 From an interview with Sandrine Morin, France Bleu Saint-Étienne Loire, January 12, 2016 (0:00:34).
 From a profile of Sabri Louatah by Elvire von Bardeleben, Libération, August 20, 201.
 From an interview with Sonia Devillers, L’Instant M, France Inter, September 23, 2019 (0:02:53).