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  • Interpreting the Republic: Marginalization and Belonging in Contemporary French Novels and Films by Vinay Swamy
  • Michael Gott
Vinay Swamy , Interpreting the Republic: Marginalization and Belonging in Contemporary French Novels and Films. Lanham (MD): Lexington Books, 2011. xxxiv + 171 pp.

Interpreting the Republic moves deftly among interdisciplinary approaches ranging from cultural and postcolonial studies to political analysis, film criticism, and literary theory. The thread linking a seemingly disparate assortment of primary texts is the theme of belonging in the Republic. At times, this implicates the individual; at others, the notion—more problematic in the French context—of community affiliation. Swamy suggests that this tension lies at the heart of the question and that "different interpretations of the Republic(an model) are clearly dependent on an understanding of the relationship between co-called 'private' action and public consequence" (xviii). Interpreting the Republic examines the ways in which gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity intersect within these parameters. It is in this multifaceted approach that Swamy offers a fresh and important contribution to the scholarship on the identity debate, which was raging well before Sarkozy launched his short-lived official débat sur l'identité nationale in 2009. Swamy's approach breaks free of the theoretical discursive categories into which minorities are often pushed by French political and media debates as well as in Anglo-American academic discourse, whether delimited by ethnicity (Beur, Franco-Maghrebi, or simply Maghrebi), gender, sexuality, or the spatial organization of French society (the banlieue). While there are certainly a number of valuable academic contributions to the debate that are organized around such categorizations, the approach espoused by Swamy offers the promise of a fruitful and indeed essential expansion of the parameters of the debate. This approach is compelling because Individuals maneuver within society and the Republic not only, and sometimes not at all, as members of a particular ethnic group or other marginalized category. As perceptive observers such as Mireille Rosello and Patrick Weil have argued, individuals may opt to align themselves with a variety of groups, whether marginal [End Page 296] or otherwise, and their affiliations and affinities may shift throughout the course of their lifetime. Thus, any attempt to "interpret the Republic" must take into account the complexities of belonging and exclusion at play for individuals across and beyond particular marginalized categories. Interpreting the Republic links the ethnically-focused exclusion that was brought to the forefront in the 1990s to the debate waged near the end of that decade over the Pacte civil de solidarité (PaCS),which extended some of the rights and protections afforded to homosexuals and unmarried heterosexual couples. Swamy argues that "France's thrust to maintain a robust national selfidentification [. . .] can be found at the root of many debates about non-normative sexual orientations" (131).

Turning both to texts that explicitly invite such an approach, notably Drôle de Félix (Ducastel and Martineau, 2000) and Chouchou (Merzak Allouache, 2003)—whose titular characters conform to neither perceived ethnic nor cultural norms of the Republic—and to less obvious choices such as Francis Veber's hit comedy Le Placard (2001), Swamy foregrounds the ways in which these diverse works "appeal to tactical interpretations that allow them to define what it means to be French from their perspective" (xxv).

The first portion of the book examines literature by writers of Maghrebi origin with different levels of connection to France, starting with a look back to the 1980s, a period when issues of so-called beur identity did not play a central role in public discourse, as Swamy points out. In Le Gone du Chaâba and Béni ou le paradis privé, the first two novels by Azouz Begag, the author and his protagonists seek to tactically reinterpret the Republic by hinting "at the possibility of moving beyond ethnic differences" (5). The next case study analyzes a decidedly less optimistic novel by Algerian émigré Yassir Benmiloud. The satirical Allah Superstar, a surprise hit of the 2003 rentrée, examines the place of Muslims in post-9/11 France. With Renan's notion of national citizenship as a "daily plebiscite" in mind, Swamy contends that the novel interpolates the reader through satire, bringing to the...


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