On TV, France’s New President Is Young, Centrist and Female

Anna Mouglalis, left, as President Amélie Dorendeu, and Kad Merad as the Machiavellian politician Philippe Rickwaert in the French television series “Baron Noir.”

PARIS — “I am not afraid of being a progressive. I am not afraid of being a republican. I am not afraid of you,” a 39-year-old centrist presidential candidate told a far-right rival on French television recently.

But it wasn’t Emmanuel Macron, the former banker, now 40, whose rapid rise and eventual victory in the 2017 election shook the French political world. It was Mr. Macron’s fictional alter ego, Amélie Dorendeu, in the hit series “Baron Noir.”

As the gritty political drama ends its second season on the French TV network Canal+ this week, its similarities with recent political developments in France have many politicians and politics junkies marveling at its realism and the way it sheds light on the unexpected current state of French politics.

“Baron Noir,” which is available in the United States on the streaming service Walter Presents, depicts the shadier side of France’s political life through the character of Philippe Rickwaert, a left-wing former mayor and member of Parliament dogged by allegations of corruption. A garrulous, unscrupulous yet endearing leader, who honed his political skills in the northern city of Dunkirk, Rickwaert embodies the traditional world of French politics, based on mainstream parties of left and right. But since the show first aired, these certainties have been wilting in the face of new political forces and Mr. Macron’s strategy of bridging old distinctions.

The first season was centered around Rickwaert’s fall and desire for revenge, with the skulduggery of local Dunkirk politics in the background. But the second brings viewers inside the Élysée Palace with the election of Amélie Dorendeu (Anna Mouglalis), a center-left politician and ally of Rickwaert, whose political ideas are reminiscent of Mr. Macron’s.

“Like everybody else, we didn’t see Macron coming,” said Eric Benzekri, one of the show’s two screenwriters. “What we saw is the political space which Macron had, and we gave our president, Amélie Dorendeu, the same space in the series.”

Mr. Benzekri said he drew some inspiration from his own political experience: Until 2008, he was involved with the Socialist Party, from which the show’s main characters emerge.

Played by Kad Merad, a French-Algerian actor who was nominated for an International Emmy Award in 2017 for the role, Rickwaert is a kingmaker and the dark baron of the show’s title, with the same Machiavellian methods as Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.”

Although isolated in the second season, Rickwaert remains influential as he tries to adapt to the new political deal. “Politics is like jazz,” he tells Dorendeu. “When you hit a wrong note, you have to persist with it, and then it becomes a cult improvisation, which everyone will try to hit.”

From the caricatures of King Louis XVI and Guy de Maupassant’s “Bel Ami,” all the way to the satirical TV puppet show “Les Guignols de l’info”, France has had a long tradition of skewering politicians in a wide range of arts.

In 2016, the acclaimed graphic novel “The President” pictured the far-right Marine Le Pen at the Élysée Palace; another, “Quai d’Orsay,” depicted with humor the life of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But previous attempts to depict French politics realistically on TV fell short. “We have been late on French television in representing tormented, ambivalent characters in politics,” said Jean-Baptiste Delafon, one of “Baron Noir’s” screenwriters. “We either had filthy, nasty villains, or nice politicians with beautiful ideas.”

Netflix’s first French-language production, “Marseille” (2016), which attempted to create a French version of “House of Cards,” was a critical flop.

The appeal of “Baron Noir” lies in its well-balanced mix of local and national politics, according to Marjolaine Boutet, an associate professor of contemporary history at the University of Picardie Jules Verne, who specializes in television, and who compared the show with two well-known American political dramas. “It’s not as idealistic as ‘The West Wing,’ and it’s not as cynical as ‘House of Cards,’ ” she said. “It’s right in the middle.”

Although France’s recent political history has featured corruption allegations against former prime ministers and even against the former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, the most recent presidential campaign brought an unpredictable twist, leading the fiction of “Baron Noir” to compete with real events.

In January last year, the center-right candidate François Fillon was accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of euros of public funds to pay his wife and his children for jobs that did not really exist. Another news report revealed that he had received expensive suits from a friend, which prompted another inquiry. Mr. Fillon, who had been seen as a favorite in the early stages of the campaign, lost in the first round of the election.

“What the Fillons’ scandal and the 2017 presidential campaign showed is that the French have had enough of corruption,” said Ms. Boutet, the historian. Although Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index ranked France 23rd out of 176, this is behind most Western European countries.

In “Baron Noir,” Philippe Rickwaert ends up in prison at the end of the first season, and the president has to resign because of the same scandal. “It shows that whatever you try to hide, there are consequences, because we live in a democracy that has rule of law,” Mr. Benzekri said about the path he and Mr. Delafon gave the characters.

Although corruption was one of the main themes of “Baron Noir’s” first season, the screenwriters chose to avoid it in the latest one. “Whatever we would have imagined, it would have never been as crazy as Fillon and his suits,” Mr. Benzekri said.

The show has demonstrated some imagination by making the president a woman. France has never had a female head of state.

“Amélie Dorendeu is a woman, but she is first and foremost the president, so we treated her as a president, and not as a female president,” said Mr. Benzekri, adding that by not treating gender as a key factor, he and Mr. Delafon were betting on “post-sexism.”

Ms. Mouglalis plays an austere, dignified president surrounded by often crude male advisers. Yet, in a political world filled with chauvinism, Ms. Mouglalis said that having a woman run France, even if only on television, remained a victory.

“As soon as things exist in fiction,” Ms. Mouglalis added, “society is more ready to accept them in reality.”

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