Yassine Belattar: Clown of the Republic

The Paris king of comedy likes to make people wince – either in agony or in shock. His jokes and comments frequently unleash a firestorm on social media where the holier-than-thou brigade rules and expresses its faux-indignation in no uncertain terms. Yassine Belattar, a guy who revels in poking fun at both the establishment and established thought, has received numerous death threats – too many, in fact, to count.

The latest show of President Emmanuel Macron’s favourite stand-up comedian deals with the meaning of being French – a topic that is meant to cause both laughter and outrage. Mr Belattar was the first comic to perform at the Bataclan Theatre when it reopened after the November 2015 terrorist attack that left 89 people dead. He came on stage asking the audience, including then-president François Hollande, to remain calm: “Don’t be afraid. I know it’s a bit scary to see an Arab bloke walking into a theatre…”

He then went on to lacerate dim-witted French jihadists and tear into the liberal elite peddling politically correct phrases and niceties at fancy dinner parties. Mr Belattar has little time for national sensitivities or traumas and no interest at all to toe the official line. He is, however, a bit disappointed in French society which refuses to accept him – and many others born and raised in the country – as equals: “People whose families haven been French for two or three generations are often still treated as newcomers and must battle every day to be fully accepted. It’s like when a man loves a woman and that woman says I’ll never love you.”

Talking about his own background, Mr Belattar mentions five family members who fought in the French Army during the Second World War: “There are lots of people in the banlieues with a similar story to tell. Yet, nobody seems to be listening.” What he most wants his audience to understand is that people with non-Gallic sounding surnames lead lives as banal as everyone else: “There is absolutely no difference: we deal with the same concerns, suffer the same irritations, and are as fed up with things as anyone in a Breton striped shirt and sporting a beret whilst hurrying home for lunch, carrying a baguette and a bottle of red.”

The leftwing press is not amused. Marianne, a widely-read weekly news magazine, called Mr Belattar “pseudo-funny and venomous”, and declared him a danger to the French Republic.” The comedian was also accused of being in “denial of Islamism” and of stoking division. Others have called for the curtailing his airtime on radio and television, apparently unworried that the muzzling of a comic is not a particularly liberal thing to do.

However, fellow comedians have rushed to Mr Belattar’s defence, naming him Clown of the Republic. After the verbal lashing meted out by Marianne, an audience at one of his shows in Paris promptly stood up and burst into La Marseillaise in support of the beleaguered comic. Still, Mr Belattar deplores the lack of mental acuity and understanding prevalent in some circles: “It is as if the entire nation’s thoughts need to be straightjacketed and any deviation from the prescribed line is considered a direct attack on cherished institutions that must remain unassailable. I fear that other comedians may now be writing their lines with fear in their stomachs.”

A close friend of Emmanuel Macron – likewise despised by the unfailingly vociferous hardline French left – Mr Belattar repeatedly accompanied the then-candidate on campaign visits to the Paris banlieues, introducing him to the “other side”. Soon after Mr Macron secured the presidency, Mr Belattar told his friend that from now on he would be in opposition: “This is where a comedian should always stand – it is his job to poke fun at those in power in the best tradition of the king’s buffoons.”

Musing on the differences between French and British comedy, Mr Belattar points to the elaborate and exquisitely crafted poetic universes created across the English Channel – la Manche – by Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean), John Cleese (Monty Python), and many other masters of comedy: “By contrast, French comedians are perhaps a bit more irreverent and certainly more acidic. They march onto the stage cutting to the chase and, without any further ado, grab the audience and lead it to a place not normally visited. The French don’t do subtlety.”

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