Non-existent Arab actor exposes integration dilemma

17th April 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 17, 2007 (AFP) - Five days ahead of presidential elections, a non-existent Arab actor has brought back to the fore long-standing arguments over the right policies for integrating France's estimated five million Muslims.

PARIS, April 17, 2007 (AFP) - Five days ahead of presidential elections, a non-existent Arab actor has brought back to the fore long-standing arguments over the right policies for integrating France's estimated five million Muslims.

In an unprecedented move, the country's most prestigious theatre company, the Comedie-Francaise, has been forced to cancel performances of one of its spring highlights -- because it has no Arab member able to take on a key role.

In a bitter exchange of communiques, the brother of late playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes -- author of "Le Retour au Desert" (Return to the Desert) -- and the theatre's administrators have accused each other of racism and failing to respect the spirit of the play.

But at the heart of the controversy lies a deeper question of minority representation in French institutions -- or the lack of it.

"Beyond the theatrical arguments, the row is about something else: the fact that the Comedie-Francaise contains not a single actor of Arab origin, while for example the big British companies have for years recruited actors from the former colonies," said Le Monde's theatre critic Fabienne Darge.

"But surely that is the least that could be asked of our main dramatic showcase -- that it reflect the composition of our country."

"Le Retour du Desert" -- about the arguments in a French family at the time of the Algeria war -- marked the first ever performance by the Comedie-Francaise of a play by Koltes, who died of complications from AIDS in 1989 at the age of 41.

However what should have been a triumphant entry into the company's prized repertoire was soured by complaints from Koltes' brother and copyright-holder Francois, who said that the playwright had wanted the part of the family servant Aziz to be played by an Arab.

The fact that he was not "removes an essential element from the meaning of the play, especially when one considers the importance Koltes gave to body and language -- and to the responses that Aziz makes," said Francois Koltes.

The Comedie-Francaise's administrator Muriel Mayette responded by offering to chair a public debate on the issue of racial-typing in the theatre, and in an interview with Le Monde newspaper said that it would be a backward step if Arabs could only be played by Arabs.

"By that reasoning, a Chinese actor cannot play Moliere," she said.

But to this Francois Koltes reacted angrily, accusing the theatre of implying that his brother was a racist. He then exercised his right to cancel the play after 30 performances, which meant the run was abruptly halted.

Coming just ahead of the elections, the case has reawakened the debate over positive discrimination -- or affirmative action -- which surfaced in dramatic fashion during the 2005 riots in France's high-immigration suburbs.

Most French politicians reject as "anti-republican" the notion of favouring one sector of society over another, but critics say the end-result is a severe and destabilising under-representation of blacks and Arabs in the media, arts and advertising, let alone government.

Right-wing presidential favourite Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to introduce "French-style positive discrimination" but he remains a lone voice -- and it is not clear in practice what his idea would mean.

Comedie-Francaise's secretary-general Pierre Notte conceded that there are currently no Arab-origin actors among the 325 year-old troupe's 56 members -- despite the community's importance -- but he rejected suggestions that the company has something to apologise for.

"We have had Arab actors in the past -- eight altogether -- and we will have more in the future. And right now there are all sorts of actors of different origins -- Malian, Belgian, Polish, Armenian. There is no criteria for recruitment other than talent.

"The debate over how best to reflect society is essential, but I say that we do reflect society. To complain that at a particular moment we do not have an Arab actor is not serious -- and its is incredibly reactionary to suggest we should hire one specially. That way Shylock is only ever played by a Jew."


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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