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PARIS — La réalité dépasse la fiction. That was the response from French political junkies when media reports surfaced this month suggesting that Emmanuel Macron was considering resigning.
The move — categorically denied by the Elysée — mirrored the big plot twist in the hit TV show “Baron Noir,” a political drama featuring a president who rises to power by breaking partisan lines and struggles to maintain her level of popularity in the face of growing public discontent.
The show — which stands somewhere between “House of Cards” and “Borgen” but with a distinctly French flavor — has won over politics watchers in part thanks to its depictions of the country’s political past and present.
“We are making ‘Baron Noir’ from the political reality, it’s our raw material,” said Eric Benzekri, one of the two lead screenwriters. “So it’s normal that real developments sometimes collide with fictional ones.”
In the show’s third season, broadcast earlier this year on Canal Plus, the fictional president, Amélie Dorendeu (played by Anna Mouglalis), is caught off-guard during her reelection bid by an unlikely rival: Christophe Mercier, a biology professor who builds a large fanbase through inflammatory videos and online chats calling into question the democratic nature of France’s institutions.
Mercier’s rise is strikingly similar to those of several seemingly non-partisan figures in recent months, such as controversial doctor Didier Raoult, or before him short-lived leaders of the Yellow Jackets movement.
The parallel is not lost on Macron’s close circle of advisers and supporters.
“The president fears that a François Ruffin [a far-left MP with an unusual background whose short video clips denouncing inequalities have gone viral], for example, will be able to bridge a gap between the far left and the far right,” one Macron adviser told Le Monde. “For him, it’s a potential Christophe Mercier.”
It’s unclear whether the president himself has watched the show, but some of his closest allies are certainly familiar with it. One of the people that Benzekri consulted on the logistics of the presidency was Stéphane Séjourné, one of Macron’s early supporters and former adviser, now leading Macron-affiliated lawmakers in the European Parliament.
The French president is taking Mercier-like figures seriously.
In April, he unexpectedly flew to Marseille to meet Raoult, an eyebrow-raising move in a country where the president’s attention can give instant legitimacy.
Raoult’s unapologetic defense of a supposed treatment for COVID-19 and his unconventional style have won him a large fanbase fueled by his anti-Parisian elite posture.
Macron also reportedly called Jean-Marie Bigard, a foul-mouthed comedian — and Macron’s polar opposite — who briefly vowed to run for the presidency. Nobody in the French political class took Bigard’s run seriously, but he has popular appeal among the working class, something Macron has always struggled with.
For “Baron Noir” fans, Raoult, Bigard and others bear obvious similarities to the Mercier character: They’re rising through online activism and build support among the working class outside Parisian circles.
Benzekri said the idea for an anti-system candidate developed because of the Yellow Jackets movement and “an important political vacuum on the left and on the right since Macron was elected.”
In the show, the lead character, Philippe Rickwaert (Kad Merad), a Socialist MP from Northern France, is a behind-the-scenes mastermind who constantly plots to put his protégés in power through a mix of Machiavellian moves and sharp political instincts.
Benzekri largely relied on his own experience as a young Socialist activist and political operative. Rickwaert is inspired by Julien Dray, a well-known Socialist figure once close to former President François Hollande, among others.
One of the focuses of Baron Noir is showing the French left’s never-ending internal divisions, to the point of leaving real-world Socialists slightly puzzled.
“We don’t know whether it’s the PS [Socialist Party] that makes the show or the show that makes the PS,” wrote Socialist Yoan Hadadi, describing binge-watching and late-night chats about the series among party members.
In the show, one of Rickwaert’s constant obsessions is to try to reunite the left, the Holy Grail for French Socialists.
“I hope it’s going to inspire them,” said Benzekri.
“For the moment, the only alternatives [to Macron] are [the National Rally’s Marine] Le Pen and [far-left France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc] Mélenchon, who don’t have a majority,” Benzekri said. “We had fun imagining someone who could snatch these two electorates.”
In the show, Mercier is approached by various parties before ultimately leaving them on the side of the road and setting out on his own.
“Everybody thinks [Mercier] can serve their own interest, including by weakening others … they all blow him up, helium-style until he becomes unstoppable.”
Baron Noir’s parallels to real life go beyond French domestic politics. In the show, aired in February before Europe went into lockdown, the president mulls a Franco-German pact with a strong green component in a bid to reset her presidency.
Then in May, Paris and Berlin issued a joint proposal for a massive coronavirus recovery plan, which fed into European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s €750 billion plan.
“We often said during the writing stage: We are going to give Macronism a substance,” Benzekri said while laughing. He added, “The €750 billion thing made me quite happy.”
Maïa de La Baume and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.