French comedian Yassine Belattar: ‘It’s the death threats I find hard’



As a Muslim who jokes about jihad and Islamophobia, President Macron’s favourite comedian knew he would upset some of his fellow Frenchmen. What he didn’t expect was a furious attack from the left






Comedian Yassine Belattar.
Photograph: Ousmane Diaby

Standing in the foyer of the theatre he owns, Paris’s king of comedy looks unusually glum.

“I nearly quit last week, I really did,” Yassine Belattar shrugs, making himself a coffee at the front-of-house bar. “It’s the social-media abuse and death threats that I find hard to take.”

Belattar, 35, the son of a Moroccan cleaning lady and a taxi driver, born and raised in the Paris suburbs, is the most talked-about French comic of the moment. He is on a standup tour of France, invited on to TV and radio chat shows as the voice of diversity, sought out by past and current French presidents who want to get closer to the still-ghettoised, still-discriminated-against “banlieue” suburban housing estates. The irony is that Belattar’s current show about being French is at the centre of a painful row over whether he is French enough.

“I do comedy that’s politically engaged, I’m here to make people wince,” he says. “But clearly French society is very sensitive at the moment.”

Belattar’s irreverent jokes poke a finger into the open wound of French society’s problems and prejudices. One minute he is lacerating dim, homegrown jihadists, the next, he is mocking the small portions at liberal Paris dinner parties, dismantling politicians’ stock phrases on “French Muslims” or asking what would have happened to ET if his spaceship had landed in Dunkirk on the Calais coast. Last year, he was the first comic to play the Bataclan theatre after it reopened following the 2015 terrorist attack. The then-president, François Hollande, was in the audience. Since the Bataclan attack, during which 90 people were killed by gunmen who stormed a rock concert there, Belattar has walked on to the stage during shows saying: “Don’t be afraid. I know it’s a bit scary to see an Arab bloke walking into a theatre …”

Belattar’s underlying theme is that “we’re all French together”. He says that French people similar to him – who are still described as immigrants when their families have been French for three generations – battle every day to be accepted as French, but love France. “It’s like when a man loves a woman and that woman says I’ll never love you,” he muses.

But, last month, the French leftwing weekly Marianne came to his show and published a savage critique implying that he was a “pseudo-funny”, “venomous” and subversive danger to the French Republic – stoking the country’s divisions and “in denial of Islamism”. It attacked the media and political class for giving him so much airtime and implied that Belattar cherry-picks which terrorist attacks to grieve for. In fact, he repeatedly says on stage that, because he’s French, he grieves for them all.

A raft of outraged French media and fellow comics slammed the magazine and rushed to defend the comedian, saying he was just the opposite: a figure of inclusion and tolerance, the French nation’s “clown of the Republic”. An audience at one of Belattar’s Paris shows sang the national anthem in support of him. But he said he still felt grim, as if he and other comedians would now be writing material “with fear in their stomachs”, scared of being misconstrued. After years of expecting hassle from the French far-right, he says it was “sad” to become a whipping boy for what he sees as a hardline secular French left that is divisively and wrongly implying that French Muslims are not grieving hard enough over terrorist attacks on France.

At one low moment, he sent a text message to the centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, whom he had taken to the Paris banlieues during the election campaign. He says Macron texted back that he should just keep going, ignore it: “Criticism follows talent.”

Belattar started doing jokes about French jihadis long before the January 2015 terrorist attacks on the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher supermarket, in which 17 people were killed, and the November 2015 Paris attacks, in which 130 died.

“We’re all traumatised by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo,” he says. “Me particularly, because I’m French, Muslim and someone who tells jokes. So, even if I don’t agree with the editorial line of Charlie Hebdo, I’d never, ever accept what happened to them.”

He says that when he played the Bataclan, “it was to show that the grief of French non-Muslims was also the grief of French Muslims. It was symbolic that the first man to make the Bataclan laugh also happened to be a Muslim.”

Belattar is part of a French standup comedy boom. He estimates that “of the thousand different stage shows performed each night in Paris, one third are standup”. There are large numbers of comics from the Paris suburbs from where he comes. Key figures such as the comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze have for years brought in new talent through comedy clubs and TV. Belattar feels that standup comedy is now seen, with football and rap, as a high-profile way out of the high-rises. But he’d like to see just as much ethnic diversity in Paris’s top theatre schools.

Belattar says that “any German who’s been on one package tour to Morocco knows Morocco better than me”. He grew up not in a high-rise, but in a quiet town outside Paris after his factory-worker dad refused to move to a ghetto tower block and instead got a job as a taxi driver. “Five members of my family fought for France in the second world war,” he says. His grandfather was an officer. “Lots of people in the banlieue have the same story – that’s how we should be talking about France.” He started in local radio as a teenager; he has hosted breakfast shows and experimented with late-night comedy on French TV. His children, he points out, are of mixed heritage, their mother is white. His audience, comedy critics point out, is a mix of ethnicities, backgrounds and dress codes. “When I walk into that room, I have to do a joke that makes everyone laugh. It’s much harder than just writing jokes for people already won over.”

As a young comic, he loved the hit film East is East – the Salford comedy about a mixed heritage British-Pakistani family. He says he just wants to show how the lives of families with immigrant roots are so ordinary. “We still haven’t made a film like East is East in France – to explain to what point we have a banal life like everyone else. And that’s something really painful.”

French comedy has always been more acidic and irreverent than British, he argues. “We’ve always had a corrosive sense of humour, whereas you’re phlegmatic, dandy. A lot of English comics make me laugh: Eddie Izzard, Rowan Atkinson. But they’re creative, they create their own poetic universe, like Monty Python. In France, we cut straight to it, get on stage and say France is going badly. It comes from the tradition of the king’s buffoons.”

Belattar says he wants “recognition that the children of cleaning ladies can leave their mark on the history of France”. He also says he won’t stop the political jokes. He supported Macron and says that before the election he had conversations with him “that I haven’t had with anyone else”. He adds: “But I told him that, once he’s in power, I’d be in opposition, because that’s a comedian’s role.”

Belattar with Emanuel Macron while campaigning ahead of the French presidential election in 2017.



Belattar with Emanuel Macron while campaigning ahead of the French presidential election in 2017. Photograph: AFP

Better to fight the tragic with the comic, Belattar insists. Comedy should never be easy. He says: “A comedian isn’t a clown – they’re a tightrope artist walking a line. They can fall at any moment. That’s why it’s funny. When you watch standup, you don’t come to see someone you agree with. It’s someone who takes your hand and leads you somewhere you wouldn’t normally go.”



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