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No Marseille-bashing in French 'House of Cards'

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No Marseille-bashing in French 'House of Cards'
The seedy side of Marseille is the setting for the French House of Cards. Photo: Jeanne Menj/Flickr
08:43 CET+01:00
Where "House of Cards" portrays Washington DC as a diabolical den of wheeling and dealing, Netflix's new drama set in France, "Marseille", promises brutal local politics but no cliches in a city widely seen as crime-ridden and seamy.

But two of the Frenchmen behind the new series to be shown late this year by the US streaming operator, screenwriter Dan Franck and producer Pascal Breton, say they have done their best to avoid perpetuating cliches.

"Those expecting Kalashnikovs will be disappointed," warned Breton in an interview with AFP, referring to the weapon of choice of Marseille's criminals to settle scores and keep police at bay. "It's out of the question to do any Marseille-bashing," Franck said.

Even though the eight episodes set in the southern coastal city, France's second-biggest after Paris, will delve into its dark underworld -- made famous in the 1971 Hollywood movie "The French Connection" -- the lead characters do not include any police officers.

Indeed, the city itself looms largest.

"We chose Marseille because it's a city with an absolutely incredible personalty," said Franck, sitting with Breton in a bar overlooking Marseille's colourful historic port.

"The ghettos are a character. The politicians are characters. That's what interests us, it's not about standing up or tearing down Marseille's image.

Human passions are strong everywhere, and they are even stronger in a Mediterranean city -- a city like Marseille, that is bigger than life, as the Americans say," Breton added.

Focus on power struggle

The focus of the show is Marseille's city hall, and a power struggle between the veteran mayor and a young, hungry politician looking to usurp him.

All of it is set within a Mediterranean city hosting gangs, ghettos, African and Muslim immigrants, and history dating back to the time of the Greeks.

"It's mainly a conflict between two characters, two forms of political morality, two generations fighting over the same turf," Franck said.

He said he was welcomed everywhere he went to research the story, from the municipal offices to mosques, to criminal kingpins.

"I met some real characters," he said. The organised crime bosses he met, he added, were overjoyed that "people outside their milieu... listened to them".

As in "House of Cards", politics is at the centre of "Marseille".

But while the American show  -- itself based on a British book that was made into a BBC drama of the same title -- is all about national politics, the story in "Marseille" stays local.

Breton however explained that "15 years of French political life" have served as inspiration for the series.

That period would notably include racial tensions in French society and numerous scandals.

But "it's a story that is completely made up," Franck stressed.

"In 'House of Cards' there was cynicism. And in 'Marseille' there is cunning. It's not at all the same. Cunning is human. Cynicism is robotic," he added.

Breton chimed in by emphasising the "passion" in French politics. "In the United States, it's a sort of moral posture, it's almost religious when it comes to politics... But we don't look for a god, we're more looking for a king."

'Theatre facing the sea'

The producer said he sold Netflix on the possibility of making Marseille the backdrop of the show, rather than Paris, by describing how much it was like "a big theatre facing the sea".

While the French-language series will be available in all the countries where Netflix operates, it will serve a special role in France itself, both men predicted.

"You don't see a lot about how French democracy functions on French TV," Breton said. "It's rather difficult to make it spectacular, dramatic, even tragic."

But the fact that Shakespearian struggles of power are now back in fashion -- with no small thanks to "House of Cards" -- means "Marseille" has "space to make its mark," he said. "It's up to us to not fall short."

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