Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (2008) and the crisis of republican integration (a way into the film for students)

Introduction: Made entirely with amateur actors, Entre les murs won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is Cantet’s most successful film to date. It provoked considerable debate within France and travelled widely abroad. It is one of a number of high profile films that have focused on the French school since 2000. These latter include l’Esquive (Kechiche, 2003), Les Choristes (Baratier, 2004) and Etre et avoir (Philibert, 2002).


  1. The French Republican tradition and education

The French tradition, going back to the Revolution and the Enlightenment, is to have an abstract and universalist understanding of citizenship. Whereas other countries, like the UK and the USA, are happy to bring intermediate communities within their national self-definition (one can be British Asian or African American), France defines citizenship in terms of free-thinking individuals not communities or social origins: one is not French Italian or Jewish French within the public or political sphere. One is simply French. Differences of belief or origin are perfectly acceptable as long as they are confined to the private sphere.

French citizenship is seen as universalist rather than simply national in that it builds on universal human values (science, reason, high culture, human rights) with their roots in the European Enlightenment. Within this framework, the citizen decides what to think based on his or her own reasoning and critical thinking (esprit critique) rather than on what he or she has been told to think by religion, by tradition, or by a social authority (e.g. a feudal lord).

Historically, France has been both a country of marked regional / linguistic diversity (Bretons, Normans, Provençaux etc.) and large scale immigration (from both nearby countries like Italy or Portugal and ex-colonial nations such as Algeria or Mali). France prides itself on having turned all these people of diverse origins into French men and women by incorporation into its universalist citizenship. While work and political participation have been important routes to integration, education has played a particularly key role.

Put simply, the Republican school is the place where, leaving their origins and religious beliefs at the door, young people of different social, cultural or religious backgrounds have learned to be French through the encounter with science and reason, high culture and, especially, the French language. Thought to be a model of logic and rule governed clarity, the latter was felt to be universal rather than simply national

2. Criticisms of Republican education

There are long-standing criticisms of the French Republican educational tradition. A lot of these centre on the supposed universalism of the school and the education it dispenses. Put simply, critics suggested that, despite its stated neutrality, the school in fact promoted the values of white, bourgeois men so that its claim to universality was an alibi for its defense of particular interests and values. Similarly, while it seemed to be open to all, and thus to be the foundation of a meritocratic social order based simply on intelligence and effort, it in fact favoured those (the educated bourgeoisie) whose values and way of speaking were closest to its own. If this were true, its apparent meritocracy was in fact a mask for its work of social selection.

3. French integration in crisis ?

In recent years, the French model of integration and universalism has been perceived to be in crisis. In a context of sustained, high unemployment, work is no longer able to play its role of social integration. Social groups with an immigrant background no longer seem willing to simply be French and to erase their more particular identities (or their collective memory of French colonialism). The French national anthem was famously booed by young French people at more than one football match involving the French national team and an ex-colony (Algeria, 2001; Tunisia, 2008) (NB note the importance of football in the film). The suburbs (banlieues) have seen a series of waves of rioting, the most high profile being in 2005. These were associated with young people with an immigrant background in the public eye.  More recently, there has been rising disquiet about radical Islam and its hostility to French Republican values. All these things have given rise to a sense that the French model of national integration no longer works as it once did. In response to this, some voices have retreated to a nostalgic and rigid Republicanism while others have advocated a renewed Republicanism that is more able to incorporate social differences. In the domain of education, this has translated into a debate between républicains and pédagogues: the former hold to a traditionalist model of Republican education (high culture, the French language, the same schooling for all whatever their origins and socio-cultural differences left at the door of the school); the latter defend a pupil-centred education that seeks to build bridges to what the pupils bring with them. They are not anti-Republican but feel that the Republican model needs to be renewed to engage with a different and more diverse society and to address its known blind-spots.

Résumé du film

Le film suit une classe de 4ème et son prof de français, François Marin, dans un collège parisien d’une grande mixité sociale, pendant une année scolaire. Par contraste avec le professeur d’histoire-géo, Fred, plutôt traditionnaliste, François essaie d’employer un modèle pédagogique plus égalitaire et plus ouvert aux identités sociales des élèves. Si le film nous donne une idée du quotidien du collège, il s’intéresse plutôt aux moments de crise ou de drame. Un de ceux-ci arrive quand la mère de Wei, un excellent élève, est menacée d’expulsion du pays parce que ses papiers ne sont pas en règle : si elle est expulsée, Wei risque de devoir partir avec elle. Les profs sont tous d’accord pour soutenir Wei et sa mère. Un autre moment de drame concerne Souleymane, un élève d’origine malienne qui semble peu motivé par ses études et se fâche trop facilement. Suite à une réunion du conseil de classe, les deux déléguées des élèves lui révèlent que François l’a décrit comme ‘limité.’ Fâché par cette indiscrétion, François traite les deux déléguées (dont une s’appelle Esmeralda) de ‘pétasses’ devant le reste de la classe : Souleymane pète les plombs, tutoie François, et sort abruptement de la classe, blessant une autre élève à la figure avec son sac. Suite à une réunion du conseil de discipline auquel participe François, en tant que représentant élu des profs, Souleymane est exclu de l’école. On apprend qu’il va peut-être être renvoyé au Mali par son père. A la fin de l’année scolaire, François demande aux membres de sa classe ce qu’ils ont appris pendant l’année. Esmeralda dit ne rien avoir appris à l’école mais raconte, au grand étonnement de François, qu’elle a lu La République de Platon. Quand les autres élèves sortent, Henriette s’approche de François pour lui avouer qu’elle n’a rien compris pendant l’année et qu’elle craint de devoir faire un bac technique. L’année termine avec un match de football auquel prennent part profs et élèves dans la cour de l’école.


Entre les murs in the context of Cantet’s film-making

Cantet in general


Entre les murs
Likes to work with amateur performers as experts on their own lives: prefers long period of workshopping to hone the script.


The film’s pupils are pupils, its teachers teachers and parents parents. Cantet work-shopped with the pupils on a Wednesday p.m. across the academic year. The film was shot in socially mixed school in Paris near where François Bégaudeau, the author of the source novel, taught. Classroom scenes used using three digital cameras.
Often turns to adaptation of texts as a way to gain access to areas he is not an expert in.


Bégaudeau, the book’s author, was a teacher and film critic. He played the central part in the film and was a kind of alter ego for the director.


Typically uses often contemporary stories and issues as a pretext for exploring a social context and its fault-lines.


The film feeds off the quarrel in France between républicains and pedagogues.  Fred, the histoire-géo teacher, embodies the former and François, the latter (see table below). This quarrel is used to open up broader issues about the French Republican school, its capacity to develop equality, or exclude pupils, and its ability to deal with France’s culturally diverse and class-differentiated population.


Films explore tension between individuals and groups and broader social milieu, often using the mechanism of shame. All individuals are social so the context is inside them but they are also individually placed with respect to it. The visual field in a Cantet film is always a divided one as no two looks exactly coincide even when they occupy the same space.


The film tests out the relationship between François, the hero, and his class, on the one hand, and his colleagues, on the other, against the background of the school and its place in French society. At the same time, the place of a character like Souleymane, the excluded pupil, is also explored in relation to the same groups and contexts.


Space in Cantet’s films is always uneven: each space has its own dynamics but also opens to the outside and is influenced by it. Movement through space(s) brings power dynamics into view. Borders and boundaries are often important.


The film’s action plays out across various spaces in the school, each with different power dynamics (the staff room, the classroom, the cour de recréation, the library (where the exclusion hearing is heard). The school is partly closed off from the outside world (its action occurs entre les murs) and partly open to it.


Cantet’s films often explore and challenge utopias, either conservative ones (the existing world is positive) or radical (a better world is possible).


The film tests out the ability of the Republican school to deliver an egalitarian education and to create a unified national community of free thinking individuals (liberté, égalité, fraternité).


Cantet’s films work to destabilize the presuppositions of their characters and their viewers. They avoid any easy outcomes and ask us to position ourselves with respect to a complex social field.


The film makes it difficult to come to any simple or ready-made judgement, not least by having a range of endings.



Républicains et pédagogues in the film



Traditional, Republican teacher


Pupil-centred learning
The same treatment for all regardless of origins Tries to connect to what each pupil brings with them (the need to build bridges between the Republican school and a diverse society)
Wants François to teach Voltaire (Enlightenment literature)


Teaches Diary of Anne Frank
Does not take into account what may happen to Souleymane outside the walls of the school


Believes they should take account of social and other consequences of exclusion
Believes Souleymane had already left the school (in his mind)


Worried about school’s role in exclusion


Prof. Martin O’Shaughnessy, Nottingham Trent University 



Further Resources

Study guides for the film.


Interviews with Cantet about the film,29327.php


Some of the conflicting opinions on the film


The official press-book

file:///C:/Users/Home/Downloads/dossier-presse-entre-les-murs%20(1).pdf   or from here :






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