Similarly to the UK, the Northern part of France was once the heart of the industrial revolution. But since the area has suffered the backlash of globalisation. Coal mines have closed one after the other with artificial hills as their only atavisms. The steel manufacturers are struggling in spite of constant innovations. In other words, the region has lost its former appeal, and can hardly compensate this economical down-turn with tourism, especially when facing the domestic competition of the French Riviera or the Basque country.
This area of France was consequently badly hit by the economical recession. Unemployment is high and companies, like tourists, do not seem to find this European crossroads appealing. The media themselves seldom speak of the region with good news. The headlines are most of the time dedicated to social plans or to even more gruesome news as some of the recent paedophile stories happened to arise in the region.
But there is one asset on which the region can capitalise on, and this is its inhabitants. As the poet used to say, "people from the North have in their heart the warmth they do not have outside". And they proved in many occasions. On football stadiums for instance, where RC Lens supporters are renowned for being one of the most supportive and cheerful crowd in the Hexagon. Since the people from the region are mostly from the working class, they don't try to pretend, they just live and enjoy every moments of happiness they can encounter. To that extend the Carnival in Dunkerque is quite famous for its en masse binge drinking and parties.
It is more than folklore, more than traditions... It's a real culture. And this is substantiated by its own language. Like in Britain, Basque country and Corsica, there are some reminiscences of an old endemic language which awkwardly blends with French nowadays. The youth might only use a few words of what was once a language, but they are still proud to master Ch'ti (reads "shtee").
North strikes back.
Ch'ti, and by extension its culture, being deeply rooted in the working class is often associated with, what you call in the UK, chavs. And the above mentioned events are doing no good to improve this pejorative image. Except that fashion has a strange habit to turn what is popular into hype. And as a result, there is currently a true Ch'ti momentum on the other side of the Channel.
The flagship of this trend is the movie "Bienvenue chez les Ch'ti" (or "Welcome to the land of the Ch'tis" currently aired at Cine Lumière, London). The synopsis capitalises on the cultural chock of a business guy who was used to living in Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast before being transferred to the filial in the North. Imagine a Brighton boho sent in a remote part of Wales if you want. Misunderstandings, local slang and idioms, weather clashes... All the clichés are there to turn this film into an hilarious moment. Of course you are miles away from Nouvelle Vague and other highbrow features, but in the current gloomy atmosphere, light entertainment is highly welcome.
And the box-office can only testify of this popular success: on April 7th, 17,405,832 unique tickets had been sold which placed the Ch'tis as the second all-time success in France, first French production outperforming the almost holly "La Grande Vadrouille" with de Funes and Bourvil. The only film that is still resisting the northern invasion is James Cameron's Titanic with 20,758,841. But for how long? With the Easter holidays zooming in, its record might well fall apart. (EDIT: On May 20th, 20 005 207 unique tickets).
Were the producers expecting such a success? Probably not. But it's worth noting that they adopted an interesting launch strategy. They indeed decided to release the film only in the North first, and then on the national networks. And it worked very well because the Ch'ti rushed to see their region beamed on big screens with pride instead of shame. The buzz did the rest to spread the word around the country. And beyond since I am writing about it today...
But don't think of this film as an epiphenomenon. It's only the tip of an Iceberg (maybe the one that is to sink Titanic). As a matter of fact, the Northern culture is spreading. It is not only synonym of French fries and mussels, bier, chavs, red-and-yellow scarves... Nowadays being from Ch'ti land has become hype. Another example? One of the current icon of the French Touch, DJ Medhi, has just released a new video clip for one of his tune called, Signatune (Dj Mehdi / T. Bangalter edit) on YouTube. The video has been shot with real life actors in real environment... And of course you need to have a look at this video with an ironic eye:
The Ch'ti have managed to conquer France, they are reaching currently beyond the frontiers. Where will they stop? Maybe when they will run out of beer... Maybe.