International audiences might recognise him best as Lucien, the cheeky Montmartre greengrocer’s assistant in the heartwarming 2001 Parisian blockbuster Amélie. But to French viewers, Franco-Moroccan Jamel Debbouze is even more of a household name – one of France’s most popular comedians, who started performing at an early age from a modest upbringing on a housing estate in a Parisian banlieue.
Against all odds, Debbouze’s school class at the Collège Gustave Flaubert in Trappes, a suburb 30km south-west of Paris, produced three famous names. One of his classmates was Omar Sy, who won awards for his role in last year’s critically acclaimed French movie, Intouchables. Also in the class was footballer Nicolas Anelka, who was in the French national team for 12 years as well as playing at Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and now Shanghai.
“You leave [the banlieue] with quite a heavy handicap and when you arrive in Paris there are a lot of preconceptions to deal with,” Debbouze told the Grand Journal on Canal+ earlier this year. “Trappes made us strong – it moulded us. We appreciate that we’re exceptions to the rule and that not everyone can follow the same path that we have had.”
He told TF1 News: “I’m very happy with what’s happened – I didn’t plan it or calculate it. It just happened naturally.” For Debbouze, a career in performing came by chance, and at a relatively young age. He was 15 when he made his first theatre appearance, after catching the attention of Alain Degois, director of local improvised theatre company, Déclic Théâtre, and who he refers to as “Papy” (granddad).
That same year, Debbouze was caught up in a fight with a group of youths on a platform at Trappes station and was struck by a train speeding through at 150kph.
He lost the use of his right arm and another man, Jean-Paul Admette, was killed. Debbouze stood accused of manslaughter, but was cleared by a judge and again by an appeal court, which ruled that there was no case for him to answer.
Debbouze still returns to Trappes and remains in contact with Anelka and Sy. They worked together on a Canal+ documentary last year, L’Entrée des Trappistes, which sees them return to their Cité Van Gogh estate and features interviews with residents inspired by their success.
The documentary was produced by Mélissa Theuriau, who also happens to be Debbouze’s wife since 2008 and the mother of their two young children, Léon and Lila. Debbouze’s latest stand-up show, Tout sur Jamel, is still touring France and is his first new comedy show in seven years. In it he talks openly about his marriage and family life in the show – and says he still finds it unsettling that mixed nationality marriages such as his raise eyebrows among some people.
“There are always preconceptions,” he told Claire Chazal on TF1 News last year. “I’m lucky to have found in-laws who are very open and intelligent – not everyone has that chance. When you’re a mixed race couple, effectively you’re confronted by certain things. I’ve been very lucky, but it’s still a talking point in this day and age, and I find that strange.”
His performances also touch on current affairs and politics. Debbouze is a regular critic of the Sarkozy government and told TF1 News: “I’m very aware of the society around me. I like having a laugh and making others laugh, but if people can leave [my show] with an idea in their head on religion or politics, I think that’s important.
“The political parties we have today don’t really satisfy me. I want a party that has a proper programme and really wants to change things. We are lucky to live in a democracy and to be able to vote and choose. In some places less than two hours away by plane they don’t have that chance.”
He is also highly critical of politicians who draw on banlieue stereotypes and attempt to make a link between immigration and crime.
“I think people realise that politicians are lying to us about this,” he said in a recent interview.
“Where there are big melting pots and the highest number of foreigners isn’t where there is the most crime. It’s completely false.”
After backing Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal in 2007, Debbouze turned his support to Martine Aubry last year, during the party primary elections, declaring in typical style: “J’aime cette meuf” (I like this girl) and praising her work as mayor of Lille. He will be voting for François Hollande.
Projects for 2012 include work on a 3D film adaptation of the Roy Lewis novel The Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father. He also stars alongside Alain Chabat in the comedy film Sur La Piste Du Marsupilami out this month.
Next year Debbouze is reunited with Omar Sy and Amélie star Audrey Tautou in fantasy drama L’Ecume des Jours, and joins Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Anthony Hopkins in Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ new film 360. Harking back to his comments on foreigners and crime, he is also co-producing a film, Né Quelque Part, in which he plays a Moroccan identity thief.
Away from the big screen, he is organising a series of comedy shows for performers in Marrakech, Le Marrakech du Rire. Launched last year, highlights were released on DVD last month. A second festival is planned for June.
His success has also inspired others in the family: Debbouze’s younger brother Rachid is an up-and-coming actor, whose first film appearance was in La Désintégration, about radical Islam and the banlieues, in February.