Grégory Fitoussi stirs his coffee and considers the vortex. “Europe is changing so fast,” he says. “The whole world is waiting for something to happen. I’m not sure it’s going to be something good.”
The star of Spin has a point. For the first time since the Second World War, Europe is the floodlit centre of the world stage. With pressure from the far right in France, Holland, Germany, Greece, and the nervous regrouping of alliances around Russia, European democracy is in crisis.
As Britain drags its gaze from the spectacle of US politics to its nearer neighbours, Spin, the French political thriller that, for its first two series, enjoyed cult status on More4, suddenly seems like required viewing. The third and final season opens with the assassination of a far-right politician, who’s riding high in the polls and is tipped to be the new French president. And this in the same month the French go to the polls to vote for a real president.
With the narrow defeat of extreme right-winger Geert Wilders in last month’s Dutch elections, and Angela Merkel’s centre-right position looking ever more precarious in Germany, the upcoming French elections are a bellwether for the rest of Europe. Can Fitoussi see Front National leader Marine Le Pen sweeping into power?
“All I can say is I’m really scared. I don’t think this will happen, but yes, there’s a chance the far right could win. And I honestly don’t want to think about that.”
France’s best chance, he says, is that the “shock results” of Trump’s presidency and Brexit will act as a wake-up call to disaffected voters. “People who haven’t voted for years because they think that everything will be the same whoever wins, maybe those people will look at Trump and think, ‘Actually, this time it can be really dangerous?’ ” Fitoussi sets the thought rolling with an epic Gallic shrug.
The 40-year-old actor, already known to British viewers for his roles in Mr Selfridge and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, plus Spiral(another French-language hit), has a thoughtful manner. It’s a far cry from his Spin persona, media adviser Ludovic Desmeuze (think Malcolm Tucker without the jokes but with immeasurably better suits).
Nicolas Marié as Alain Marjorie and Anne Loiret as Annie Vaneck in Spin
Terror attacks on France, says Fitoussi, have forced a new mood of self-reflection and he recalls, only too vividly, the massacre, in November 2015, of 89 people in the Bataclan concert hall, just a few hundred metres from his Paris flat: “We know these things can happen anywhere, at any time. Nothing can justify such horrible acts, and when it happens in another part of the world, you’re sorry for the people there. But when it’s just downstairs, when you hear the gunshots, it’s different. We need as a country to think, ‘Why is this happening?’”
Spin, with its rapid-response storylines, is part of that self-reflective mood. Known in France as Les hommes de l’ombre(Men of Shadows), the drama probes the softest parts of the establishment. And if resemblance to real people or events is incidental, French viewers and a gleeful French press are well able to make connections. Series three, seen in France last autumn, ramped up the intrigue at the Elysée Palace and Le Monde did not miss its mark, claiming, “The current President of the Republic and his men of shadows may well see their own stories played out on the small screen.”
Fitoussi agrees. “Sometimes, after reading the scripts, we think, ‘No, this is going too far,’ and then, a couple of months later, we have exactly the same thing going on for real.”
Part of Spin’s genius is its ability to maintain a discreet, legal distance from public figures and events. The first series set up the scenario of an Islamic extremist bomb attack. It ran with a persuasive portrait of the far right’s attempt to capitalise on public fears, before revealing that the bomb had nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Series two launched a storyline about the release of French hostages from an Algerian power plant, closely recalling the attack by militants on the Tigantourine gas plant in 2013.
Series three sails still closer to the wind. President François Hollande, whose dignity has never quite recovered from revelations about life in the Elysée by his former partner, Valérie Trierweiler, cannot be greatly entertained by a storyline about a Socialist president caught between his young mistress and an unstable First Lady.
A subplot around a back-stabbing prime minister closely matches the career curve of Manuel Valls (French premier ministre2014–16). And as the series develops, other familiar-looking hares are set running. A glamorous and ambitious minister from a poor, north African family has more in common with former Minister of Justice Rachida Dati than her killer heels, while a subplot about radicalisation in the Paris suburbs is all too current a story.
(L-R) Laurent Lucas as Maxime Beaugendre, Nicolas Marié as Alain Marjorie and Anne Loiret as Annie Vaneck
As for Fitoussi, his character has no real counterpart and no real politics: “I don’t see Ludovic as a bad guy. He’s not kind, and he doesn’t bother being polite or nice with people, but he’s in a world of sharks, where each must bite deeper than the next. And like so many people who don’t behave well, I think he’s convinced he’s in the right. He could be working for the left or the right – he doesn’t care – but he knows what his goals are and does what it takes to achieve them.”
What it takes with the women in Ludovic’s powerful force field is not complicated. “I try, always, to make him a little bit ‘pervert’,” says Fitoussi, in the Gauloise-roughened voice that, on screen, has stony-faced political mavens falling at his feet. “Because, for him, everything is about power. He has sexual power over women and he knows this, so he uses it. But it’s a little sad because this guy doesn’t have feelings for anyone. He’s a bit lonely. I wouldn’t like to be him.”
Time spent with real political spin doctors was, he says, instructive and “a little bit scary”. Most shocking to Fitoussi was the genuine clout of media advisers in government. “Before, I thought the job was pretty much about telling clients what colour of tie to wear, but these really are the guys holding the strings of our politicians.”
In the era of “fake news”, he believes, the issue of spin has never been more crucial: people are hungry to know what goes on behind the scenes. “There are those who think everything is fake. It’s a very serious problem, and it’s one of the reasons why people want to watch this kind of drama.”
For his own part, he is “not completely cynical” about politics, but he’s heading that way. “It looks like it’s impossible for politicians to be honest,” he says. “It seems to me that no matter how they try to be good, and to do good, they can’t manage it in the world they’re living in. It’s not even their fault. I’d love to see just one politician who could be 100 per cent trusted. Show me that guy, and I’ll vote for him. I’ll vote for someone, it’s my civic duty, but it’s not straightforward.”