Intouchables is the most popular French film in recent years, breaking box office records both in France and around the world. Based on a true story, the 2011 release depicts the unlikely friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic and his ex-convict home health care worker from the banlieues. It has become one of the highest-grossing non-English language films of all time and was praised by critics as both a positive depiction of disability and an opportunity for disabled people to see their lives depicted on-screen. However, for the majority of French people living with disabilities, this well-meaning film is far removed from the reality of disability policy under austerity that its narrative is as ‘untouchable’ as the title would suggest.
Despite the fact that critics have lauded Intouchables as a positive interpretation of a real person with a disability, the lead character, Philippe, is in fact wealthy enough to live in a mansion and pay for his own team of staff. While his independence and fortitude in the face of his condition are part of the film’s appeal, it has become harder for disabled people in France to exercise similar autonomy over their own lives due to reductions in disability benefits, which have also hindered progress in disability legislation. Since 2010, France has repeatedly cut disability aid amid outcries from French disability groups, including FNATH (Fédération Nationale des Accidentés du Travail et des Handicapés,) who have stated that ‘choosing the most fragile and excluded people in society for budget cuts is unacceptable.’ France made significant changes to disability reform in 2005 with the Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act, which promoted ‘equal rights and opportunities, participation and citizenship for disabled people.’ While this law enacted substantial change in company-based legislation regarding the hiring of disabled employees, austerity measures have jeopardised continued progress, meaning that targets for accessibility that were given deadlines in 2015 are not likely to be met.
This mirrors remarks made by disabled French diplomat Edouarde Braine, who told a French radio station after a visit to London in 2012 that the UK was ‘between 30 and 50 years ahead of France in its attitude and acceptance of people with a disability’, mainly due to basic issues of transport accessibility. While British people living with disabilities have also been affected by austerity measures, Braine’s statement is indicative of the significant lack of progress in French disability reform. For Braine and many other campaigners, the great tragedy of this is that many educational institutions are not equipped to welcome students with disabilities, meaning that they will find it harder to gain qualifications and enter the workplace. Such inequality has even greater impact on enacting further disability legislation as people with disabilities are prevented from reaching higher levels of responsibility and influence.
This neglect of disability rights in France represents an enormous duality within the state of social services in France, as the nation is often used as an example of an idealised welfare state. During the recent recession, welfare services have provided a ‘buffer’ against increasing poverty because, as Fabrice Lenglart of the French National Statistics Institute notes, ‘without the redistribution effects of social transfers, the decline in living standards of 20% of the poorest households would have been four times higher.’ Despite this, France is ranked as one of the ten EU member states who have been the least successful at implementing the UNCRPD (UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) which aims to promote the full and effective participation of disabled people within society. Future cuts are planned for 2015, as Francois Hollande faces the difficult task of appeasing both Germany and his discontented electorate. As justification for cutting social services by €9.6 billion, Hollande has stated that ‘no savings plan is painless’ and that ‘if you don’t hear screaming, we’re not saving.’ While the announcement of these cutbacks has been met with protests, the lack of representation for disabled people means that the French government has come to see disability rights as an area that is easy to neglect.
The effects of the lack of actual representation for disabled people are consistently apparent worldwide, as advances in rights for disabled people have faltered dramatically as a result of the financial crisis. This is despite the success of figures such as American model and athlete Aimee Mullins, who rose to prominence in 1996 when she broke records for track and field at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta. Mullins, who is a bilateral below-the-knee amputee and has reached a wider audience through her TED talks, is seen as a pioneer for disability rights. However, while Mullins and the character of Philippe in Intouchables have brought the issue of disabilities back under the spotlight worldwide, they also represent an image of disability that is easily acceptable for the public. Both are white, educated, successful, and look conventional on camera, and neither would be adversely affected by the current cuts on disability benefits. Crucially, with regards to Intouchables, the character of Philippe is not even portrayed by someone with a disability, but rather by an able-bodied actor. Consequently, through its absence of actual depiction of people with disabilities, Intouchables highlights the importance of representation with regards to disability rights in ways that have more impact than just making able-bodied people feel comfortable.
Above all, Intouchables displays the inconsistency between public perception of disability rights and the reality, which is far more complex than any feel-good film would have the viewer believe. This is particularly pressing at a time when governments across Europe have cut benefits that allow disabled people to live autonomous lives through the justification that deficits need to be reduced. More than anything, the success of Intouchables in recent years sheds light on how the issue of lack of representation in relation to disability rights and legislation continues to be fatally disregarded.