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Say what you Sy: Black actor from the banlieues is France's most popular person

  • @indyvoices

The most popular person in France is a black man born in a troubled Paris suburb 34 years ago. The actor and comedian Omar Sy (pronounced "See") was elevated to the position in French hearts dominated for years by the marine explorer Jacques Cousteau and the saintly campaigner for the homeless, Abbé Pierre.

The actor's selection in an opinion poll as the country's most admired public figure was hailed as a symbol of the success of France's multi-racial "republican dream".

The twice-annual poll of the 50 most popular figures, organised since 1988 by the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, has been increasingly dominated in recent years by celebrities of African, West Indian, Arab or Jewish origin. The top four personalities in yesterday's poll were: Sy, whose parents are Senegalese and Mauritanian; the Jewish comedian and actor Gad Elmaleh; the tennis star turned singer Yannick Noah, a French West Indian; and the comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze, who is of Moroccan origin. Fifth place went to the Oscar-winning actor Jean Dujardin.

President François Hollande, who was 15th in the last similar poll in August, slumped to 45th. The actor Gérard Depardieu, mired in controversy about his personal behaviour and bid for tax exile in Belgium, disappeared from the top 50 for the first time in two decades. He at was No 47 in August and No 25 last year.

The poll suggests that a large section of the population is colour blind, despite the success of the xenophobic, far-right National Front party in recent elections. For the past five years, the Journal du Dimanche poll has been won by Noah and, before him, the footballer Zinedine Zidane (eighth this year) whose parents were born in Algeria.

For its first 15 years, the popularity survey was won by the explorer and television star Cousteau, followed by the Catholic priest and anti-poverty campaigner, Pierre. However, the triumph of Sy – who co-starred in this year's hit comic movie Les Intouchables – provoked an explosion of churlish comment on right-wing websites. Many contributors suggested that the poll was rigged to be politically correct. Others accused Sy, 34, of being just as much a tax exile as the 64-year-old Depardieu, who was criticised by the French government this month for moving across the border into Belgium.

Sy, who was born in the poor south-west Paris suburb of Trappes, and went to school with his fellow nominee Debbouze and the footballer Nicolas Anelka, moved his family to Los Angeles last summer in order to improve his English and try to break through in Hollywood.

But in an interview a few days ago, he said he intended to continue to pay taxes in France. "I grew up with [state] family benefits," he said. "They gave my parents a big helping hand. Paying taxes is no problem for me. It is a bit like I was paying back a debt."