Savages: The Wedding by Sabri Louatah review – sharp French political thriller

Tension mounts as the French prepare to elect their first Arab president…

This novel arrives in English with a high reputation from France, where it was published in 2011 and was an immediate bestseller. It won almost unanimous praise from the French press and feverish, if unlikely, comparisons with Philip Roth, Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante. TV rights were sold and literary prizes have been won. This phenomenon was all the more amazing given that, when all of this happened, Louatah was still in his late 20s, a nobody from the gritty town of Saint-Etienne, addicted to American cop shows, and in every sense at a far remove from the Parisian literary world.

The central premise is that France is about to elect its first president of Arab (Algerian) origin. Idder Chaouch – nicknamed the “French Obama” by the American press – is meant to heal the old wounds of race and religion in France with a new, liberal and inclusive government. He is charismatic and mischievous, a graduate of the elite Ecole National d’Administration who speaks fluent English; he is also aware that a dangerously large section of the French population wants to kill him. In the run-up to the final vote tension builds as the possibility of a terrorist attack – most probably from an Islamist group – grows ever closer.

Meanwhile we have the Nerrouche family, Algerians established in France, who are gathering for a big reunion at a family wedding in Saint-Etienne. Like all families, there are rifts, power plays and multilayered grudges. There is also an indirect link to Chaouch. One member of the family, Fouad, is a well-loved celebrity in France – a Zidane-like figure who plays a fictional football coach on TV. Most significantly, Fouad has also just endorsed the presidential candidate, a gesture that may well tip the balance.

This is where the real danger for Chaouch lies. More specifically, Fouad’s cousin Krim, an angry and lost soul, has fallen in with powerful gangsters and is easy prey for manipulation. So the scene is set for a conflict where very different worlds collide. This ending is also a cliffhanger. And it works: like any good Netflix series you are now locked in and waiting for the next instalment. There are three more volumes to come.

This is not the first time that the scenario of a French Arab president has been in a French-language novel – this was also the conceit of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, published the same week as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015. Savages is, however, a far superior book, having more in common with the complex and crafted plotting of The Sopranos or The Wire than the arch, sarcasm of Houellebecq’s dystopia.

Louatah says that he was inspired by news coverage of the riots that broke out all over France in 2005. He also says that he was reading Dostoevsky at the same time as watching the news. This makes sense – Savages is both a 21st-century political thriller and a dark premonition in the manner of the great Russian doomsayer.

He promises no happy ending to the tensions that still plague France, but the book manages to thrill and entertain, while never losing the sharp political edge that also makes it important.

Andrew Hussey is the author of The French Intifada (Granta, 2014).

Savages: The Wedding is published by Corsair. To order a copy for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Andrew Hussey

The GuardianTramp

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