Le Bureau: France’s answer to The Office.
FT Magazine cover story

Je vous présente - le David Brent français François Berléand has a hard act to follow as the awful boss in the French version of The Office. But swap beer for champagne, and Slough for a Paris banlieue, and Le Bureau is born.

Our taxi left central Paris behind some 20 minutes ago. We are now on the autoroute, speeding through an endless grey hinterland of zones industrielles, a cold rain lashing against the windscreen. I am sitting in the back, sandwiched between two French journalists, TV critics from Le Monde and Sud Ouest, neither of whom is enthused by the day ahead. "So, neither of you has even heard of the British TV series The Office?" I venture. Shrugs. "It was really successful in England," I say. Silence.

We pull up in a cul-de-sac of run-down office blocks in Aulnay-sous-bois, a grim Parisian banlieue that was set alight in last year's French riots. A motorway flyover thunders overhead a few metres away.

The French pay television network, Canal Plus, has invited 12 of us here to see the set of their new fake documentary about office life, Le Bureau, a Gallic version of the phenomenally successful BBC series, The Office.

The British programme, which first aired in 2001, was set in the fictional paper merchants of Wernham Hogg in Slough, a dull town outside London on which the poet John Betjeman once willed "friendly bombs" to fall.

In Le Bureau, Wernham Hogg has become Cogirep, a paper business that is, according to the script, set in the suburban business park of Villepinte. The two thirty-something directors of Le Bureau, Nicolas and Bruno (they go by first names only) decided that Villepinte, though suitably dull, was not sufficiently appalling for their needs. Aulnay-sous-bois, 3km away, was ideal however: it didn't even have any decent restaurants for lunch. "We found people eating sandwiches in their cars on a hot summer's day," they told me, horrified.

Somehow, it is hard to imagine that the creators of The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, fretted about decent restaurants when they went location scouting, not in our nation of packed-lunchers.

So can The Office, a quintessentially British comedy, be convincingly adapted by our long-lunching neighbours? The Americans – the only other country to try adapting the series – managed to pull it off, but their fast-food habits and working hours are much more akin to ours.

And the French, unlike the British, are hardly known for their comic understatement. The Office is full of bird and beer jokes. Does "Just the eight pints for me, then" work if it becomes one too many coupes de champagne? And what of the monstrous boss, David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais? Would a French patron ever embarrass himself to the extent that Brent does daily at Wernham Hogg, telling sexist jokes and doing lame impressions of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry? Isn't it all much more glamorous in the 35-hour working week of l'entreprise?

It is hard to picture the French schlepping into dull offices in ill-fitting suits, munching soggy sandwiches and flopping in front of the TV every evening. We still insist on imagining them in a Gauloise-scented world, talking intellectual waffle over croissants and cafe crème. What Le Bureau confirms is that millions of French live the same dreary office-bound existence as we do. Working in a French suburb is every bit as soul-destroying and mundane as it is here. And the boss in a French bureau could easily be as bad as David Brent.

Le Bureau is being filmed in a disused office block that used to be owned by France Telecom. A large room on the first floor has been built from scratch to become Cogirep's premises. It looks much like Wernham Hogg: small and open-plan with the usual assortment of water-coolers, rubber plants and Post-it notes.
But the furniture is shabbier: a sad assemblage of desks, lamps and chairs from the 1970s and 1980s. The walls are a sludgy green; the windows look out on to the flyover and a lone fir tree.

The only self-contained office belongs to Gilles Triquet, the French David Brent. He is played by the affable François Berléand, a household name whose films include Pierre Jolivet's Ma Petite Entreprise, for which he won the French version of an Oscar – a César – for his portrayal of a Brent-like insurance broker.

Unlike David Brent's sparse grey office, Triquet has a seedy, ill-lit lair. A Homer Simpson figure stands on the desk, in the shadow of a huge phallic cactus. There is a framed photo on the wall of the slick leather interiors of a Jaguar (probably not his own) and, most shocking of all, an overflowing ashtray.

The directors, Nicolas, dark and shaven-headed, and Bruno, fairer and sharper-featured, look out of place in the sad office surroundings they have created. The sadness is compounded by the genuine office employees whom the directors have chosen to play some of the minor characters in the series. (When filming first began, the professional actors were impressed by the naturalism of their colleagues, unaware they had never acted before in their lives.)

As we stand and watch, the "documentary team" doing the filming ask the non-actors to say what they think of Gilles Triquet's latest faux pas: he has, Brentishly, accepted a promotion at the same time as he has fired some of his staff. The team go around the room, as the employees deliver their comments: "C'est un connard (bastard)," says a woman with dyed dark red hair.

"After everything I have given to this office, I'm really disgusted," says a younger woman, almost on the brink of tears.

There was a scene in The Office just like this, except that for the French non-actors, the threat of unemployment is all too real. Especially in a suburb such as Aulnay-sous-bois where unemployment is between 20 and 30 per cent. Unemployment in the surburbs is at least twice the national average – and one of the main reasons that the riots broke out in these areas last November. Since then, government attempts to address youth unemployment have led to national strikes and massive street protests.

After the filming, I head to the studio canteen to chat to some of the actors and mention what an honour it is to meet the French versions of Tim and Gareth, two of the most popular characters in The Office. The actors seem slightly surprised. Not only have the British characters become icons, I explain, but the actors have gone on to Hollywood. Maybe it will be the same for the cast of Le Bureau?
Perhaps "Triquetismes" will become as popular in the French vernacular as the "Brentisms" we admire, such as "I am a friend first, a boss second... probably an entertainer third."

"We have heard The Office was successful," says Jérémie Elkaïm, who plays Paul, the French version of Tim. "But we haven't seen it." It turns out that not one cast member has seen the original. I'm astounded, but Nicolas and Bruno asked the cast to resist watching it until post-production, so that they would come fresh to their roles. (They made an exception for Berléand, but only let him watch one episode, in order to get the general gist.)

Ricky Gervais was closely involved with the American version of The Office (now in its third series) and has spoken publicly about his enthusiasm for a foreign-language adaptation: "I'm still genuinely shocked at The Office's appeal in other countries," he told the BBC. "We didn't write it with a world market in mind. We wrote it for ourselves and like-minded people. There are a lot more of those people than we could have imagined. But I won't be happy till I see an Inuit doing the dance (the infamous impromptu charity dance David Brent breaks into during one episode)."

In order to get the rights to make Le Bureau, Canal Plus and the directors had to agree to stick closely to The Office's plot, structure and timing. But they were given free rein to adapt the jokes and characters to suit a French audience. Neither director has spoken to Gervais or Merchant, but they were already familiar with the comic potential of the white-collar workplace. Before Le Bureau, the pair made a hit television series about office life called Message a Caractere Informatif (Informative Messages), which mocked corporate life by dubbing American promotional videos with incongruous French voiceovers. It was unusual in France, where satires of working life had been quite rare until 2001 when Corinne Maier, an economist at the state-owned Electricite de France (EDF) published Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness), a best-selling guide on how to get away with doing nothing at work. Maier says that before her book brought the hypocrisy and malaise of French working life to the attention of a French public, it would not have been possible to make an adaptation of The Office – of which she is a fan. "French television is rubbish," she says. "Canal Plus is the only channel daring enough."

To make Le Bureau as realistic as possible, Nicolas and Bruno spent several months visiting small companies outside Paris, spending days at a time watching employees work. Their forays confirmed that the French David Brent is alive and well. They even found a female version, who took them into her confidence to boast about her office conquests.

Every detail on the set, they told me, from the leftover Christmas decorations and abandoned pizza slices, to the cheap synthetic suits and long blank faces, is the result of their work experience.

I ask them whether the offices they visited were really as bad as their recreation suggests? "Much worse, in fact," says Nicolas, adding that the real people they saw were shockingly lacking in enthusiasm, and very unhappy in their jobs. Maier would certainly agree.

The cast of The Office was virtually unknown in Britain, so when the series was first broadcast many BBC viewers mistook it for a real documentary, which was precisely what was intended, and a big part of its initial success. This won't happen when Le Bureau airs on May 25, because Berléand is so well known. Surely that made it hard for Nicolas and Bruno to simulate real office life? "On the contrary," says Nicolas firmly. "We felt we needed an experienced comedian to bring something strong to the role we had imagined. Ricky Gervais had a very personal vision. We couldn't imitate that."

Canal Plus later gave me a DVD of the first three episodes of Le Bureau, which I watched with a group of French friends who laughed heartily throughout.
Although the plot is the same as that of The Office, Gallic shrugs and pouts abound and there are some notable additions, such as a belching water-cooler and lone shots of employees on all fours under their desks or bending over suggestively.

Berléand brings the right balance of tragedy and absurdity to the role of Gilles Triquet/David Brent, and the other actors successfully counter him with deadpan nonchalance. Triquet shares many of David Brent's berkish character traits: both are lonely, self-deluded, work-avoiding clowns. But in other respects the two characters are quite different. Brent desperately internet-dates; Triquet is resolutely single. Brent is a late-thirtysomething who, thanks to tubbiness and ineptitude, seems older; Triquet is 49 and has more natural authority than Brent, but in a sense he is even more pathetic. He is in tragic denial about his age, and with his Robert Pires-style landing-strip beard, is desperate to stay on a level with his younger colleagues, even when this means resorting to absurd assertions such as "We are all of the Mitterrand generation." (In his case, it's more like Pompidou.)

He pads around the office in white socks, and uses expressions such as "à plus-t" (meaning "later") and "tranquille" (equivalent to our ubiquitous "cool"). He breaks into occasional verlan (the slang spoken by 15-year-olds in the suburbs in which words are separated into syllables and then reversed), mortifying his younger colleagues with exclamations such as "chanme!" – verlan for méchant, the equivalent of "wicked!" (meaning great).

Triquet is at his most cringeworthy, especially for French viewers, when he uses Anglo-Saxon management-speak such as "team-building", "blind trust" and "On est tous des winners!" (We're all winners) – all with inverted comma hand gestures, naturellement.

In general, the other characters from The Office have been replaced by a more attractive bunch. Jérémie Elkaïm, the screen actor who plays Paul, the French equivalent of the mousy, permanently cold-ridden Tim, is darker and more dashing than his English counterpart, Martin Freeman. The blond west-country military freak, Gareth, was the hardest to find a match for because the British actor, Mackenzie Crook, played the role so disarmingly well. But the directors were very pleased with the way theatre actor Benoît Carré met the challenge. Carré's dark-haired bowl-cut character is in the Armée de Réserve and his desktop is a similarly regimented homage to his extra-curricular passion: a careful arrangement of a French keep-out sign, toy soldiers (Napoleonic) and a camouflage keyboard that the actor found himself.

The character who has been most visibly redrawn is the wry, blonde receptionist Dawn. "Dawn was a quintessential normal English girl. It's hard to find an exact equivalent in France," says Nicolas. So they turned her into Laetitia, a younger, petite brunette of North African origin who probably lives locally. "She is a typical girl whom you might meet in a suburban office. Maghrebine by descent... but totally integrated."

There is certainly no more delicatesse in the French version, especially when it comes to Triquet's racist and sexist gags. In the opening scene of the first episode when he introduces Laetitia to the camera, for example, he refers to her as "la route des épices, la chaleur de l'Orient" (the spice route, the heat of the East).

I ask if French TV will be shocked by such bad taste, especially given the raw state of race relations since last year's riots. You would not see it on the main channels, says Bruno, "but you can say anything on Canal Plus. They don't take their viewers for idiots."

As I suspected, some of The Office's best jokes required revision in Le Bureau: Tim frequently set Gareth's stapler in a bowl of jelly, but jelly doesn't really exist in France so it was swapped for a slab of St Nectaire cheese. And the binge-drinking pub culture that plays such a critical part in Wernham Hogg, and in British office life in general, couldn't work in Le Bureau because the French don't go to the pub after work. Instead, the directors explain, they drink on the premises. "Faire un pot" or having a tipple, around the open-plan desks or in the boss's office happens frequently, and any excuse, from "bon voyage" to a "bon anniversaire" to "bon weekend", is enough to merit a glass of wine, or in some cases champagne – but never a pint. "We don't have such a strong relationship with beer," the directors say. "It's more about the boastful culture surrounding champagne." And what is that exactly? In the same way that Brent would make a big deal of buying a round in the pub, Triquet ostentatiously buys champagne, says Bruno. But Triquet makes matters worse by inviting only certain colleagues to drink it with him in his office (this idea came from a real-life anecdote gleaned by the directors).

The French may not hang around after work but they generally have lunch together, either in a restaurant or in the staff canteen. This perhaps explains why Nicolas and Bruno were so distressed by the solo sandwich-eating in Aulnay-sous-Bois. "It is a totally functional place – everything is purely functional: the roads, the inside of the buildings, the outside. There is absolutely no culture," they lament. "We had been in Aulnay for a month, and when we came back to central Paris, we couldn't believe all the shops, theatres, posters, restaurants."

It will be hard for Le Bureau to become iconic in the same way that The Office has in Britain. For one thing, it is an adaptation and can never have the impact of the original. Also, Canal Plus is a subscriber channel, whereas The Office was shown on BBC2 in Britain and on NBC in the US. Le Bureau can only be seen by a maximum of 5.06 million viewers – far fewer than the potential audience on a terrestrial free channel. But given France's current discontent, the time may be ripe for Le Bureau. Perhaps a French audience will have grown weary of national strikes and political drama and will enjoy a comedy that celebrates the banal absurdity of office life.

"So much of our time is spent in offices," say Nicolas and Bruno, "But people don't talk or laugh about it enough. It's a mistake. So many things happen at work – relationships, successes, failures. There hasn't been enough on French television about it. We are really the first."

The Bosses
Both Ricky Gervais's David Brent and his French counterpart, Gilles Triquet, (played by Francois Berleand) like to think of themselves as a friend first, a boss second and an entertainer third. The reality (naff management style; tasteless jokes; awful clothes) is that they are ridiculous and despicable. Brent has a lager-loutish goatee and shiny grey suits; Triquet has Pires-style facial hair and wears white towelling socks – without shoes on Fridays to mark le weekend. Both are single: Triquet enjoys being "free as air" but Brent covertly internet-dates. Brent likes to get lashed with his younger staff down at the pub. Triquet breaks into youth slang but shows his age by flashing his cash on bottles of champagne.

The Creeps
These are the office creeps. The British original, Gareth Keenan, played by Mackenzie Crook, becomes "Joel Liotard" in France, or "Liotard, Joel" as he likes to introduce himself. He's played by Benoît Carré. Gareth, 27, is a proud member of the Territorial Army and Joel, also 27, is signed up with the Armée de Réserve - they have model soldiers and helicopters on their desks to prove it. Both are deluded about their importance as office "team leader" and induce endless titters among their colleagues when they try to assert their authority. Neither has a sense of humour, but their tragic bowl-cut hairdos and gun-sling mobile-phone holsters mean they are both hilarious.

The Good Guys
Thirty-year-old sales rep Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) is your typical English lad: a decent guy with a decent sense of humour (and an apparently permanent cold). Paul Delorme (Jérémie Elkaïm), also 30, is the more attractive, more stylish but equally nice French version of Tim: cool, detached and keen on practical jokes.

Worn down by the mediocrity of their jobs and exasperated by the military obsessive (Gareth/Joel) sitting next to them, both Tim and Paul realise they could, and should, do better in life. In both cases, the only thing to brighten up their day is the attractive office receptionist.

The Girls
David Brent's blonde receptionist, Dawn (Lucy Davis), wishes she could quit the grey world of faxes and phones and become a children's illustrator. Her French counterpart is Laetitia (Anne-Laure Balbir), a petite brunette of North African descent, who would swap it all for a job in graphic design or tourism. However, their thug-like fiancés who work in stock have other plans for them: get hitched and have babies. Both Dawn and Laetitia bear the brunt of their bosses' ineptitude, and have to put up with a barrage of sexist jokes and lame impressions. The only saving grace is their flirtatious time-wasting with Tim and Paul.