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I have heard the following line in the TV series Marseille:

  • C'est vrai que j'ai rien fait pour les cités. Honnêtement, je ne sais pas comment prendre ce truc. Il faudrait de l'argent, y'en a pas. Du boulot, y'en a pas. On a rien. Qu'est-ce que vous voulez qu'on leur donne ?

Context: The mayor is talking to one of his allies about the problems in the Félix Pyat neighborhood in Marseille after an argument with some people who live there.

When I heard the dialogue, I thought the mayor meant "What do you want us to give them?" in his last line, i.e. he was asking his ally for suggestions to solve the Félix Pyat neighborhood problems. However, his ally has answered nothing, so it seems to be a rhetorical question. The English subtitles translation confirms it: "What are we supposed to give them?". In English, it is unlikely that a question with "what do you want" is rhetorical.

It seems to me that it would be clearer if he said "Qu'est-ce qu'ils veulent qu'on leur donne ?", given that who wants any improvement in the neighborhood is the people who live there and the press ("ils"), not the ally the mayor is talking to. Are both sentences equally usual?

  • Tout d'abord, le maire pose la question citée à un allié à ses côtés, et non aux téléspectateurs de la série télévisée, comme je l'ai clairement expliqué dans la question. Deuxièmement, je ne vois pas de contre-sens dans la deuxième question, car la discussion avec les habitants se déroule dans la rue et la réplique citée est dite à un allié en privé, à l'intérieur d'une voiture. – Alan Evangelista Apr 5 at 13:19
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It is indeed a variation of a common rhetorical question in French: French speakers can express their feeling of being helpless by sentences such que veux-tu, que voulez-vous and endless variations. In your example, the mayor expresses his feeling of being unable to give what these people expect from him.

As it is indeed a rhetorical question, the interlocutor is not supposed to answer - or at least, they can answer with their own feeling if they agree ot disagree.

Ex:

Oui, mes prix ont augmenté. Tout augmente, que voulez-vous ?

Je sais que tu aimerais partir en vacances, mais j'ai trop de travail, qu'est-ce que veux-tu que j'y fasses ?

Je sais, c'est pas ce que tu attendais, désolé. Que veux-tu que je te dise ?

Que veux-tu, je suis folle de toi (chorus of a pop song by Yelle)

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