President Nicolas Sarkozy laughed until there were tears in his eyes when France’s best-known satirist mimicked Germany’s Angela Merkel in falsetto, calling him “my lovely little playmobil.”
Sarkozy wasn’t alone. About two million people tuned in as comic Nicolas Canteloup during a Europe 1 radio program on March 14 mocked Sarkozy for being Merkel’s toy at euro-zone summits.
As election fever heats up, political satirists portray Sarkozy as “President Bling-Bling” with Ray-Ban glasses and his opponent Francois Hollande as “Flanby,” to show he’s as soft and wobbly as the Nestle pudding of that name. More biting than the likes of the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart with dismissive nicknames for the candidates, French political satirists draw on a culture of clever wordplay and ridicule perfected to an art in Louis XIV’s court more than 300 years ago.
“The French are passionate about politics; it’s an old reflex,” said Patrick Eveno a professor of politics and media at the Paris Sorbonne university. “It dates back to the monarchy and the revolution. The president-king is the center of interest and conversations, but he also needs a counterweight. Political satire plays that role, like the king’s jester did.”
More than 68 percent of France’s 65.6 million people have registered to vote. With 23 days before the election, Sarkozy leads in opinion polls for the first round. A victory for Hollande, who leads in the polls for the decisive second round, would bring the presidency back to the Socialist Party for the first time since 1995.
Every word and every action of Sarkozy and Hollande are quickly turned into a sketch, with their stump speeches providing ample fodder for satirists. While pay TV Canal Plus’s show “Les Guignols de l’Info,” and satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine dominated the political-humor space in the past, now politicians’ own words, voices and video clips are set up in ways that make the mockery appear real.
“A recent evolution is that now politicians are directly approached and made fun of,” said David Dubois, a professor of political science and marketing at the HEC-Paris business school. “Some satirists do not use puppets as intermediaries between the reality and the critiques anymore, which tends to discredit politicians and their actions even more.” Dubois said such satire plays the role of “amplifiers” in the campaign.
Beyond the satire, the election, with the first round on April 22 and the second on May 6, has gripped the nation.
Dozens of radio programs, television shows, tweets, blogs and interminable coverage on the web have captivated millions of politics addicts. In one program on Jan. 29, 16.6 million people, or 25.5 percent of France’s population, watched Sarkozy on six national channels.
France’s 2012 presidential campaign is the first to use Twitter, Facebook and blogs on a large scale, although the number of followers of posts by the main candidates is miniscule compared with U.S. President Barack Obama’s 13.5 million. Hollande’s team says he has about 211,500 followers, while Sarkozy has 140,500. Mitt Romney has about 400,000.
A blog by Le Monde political correspondent Arnaud Leparmentier, called “L’Elysee cote jardin” or “Elysee: The Garden View,” has had more than 10 million visitors since its creation in October 2010.
The interest in politics in France translates into large turnouts at the polling stations. Turnout this year may be near the record 85 percent in the 2007 elections.
In the U.S., the turnout at the 2008 presidential ballot was 57.5 percent of the voting population. In Germany in 2009, it was 70.8 percent and in the U.K. in 2010, it was 65 percent.
“People are very politicized in France; it’s like a national sport,” said Arnaud Mercier, a professor of the Universite de Lorraine in eastern France.
National TV channels have grilled the candidates in two, or even three-hour-long debates with presidential hopefuls facing panels of voters, journalists and political opponents. A show with Sarkozy on France 2 TV this month drew 5.6 million viewers.
“Voters want to have a direct dialogue with their president, because it is he who has all the power,” the Sorbonne’s Eveno said.
Satirical programs are having similar successes. “Le Petit Journal,” a TV show on Canal+ drawing its name from the 19th century newspaper that sold about a million copies a day with its caricatures, gives viewers a behind-the-scenes peek at what politicians say when they believe microphones are turned off.
‘Le Petit Journal’
The show, viewed by as many as two million people every day and a favorite of young voters, is playing a key role in France’s election, with candidates ignoring it at their peril.
“The Petit Journal is a protest tool,” said Universite de Lorraine’s Mercier. “It’s a powerful means to reveal the candidates’ communication strategies and tactics, which is something recent in French politics.”
Le Petit Journal’s success overshadows Canal+’s older puppets-driven satirical program, “Les Guignols de L’Info,” which in the 1995 presidential election showed former President Jacques Chirac saying “eat apples” over and over, unwittingly softening his image and helping him win.
Now, Les Guignols plays on Sarkozy’s ”president of the rich” image and on Hollande’s “Flanby” nickname.
Meanwhile, the Caveau de la Republique, a central Paris theater that has been staging political satire since 1901, has a new show called “Is There a Sarkozyst in The House?,” which draws about 450 spectators every night. Many of today’s famous French satirists began their careers at the Caveau.
Comedians Canteloup, Stephane Guillon, Laurent Gerra and Anne Roumanoff are touring the country in sold-out shows dissecting the candidates’ daily pronouncements. For Universite de Lorraine’s Mercier, the ripping apart of candidates comments with humor is “part of the game.”
“Politicians must play it, with a smile preferably,” he said. “Not being mocked is like not existing.”
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