Spitting satire brings the real news home

 

Every evening at 7.55, four million television viewers across France tune in to Canal Plus to watch Les Guignols de L'Info, a political puppet show modelled on the British Spitting Image.

While the country's best known anchorman, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, begins to read the real 8 o'clock news on TF1, his alter ego, a larger than life latex puppet, competes with him for ratings, interviewing marionettes of French and foreign politicians, famous athletes and movie stars. Les Gui- gnols is just as informative - and infinitely funnier - than the real television news. Most of its viewers are under the age of 35, with politicians among the devoted fans.

Les Guignols' savage humour has damaged more than one French political career. The ageing Francois Mitterrand was portrayed as a senile, manipulating mummy, the former prime minister Michel Rocard as a babbling fool. The programme's writers turned the name of another prime minister and erstwhile presidential candidate, Edouard Balladur, into "Ballamou" (dur means hard; mou means limp) and ridiculed him as a haughty Louis XVI dandy.

"I know I'll spend a few good minutes around 8 o'clock," the right-wing former interior minister Jean-Louis Debre said. "Having your own marionette means you exist." So much so that when the German MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit was chosen to lead the French Greens' list in the European elections, he begged to have a puppet in his image and became the 217th guignol, right after the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. This month, as Les Guignols celebrated their 10th anniversary with five hours of non-stop broadcasts and a cheeky advertising campaign, France took stock of their effect. The editor of the satirical Canard Enchaine, Claude Angeli, praised the show for forcing French journalists to be less indulgent towards their leaders. In 1991, Les Guignols was the first in France to mock US generals' claims of "surgical accuracy" and the "CNN-isation" of coverage of the Gulf War. For their irreverence, the programme won the "Best Editorialists in France" award.

The programme's greatest legacy - already the subject of one book and numerous doctoral theses - is the way it changed the course of the 1995 presidential campaign. The Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac, was having such a difficult time with his own party that the anchorman puppet suggested one evening that he looked a little tired. "No, it's still these back problems," the Chirac marionette replied, turning to show six daggers stuck into his back.

The Guignols' writers seized on a television interview with the real Mr Chirac to develop their puppet character. Talking about his book France for Everyone, Mr Chirac launched into a discourse on apples while his press attaches grimaced offstage.

"I'm an apple eater," the then presidential candidate announced. "Back home in Correze, there are apple trees that are not of particularly good quality but I like them. And they make a little cider that's not of very good quality either, but I like it . . . "

The following evening, Mr Chirac's marionette began exhorting viewers, "Eat apples!" His popularity ratings shot up, and the apple became the symbol of his campaign. When Mr Chirac won the election, the Guignols' writers were invited to lunch at the Elysee, but declined because they feared it might influence the programme.

The wily but good-hearted Mr Chirac remains the show's most successful character, springing traps on his straight-and-narrow puppet rival, the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, fighting boredom at the Elysee and struggling to dissociate himself from the ever-splintering factions of the centre-right.

In their 1998 book The Power of the Guignols, Yves Derai and Laurent Guez speculated that Guignols writers felt guilty for inadvertently helping Mr Chirac, and subconsciously tried to correct the balance by attacking his wife. To the horror of the channel's executives, Bernadette Chirac's puppet was shown caressing a handbag in a sexually suggestive way. The writers were ordered to send the First Lady an apology, but to this day she is portrayed clutching an old-fashioned handbag like a shield before her. "I remember laughing a lot at the Guignols during the presidential campaign," Mrs Chirac said later. "But I really don't understand this story of the handbag. Like all women in France, I need a little handbag. It's useful."

Some of the Guignols' best skits involve foreign politicians: Tony Blair explaining "the English socialist miracle" to Lionel Jospin as they walk through the streets of London, lined with homeless and unemployed people; Gerhard Schroder coldly declining Mr Chirac's insistent Armistice Day invitation to "come celebrate your humiliation"; Bill Clinton so irritated as he watches dozens of television screens from around the world talking about Monica Lewinsky that he pushes the red button that unleashes a nuclear war . . .

The preachy French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, with his sempiternal white shirt open to the navel, is another favourite target of the Guignols, along with his blond actress wife, Arielle Dombasle. During the Bosnian War, puppets representing the couple were shown watching television news reports from Sarajevo:

Arielle Dombasle: "You are handsome, Bernard-Henri."

Bernard-Henri Levy: "You are beautiful, Arielle."

Together: "We are beautiful."

Dombasle: "The world is ugly, Bernard-Henri."

BHL: "The world suffers, Arielle."

Dombasle: "You are sensitive Bernard-Henri."

BHL: "You are intelligent, Arielle."

Together: "But what to do about the horror of the world?"

BHL: "Like Sartre!"

Dombasle: "Like de Beauvoir!"

BHL: "We must act."

Dombasle: "In our time!"

BHL: "Without concession!"

Together: "Quickly!"