The puppet master who has France on a string


FRANCE: The Prime Minister and presidential candidate, Mr Lionel Jospin, is campaigning on the French Caribbean island of Martinique.

"That is why I advocate a more streamlined fiscal regime," he says, and the colourfully dressed West Indian women begin to nod off. The screen flashes to President Jacques Chirac, dancing to West Indian music and drinking rum with the same women, promising free airline tickets to the mainland. The candidates are puppets on Les Guignols de l'information, France's equivalent of Spitting Image. The Caribbean scenes were not entirely invented; Mr Chirac really did promise free airline tickets. "Lionel Jospin hasn't got a chance," the presenter, a caricature of the TF1 anchor Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, concludes.

In 1995, Les Guignols were credited with swinging the youth vote to Mr Chirac. "Eat apples", his puppet exhorted viewers, so the Chirac campaign staff began distributing apples at rallies. The plodding "Yo-yo" character who portrayed Jospin was dull.

Seven years later, after scandals involving phony jobs for Mr Chirac's party workers, kick-backs for public contracts, rigged local elections, millions of francs in cash spent on airline tickets and the harassment of a magistrate who was investigating Mr Chirac - Les Guignols invented "Supermenteur" (superliar), the slightly paunchy Chirac puppet dressed in a superman costume, with a mask over his eyes and "SM" emblazoned on his chest. In a sketch last week, Mr Chirac was questioned about the €610 in personal grocery bills for every day of his long stay at the Paris town hall. "I haven't explained about that already," he says. "So there's no point going back over it." He dashes offstage to don his Supermenteur costume, then claims he was so hungry that he ate FF500 banknotes.

At first, the "Supermenteur" skits seemed to hurt Mr Chirac. His wife Bernadette denounced "personal attacks, harassment unworthy of our democracy". When teenagers jeered Mr Chirac and spat at him in the Val-Fourré ghetto last month, they shouted "Supermenteur".

But a strange thing has happened. Despite his flawed character, many French people still seem to find Supermenteur engaging.

A week before the first round of the election, Mr Chirac is leading in opinion polls.