France's puppet rulers turn 20

Daily News Egypt
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It is a world where clones of Sylvester Stallone rule the planet, a happy-clappy Mickey Mouse sits on Barack Obama s White House team, and Jacques Chirac is a caped and masked anti-hero.

France s longest-running comedy show, Les Guignols de l Info, a satirical 10-minute newscast peopled by latex puppets, is celebrating 20 years of cutting stars and the political elite down to size.

Some three million people tune in daily to watch the show, a mirror-image of France s most-watched evening news show, hosted by a puppet of its long-term anchor Patrick Poivre d Arvor, which has taken on cult status in France.

It is a badge of honor for a politician to have a puppet on the show, the sign you ve finally made it, said media commentator Jean-Louis Missika.

France s favorite Guignols puppet, and the all-time star of the show, is the former president Jacques Chirac, caricatured as a roguish, beer-guzzling Gallic everyman.

Speaking to AFP, Chirac paid the Guignols a wry tribute and said he still tunes in to watch the show, which chronicled his political rise and two terms as president – and which some credit with getting him elected in 1995.

They are very clever, very political, very fierce, said the 76-year-old Chirac. It s true they weren t always tender with me . But mostly I find my puppet pretty likeable.

During his 12 years in power, the cloud of corruption allegations dogging Chirac and his wife became a running joke on the show.

One episode cast the pair as geriatric gangsta rappers, thumbing their noses at the law, and wallowing in a swimming pool full of banknotes.

Skewering her alleged penchant for luxury, another had Bernadette drawing the plush curtains of the Elysee, and working herself into an orgasmic frenzy as she caressed a luxury handbag.

And at one stage Chirac s puppet took to dodging tricky questions by changing into a cape-wearing anti-hero: SuperLiar.

But popular legend also suggests the show s sympathetic portrayal of Chirac s election campaign in 1995 – showing him as the victim of backstabbers – helped him to victory.

I would hope that wasn t the only reason I won! Chirac quipped.

Giant posters went up across France to flag a special anniversary edition of the Guignols, to be broadcast Monday. On one of them Chirac haughtily exclaims: I won t go!

That s absolutely right, I won t go, Chirac joked. But I send them my best wishes nonetheless.

For producer Yves Le Rolland, who heads the Guignols 300-strong team of writers, artists and puppeteers, Chirac s successor Nicolas Sarkozy is just as much fun to imitate.

Lampooned for his flashy tastes, the puppet Sarkozy is the bling-bling president, a jug-eared, diminutive figure who jabbers on about the price of his Rolex watch and the beauty of his husky-voiced first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Sarkozy s character made his entrance in the 1990s as a young upstart, scheming to succeed his mentor Chirac, and was portrayed on the 2007 campaign trail as a pill-popping hyperactive, plagued by nervous tics, as he battled a schoolmarmish Segolene Royal for the presidency.

France s domestic spy agency reportedly once warned Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, that his Guignols puppet risked derailing his bid for the presidency.

Experts are divided over its real influence, but the Guignols has become a primary source of news for many young French people, according to sociologist Denis Muzet, whether tarring politicians or attacking US foreign policy.

Modeled on Britain s 1980s puppet show Spitting Image, the Guignols took off during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

As Western news coverage of the war against Saddam Hussein s Iraq went into overdrive, the Guignols countered with mock reporting, hosted by a flak-jacket wearing Sly Stallone.

France was at war, and suddenly no one was allowed to joke any more, said Rolland. We were the only ones with a critical take on the conflict.

From then on, in the Guignols world, matters of war and peace were decided by the World Company, a sinister emblem of the US military-industrial complex, run by clones of the US action film hero Stallone.

On Sept. 12, 2001, as the Western world rallied behind a shell-shocked America a day after Al-Qaeda s strike on the twin towers, the Guignols sparked outrage with a prediction of the shape of things to come.

We ve got the keys to the world! From now on we can do whatever we want! crowed Stallone s puppet.

Since Obama s historic election, the show s coverage of US politics has changed tack.

Right now, with Obama, we are in a sort of cuckoo-land where nothing can possibly go wrong. The White House has been taken over by Mickey Mouse and his chums, Rolland said.

But don t worry, leave it a few weeks and the World Company will be back.

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