Laughter à la française

Election fever is already heating up in France with the first US-style primaries to choose the Socialist party’s presidential hopeful this autumn – more candidates than electors, noted one wag – and the presidential contest next year.

Since France takes its politics so seriously, it’s surprising that there’s been a lack of theatre and film tackling topical issues. There’s been nothing to compare with the screenwriter Peter Morgan’s trilogy on Tony Blair, featuring the Queen, Gordon Brown and Bill Clinton – perhaps dissuaded by France’s rottweiler privacy laws. Politicians are kept away from screen and stage until they’re dead or as good as.

But times are changing. The hyper-mediatisation of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency and his high-visibility divorce and remarriage blurred sacrosanct boundaries between public and private life. Satirists are having a field day with cosily connected circles of media, politicians and business. Efforts to dodge the stranglehold of spin doctors and party communication strategies are multiplying, on a sliding scale of seriousness.

Tonight sees the premiere of a speedily written comedy about the ongoing real-life soap opera involving claims of tax avoidance and illegal payments by L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to members of the French government associated with Sarkozy. Parce que je la vole bien! (Because I steal well!) – a shameless pun on L’Oréal’s beauty product slogan, Parce que je le vale bien (Because I’m worth it) – will regale spectators with the saga of the elderly heiress, the photographer who pocketed nearly €1bn of her fortune, the aggrieved daughter and the butler whose alleged phone-tapping triggered shockwaves leading to new legislation on conflicts of interest.

Its author, humorist Laurent Ruquier, leapt at this mix of posh dosh and flash trash. “You couldn’t make it up. It’s today’s values transposed to a world we hardly know – the mansion of a hugely rich women with a butler who tapes her conversations!”

The left has not been forgotten. In January, the Socialist politician Ségolène Royal – “Joan of Arc” to the satirists – found herself portrayed as a male politician competing to sell his wares against a telesales girl. The play was written by Damien Chardonnet-Darmaillacq, former secretary-general of Royal’s own movement, Désirs d’avenir. He denied it was a lampoon but the title was irreverent (Bla Bla Bla ou approche latérale des paradigmes discursifs à caractère persuasif ou promotionnel) and his description undiplomatic. “I want to show how politicians become brands and get sold like pots of yoghurt.” Apparently, Royal, who stood against Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential elections, was not invited to the first night.

Serious theatre is also grappling with thorny issues linked to policies on immigration, integration and national identity. A prominent activist for women’s rights, Algerian writer and actress Rayhana, suffered an acid attack last year outside the Paris theatre staging her all-woman tragi-comedy (A mon âge je me cache encore pour fumer). Gérard Watkins’ prizewinning Identité was inspired by controversial proposals to DNA-test immigrants. Ariane Mnouchkine, who used her theatre to shelter illegal immigrants in the 1990s, won awards for her refugee epic, Le Dernier Caravansérail, but noted wryly that no politicians came to see it.

These plays have all taken an indirect approach to the underlying issues. Watkins prefers this more poetic French style to head-on social reality in the British tradition. “It’s a different vision – more interesting because less confrontational.”

The film world, however, is only too keen to surf the Anglo-Saxon wave centred on living politicians. An orchestrated buzz is developing around The Conquest, which traces Sarkozy’s “unstoppable ascension to the presidency in 2007 ... in the manner of a thriller” (so says the blurb).

It’s not a tract or a tribute but a solidly sourced work, insists historian-scriptwriter Patrick Rotman, who has serious documentaries of ex-president Jacques Chirac and former prime minister Lionel Jospin under his belt.

“We’re not hiding anything,” he told the press. “Sarkozy’s called Sarkozy. Chirac’s called Chirac. That alone is a first for France.” Navigating the privacy laws was made easier, he admits, because the president’s personal life gained such prominence as the campaign progressed.

The film launches in May just before the Cannes film festival. Giving Sarkozy even more exposure has raised some cynical eyebrows. Defenders point out that most TV channels refused funding and no one could accuse Rotman, director Xavier Durringer or lead actor Denis Podalydès of being pro-Sarkozy poodles. Durringer says the film concentrates on the violence of human relationships but accepts that striking the right tone is tricky. “Distance is critical,” he told Le Monde. “If you caricature Sarkozy, you make him ridiculous. And if you make him fascinating, it’s a disaster.”

Political satirists seem far more relaxed. Satire is big business on a few radio and TV channels, with household names filling comic slots alongside serious news programmes. The rire de résistance – using comedy to tilt at those in power and reach larger audiences – is eagerly promoted by Jean-Michel Ribes of the Rond Point theatre. He calls satire “the last defence against abuse of power when there’s no more opposition” and has opened his theatre to prime-time broadcast debates.

Despite the liberty enjoyed by these court jesters, some have found their wings clipped. Last year, two well-known satirists with a three-minute slot before the flagship morning news on France Inter, the public radio channel, were sacked for going too far in their attacks on prominent figures. Didier Porte and Stéphane Guillon’s taunts backfired; they became the main soundbite. “Humour should not be confiscated by little tyrants,” thundered Radio France’s president on air as the blogosphere went bananas over freedom of speech and freedom to insult. Demonstrations went forth and multiplied. Some saw the martyrs as unfunny fame seekers, others claimed the sackings were Elysée-driven censure.

An unrepentant Guillon, who was awarded €212,000 in damages by an employment tribunal last week, maintains that “if journalists won’t ask direct questions, satirists will go in with their hobnailed boots”. Laurent Ruquier agrees that nothing is taboo: “Satire fills a gap. American journalists are far better at coming back at politicians to get an answer.” With the elections coming up, he fears further chipping away of TV airtime, despite public demand. “Producers are getting cold feet.”

One thing seems sure. As the election juggernaut gathers speed, the appetite for irreverent political comment looks set to spark plenty more polemic.

‘Parce que je la vole bien!’ opens tonight at the Théâtre Saint-Georges, Paris

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