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French TV Show Ridicules Presidential Candidates - 2002-03-20

The stars of France's uninspiring election season are not the presidential candidates, but a televised puppet show that makes fun of them all.

The presidential election campaign has the people of France riveted to their television sets. But they are not watching the candidates. They are watching a puppet show called Les Guignols.

The puppets represent France's well known array of presidential candidates, each handicapped by a larger-than-lifesized fault. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is deadly boring. Jean-Pierre Chevenement, another candidate in the race, is portrayed as overly sentimental.

But perhaps the most popular puppet is President Jacques Chirac, who sometimes swoops into Les Guignols as a character called S.M. Only S.M. doesn't stand for Superman. It stands for Super Menteur, the French word for Super-Liar - in reference to Mr. Chirac's denial of a slew of alleged political scandals.

The creators of Les Guignols, which has been aired for years, argue the puppet show offers a refreshingly honest look at political life, and asks questions that annoy the politicians.

And judging from a few recent installments, they are probably right. Many of the shows depict Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin bickering, then making up, like an old, married couple.

That portrayal has scored points among Les Guignols' fans, since the conservative French President and leftist Prime Minister have shared an uneasy cohabitation government for the past five years. Now, many French voters say they are fed up with both politicians and claim they see very little difference in the two.

But what impact Les Guignols has on the French electorate is unclear. During the 1995 presidential election, one survey found 13 percent of French found the puppet show helpful in choosing among the candidates. During that election, Les Guignols portrayed Mr. Chirac as dishonest but charming, and he won fairly easily.

But this time, the show's portrait of him is much less flattering. So are the consequences. As the president campaigned Tuesday in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, opponents chanted "Super Menteur!" in reference to his character in Les Guignols.