Duck Soup

What a satirical weekly can tell us about France's elections.

As France prepares to vote in the first round of its presidential election on April 22, an indispensable guide to a campaign mostly low on drama but high in potential meaning has been the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine. With its slogan "The freedom of the press wears itself out only when it is not used," the newspaper has been an obstinate investigator of the notoriously mendacious French political elite. Why a similar such newspaper does not exist in the United States merits examination.

Founded in 1915 by Maurice and Jeanne Marechal, Le Canard Enchaine got its name through both parody and pun—fitting for a newspaper that lampoons at will and most of whose headlines play with words. When politician George Clemenceau's newspaper L'Homme Libre (The Free Man) was closed down, he renamed it L'Homme Enchaine (The Man in Chains). The Marechals riffed on that title in naming their own newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, literally "The Duck in Chains," bearing in mind that in French slang, a "canard" means a newspaper.

French political culture has always tended to be more freewheeling than that in most other Western countries (though a special place should perhaps be reserved for Italy). For example, major politicians of all persuasions have at one time or other been indicted or accused of illegal party financing, even of taking bribes, including President Jacques Chirac. A politician innocent of extra-marital affairs is the object of high mockery, and it is with considerable disbelief that the French still contemplate the reportedly irreproachable Charles de Gaulle. And betrayal is so accepted a norm of political life, that few are those politicians without a knife in their back and another in their hand.

None of this is particularly unique to France, but Le Canard Enchaine has played a paradoxical role in addressing issues of political immorality. It has highlighted the worse offenses of French politicians, but it has also, and unintentionally, helped institutionalize their behavior by showing that everybody does it. The newspaper acts as a safety valve of sorts, because it hits out in all directions against France's schools of scandal.

Take the newspaper's report in its February 28 issue that presidential front runner Nicolas Sarkozy had, as mayor of Neuilly, saved the equivalent of around $360,000 in his purchase and remodeling of a duplex apartment on the luxurious Ile de Jatte, in his own constituency. He managed to do so because the company developing the apartment building allegedly sold him the property at below-market price and made costly changes to the Sarkozy residence for free. It so happens that the company, Groupe Lasserre, is a major developer in Neuilly. The implication was obvious: Lasserre did Sarkozy a favor because it needed the mayor's support for its other Neuilly investments.

This was pretty damaging stuff, and Sarkozy's unimpressive official response was promptly shredded to pieces by the Canard. But did the candidate suffer any lasting damage? Apparently not, as he still remains the favorite to win in the first round of the election, against the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, the centrist Francois Bayrou, the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, and a gaggle of lesser lights.

One reason why the impact of the story may have been subdued is that in its next issue, the Canard had a troubling report on Royal. According to the newspaper, she and her partner, Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande, underestimated by a factor of three the value of a vacation home they own in the south of France for tax purposes. The story wrapped around a cartoon of a bikinied Royal, sitting poolside at the home, an issue of the Canard in hand, asking Hollande, who is preparing to dive in with a ducky floater around his waste: "Francois, why are they all after my two-room home?"

And just to make sure no one got off untarnished, two weeks later the newspaper had a similar story on Le Pen, showing how he, too, had probably wildly underestimated the tax value of his properties and revenues. Aside from showing that French politicians can be as sane as the rest of us when it comes to evading income and property tax, the pieces both harmed the candidates and neutralized that harm by making everyone look just as bad. Anyway, which Frenchman, once the initial envy had washed away, could begrudge someone fleecing the state?

Its investigative gifts aside, the Canard's real attraction is its wicked humor. The newspaper's shambling, faux early 20th-century layout (it is always eight pages long) helps in that regard, projecting an image of splendid apathy when it comes to modern form. Adding to that is the decision of the editors to avoid putting the publication online for now, as they insist that "our job is to inform and entertain our readers, with newsprint and ink."

Most of the Canard's puns are untranslatable, but those that are are pretty good. Sarkozy's decision to throw out management at the France 3 public television station if he wins the election brought in this headline: Sarkozy wants a "menage a France 3," with "menage" roughly meaning an "overhaul" in French. A story on a school linked to Opus Dei that engaged in illegal labor practices earned the headline, "The Da Vinci Code of Work." Or what about the cartoon of Bayrou, whom the paper has dubbed "the horse whisperer" because of his passion for rural life, telling his horse: "If I'm not in the second round, I'll vote for..." Bayrou's supporters, if the candidate doesn't make it through himself, might hold a key swing vote in the second round between the top two vote-getters, so the horse would seem to be a nose ahead on the rest of us.

You have to wonder why a similar national publication doesn't exist in the U.S. The popularity of The Onion, or the fact that a magazine like Spy managed to have considerable influence during the 1980s, suggest that Americans aren't all that satire-resistant. Satirical political journalism is as old as the republic itself, and publicists, writers, and journalists such as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Russell Baker, and Art Buchwald have always used wittiness to make serious political points. The blogosphere, with its indifference to hierarchy and its distaste for filtering commentary, has taken that a step further. But satire and humor are not necessarily the same thing. There is a subversiveness to satire that has seemed to jar with the increasing tendency of Americans in general, and the mainstream media in particular, to take their politics very straight. To place chronicles of corruption, hypocrisy, and vice in the pages of essentially humorous publications would only detract from the profound indignation we're expected to feel whenever crimes or misdemeanors are exposed. The U.S. may be as corrupt as anybody, but public office is routinely being peddled as something that must be morally righteous, even if few things are more annoying than listening to politicians pretending to believe that canard.

Maybe America is more satire resistant than it used to be, or maybe the theory has no legs. Still, few are the satirical pins available to deflate those monuments of hot air that American elected officials have become. The mainstream media seem everywhere caught in chains of solemnity.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.

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