Last night Francois Murphy filed a report for Reuters from Paris reminding us that semiology still rules in France. The story concerned the extent to which the presidential election may be decided on the basis of two puppet caricatures of the leading candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal:
The idea may seem far-fetched but satirical television show "Les Guignols de l'Info", a scathing daily spoof of French public life inspired by Britain's "Spitting Image", has been accused of tipping the balance before.
Indeed, the idea is not far-fetched at all. The puppets are signifiers, concrete artifacts cleverly designed to make deep impressions on the memory. The "signifieds" are not so much the "real" candidates as the policies represented by those candidates; and this is a territory of abstractions into which few voters care to venture. So, just for the record, we should make note of how Les Guignols de l'Info has decided to design those signifiers:
Now, the show features conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy guzzling tranquilizers to suppress the authoritarian interior minister within, then telling voters: "I've changed."
His Socialist rival Segolene Royal, though less omnipresent, is shown as vacuous, spouting platitudes at half-speed.
Can those images determine an election. Yves Le Rolland, who produces Les Guignols insists that the show has "no influence on people." That should probably just be read as a professional disclaimer, sort of like those Law & Order episodes that claim to be "based in part" on fact. People are influenced by what they can grasp, and the puppets have been designed to be easily graspable. On the other hand Le Rolland may have a point when it comes to mapping these signifiers to signifieds:
"I think we have no influence on people," he told Reuters at the show's studio in a northern suburb of Paris.
"We generally reinforce their own opinions, so people who don't like like [sic] Sarkozy think that Sarkozy in Les Guignols is very accurate and very funny and people who don't like Segolene Royal think the character of Segolene Royal is very accurate and very funny," he said.
In other words, while the puppets can be easily grasped, they may not provoke a change of opinion. This is not like Thomas Nast taking on Boss Tweed back in the days when Tammany Hall owned the ballot boxes of Manhattan. This is more a matter of equal ridicule for both sides without making either side appear egregiously foolish or incompetent. If Le Rolland is right in his argument, it is not so much because his viewers understanding the distinction between signifier and signified as that the difference between these signifiers is just not "significant" enough. Still, it is nice to know that there is still a corner of the world in which signs are not, as a matter of reflex, always reduced to their most literal reading!