Five years ago, I spent a few days in hospital in a small town in Normandy. My roommate was a rural alcoholic in his late 50s who frequently injured himself in fights, accidents and fires. We got on perfectly well. After a day of hazy silence, he asked me politely if he could watch his favourite programme on television. “It’s better than the other rubbish,” he said. “It’s well done. Very funny.”
And so, for the first time, I came across Cyril Hanouna and his nightly programme “Touche pas àmon poste!” (Don’t switch off my telly). Hanouna has since then become the most popular, and the best paid, person on French television — the epitome of querulous, spiky, urban, twenty-first century Gallic chic.
His main programme is nominally a review of other television shows. It spins off into a series of gags, sketches and arguments in which his team of metropolitan-chic “chroniclers” rip apart their enemies and friends and insult one another — sometimes nastily.
Hanouna, 45, Paris-born and of Tunisian-Jewish origin, a comical-looking man, had a series of heroically unsuccessful TV programmes before he became a star. He is especially popular with young people — from kids in the multi-racial suburbs to children of the haute bourgeoisie. If you ever spend time with a group of French people in their teens or twenties, you will know why. They spend much of their time ripping apart their friends and enemies and insulting one another — sometimes nastily.
But it is a tribute to Hanouna’s bizarre genius that his show can also amuse accident-prone, late-middle-aged alcoholics in deepest Normandy.
Hanouna has somehow bottled the millennial and post-millennial zeitgeist — restless, hyper-critical, allergic to facts, anti-system, avid for simple explanations and for crushing put-downs.
The show is the most watched and the most complained-about in France. Hanouna — “Baba” to his fans — commands a guru-like adoration from his audience. Emboldened by a 5-million-strong Twitter following, Cyril Hanouna now plans to run for President of the Republic in 2022. Or so we are told.
The rumour has been going around since February. It has been denied several times but keeps resurfacing. Hanouna has registered the copyright of the title “Hanouna 2022”. He insists this is to prevent anyone else from making money from his name.
President Emmanuel Macron is said to be anxious about the prospect of a Hanouna campaign — or rather a campaign by any charismatic figure from outside politics. He has reason to be worried, although not because such a figure might win outright. The danger for the President is more complex: it stems from the likely impact of such a campaign on the delicate electoral arithmetic of the multi-candidate first round in April 2022. More on that later.
Let me first make a prediction, despite the fact that we live in times when all political predictions are hazardous. Hanouna will not run for President. The rumour of his candidature is just one of his elaborate running gags. He knows that he is temperamentally incapable of leading a political campaign or drawing up a convincing programme for government:
“People take me seriously. They shouldn’t. I say one thing one day and the opposite the next…I’m just having fun,” he told Le Monde in 2017. “I’m very proud of my show because it reflects the state of mind you find in high school or in the cités [multiracial housing estates]. You would think that the people who criticise me had never come across a young person.”
Hanouna makes €50million a year for his appearances, four times a week, on C8 — an upstart TV channel which belongs to Canal Plus. Friends and enemies alike suggest that he has no intention of giving up all that money for a career in politics.
But Cyril Hanouna is not the only French funny man said to be considering a run for the presidency. The hyper-popular (and hyper-vulgar) stand-up comedian, Jean-Marie Bigard, announced his candidature in May, withdrew it and then revived it. Last week Bigard, 66, appealed to village and town mayors (of which France has 35,000) to give him the 500 signatures he needs to mount an official campaign.
Jean-Marie Bigard is quite a different character to Hanouna: he epitomises the non-urban and the non-chic. His stage and internet act is too misogynistic and verbally violent to be allowed on TV. Hanouna walked out of one of his own live broadcasts last year when Bigard, a studio guest, launched into an elaborate “joke” about rape.
Bigard, who is also a multi-millionaire, may or may not run for the Elysée — he seems to change his mind on that point weekly. He says that he wants to be the “sincere” spokesman for the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) — the disaffected rural and outer-suburban, working and lower middle-classes who took to French streets (and roundabouts) two years ago.
Two questions arise. Do the Yellow Vests, who reject all leaders, want a multi-millionaire stand-up comedian as theirs? And do the Yellow Vests still exist? Most of the few Gilets Jaunes who remain active are urban anti-capitalists, not the disaffected country people and outer suburbanites of the movement’s origins.
Other potential non-political candidates are available — or at least talked of. They include the hard-Right essayist and TV pundit Eric Zemmour and Professor Didier Raoult, the inventor of the hydroxychloroquine craze and new darling of French anti-establishmentarians of both hard-Left and hard-Right.
Here is my second hazardous prediction (but not so hazardous as all that). None of these people will be the next President of France. None will emulate the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky — a comedian successfully turned politician — nor Beppe Grillo, the Italian stand-up comic who successfully founded the Five Star political movement. None is likely to do as well as the great-hearted Left-wing French comedian Coluche who ran briefly for President in 1981. He took fright at his own success and dropped out when he reached 16% in the opinion polls.
All the same, it is interesting to consider why so many non-political names are being floated 20 months before the next French election. It is also interesting to speculate on what effect a sustained, non-political candidature — Bigard’s, for instance — might have on the 2022 campaign.
The centre-Left/centre-Right duopoly of French politics has been destroyed by the rise of the far-Right Rassemblement National — and then by Emmanuel Macron’s spectacular (if lucky) irruption from stage centre in 2017. Three years later, the traditional ruling families of centre-Right and centre-Left remain scattered and discredited.
Macron is unpopular but not desperately so for a mid-term French president who has been confronted by three crises in two years (the Gilets Jaunes; the union revolt against his pension reform last winter; and Covid-19). Recent opinion polls give the President 35-40% approval ratings, with one outlier putting him as high as 50%.
That’s all very well — for now. There are 20 painful months before the next election. There will be a deep post-Covid economic crisis including a predicted 11% fall in France’s GDP this year. A second wave of the epidemic, however limited, would make Macron beatable in 2022.
But beatable by whom? Macron’s re-election strategy is based on coming up against Le Pen in the second round, rather than some half-way plausible candidate of the traditional centre-Right or a revived, newly green-tinged centre-Left. Marine Le Pen is unelectable in the view of many pundits and of many people within her own party (as I wrote here last month). Macron would beat her in almost all circumstances, but he would not easily beat a convincing candidate from centre-Right or centre-Left — if one emerges and reaches the two candidate run-off in 2022. Hence the President’s reliably reported fear that a charismatic outsider might be tempted to chance his or her luck in 20 months’ time. An anti-establishment candidate is likely to take votes from another anti-establishment candidate, such as Marine Le Pen.
You probably need 22 to 25% of the vote in the first round to become one of the two candidates to qualify for the run-off, and Le Pen’s approval rating is currently between 23% and 29% (it is common, in France, for different polling organisations to vary significantly in their findings). A split in the anti-system vote — even a small migration of votes to a Bigard or a Raoult — could knock her out of the two-candidate second round. Macron would be left to confront an electable politician (identity as yet unknown) of centre-Left or centre-Right.
In sum, a Bigard candidature — by far the most likely of all the anti-political candidatures — would be bad news for Le Pen and therefore bad news for Macron. A Hanouna candidature — unlikely as it is — produces a different calculation. He might attract a much more disparate electorate in the first round, including some from the Right, but also many younger, Left-leaning or apolitical voters, who are not just anti-Macron but anti-everyone and anti-everything.
The first-round race could become a four- or five-way lottery with two winning tickets. That would be a great running gag for Hanouna, who thrives on provocation. But it would be, I believe, a step too far, even for him.