On french satire and rekindling oneself with political activism: an interview with Humour De Droite
May 2, 2011 6 Comments
Four years of Sarkozian politics seem to have taken a toll on the fabric of french political society; and in the face of an extreme-right wing rise, the population is disappointed in its socialist party’s apparent inability to create and galvanise a force of opposition. According to a BVA poll for France Info and Les Echos dating from March, 52% of the french population believe that the National Front should be treated, considered and apprehended “just like any other party”, a noticeable increase from 2010’s 47%.
Facing Sarkozy’s omnipotence and his ability to nip any attempt at resistance in the bud, the socialist party and any other political participation “on the left” (Left Radicals, the Workers’ Party, etc…) have been painfully silent. The same poll reveals that, although many would disagree on Sarkozy’s domestic policies, his extreme views on immigration and the creation of his new ministry on “national identity” receives a certain degree of support: 40% agree with his belief that recent immigrants should not benefit from social security programs.
In the midst of this defining period for French politics, the Socialist Party was busy fixing cracks and wide gaps in its inner structure. Personal disagreements and parties within parties have weakened the national political stronghold and the year-long battle between putative leaders Aubry and Royal – a former presidential candidate in 2007 – have exhausted their supporters and gnawed at their credibility. In 2009, a grassroots movement emerged on Facebook, as it often does these days, mocking Sarkozy’s outrageous and obnoxious attitude: it was called “right wing humour”, and was unabashedly satirical and pointedly opinionated in its approach. And strangely enough, they identify themselves as right-wingers. Now counting over 18,000 followers on Facebook, owning a logo defacing Sarkozy’s party own image, and being credited as single-handedly tearing apart the foundations of Sarkozy’s Young Supporters’ website, the five brains behind Humour de Droite have granted us an interview.
What was the ideology behind Humour de Droite’s creation? Did you ever think it would reach that level of infamousness?
Joaquin: I joined the team shortly after its creation. I saw it as a way to display how funny the whole governmental structure was becoming. I believe one of the first jokes we ever worked with came from a Sylvie Noachovitch (ex candidate for the UMP, NdlR) moment. She’s onstage and she calls out to a black man in the audience: “Mamadou, Mamadou… did you stop drinking thanks to me?” it was hilarious.
Nicolas: It was about putting a name, a label, an image, on this very french, very low-degree, obnoxious type of what is present in the collective unconscious as being this national racism, that is sometimes institutionalized racism. We all know those clichés. What we really triggered the creation of HDD was the character of Michel Sardouille, from the satirical TV show Grosland (based on a very conservative french singer Michel Sardou, NdlR.), like the song “What do they have against ham”, which somehow represents a lot of Sarkozy’s ideology on immigration. We never really thought we would become that big, but that clearly was a goal, and it still is.
Robin: We tend to rationalise the creation of the movement in hindsight… At the end of the day, we were just really doing what everyone is doing, creating a Facebook page and a Twitter account to make our friends laugh. There was something topical and relevant in the concept. Just so you know, the first name that we deposited was “the page of the UMP’s humour”, but we were deleted within ten minutes… and we almost gave up.
Later on, even if we really didn’t think we would become that big, but we did everything we could in our power to make it so: we created guidelines, we came up with a strong logo, we stayed focused. As far as approaching the media goes, we said we would be very demanding in terms of quality and what we could deliver – and at the same time, having close to no constraints. Our goal is to be both the brand and the ad agency for ourselves.
Don: We were a bunch of thirty-somethings who felt they could become reactionaries. We use Humour de Droite as an exorcism against the way our society is leaning towards the right and extreme-right, all of which are in complete opposition to what we believed in as teenagers. I see our success as being the result of being close to our generation. We were cradled in this TV attitude from the 80s and 90s, from Canal + (private, liberal Channel 4 that pioneered political satire on french TV, NdlR) to Les Inconnus. All of them gone now, and we’re all disappointed in what is now supposedly available to make us laugh.
Josh: I’m the latest addition to the team. What brings us together – besides a common appetite for booze and cute butts – it’s our appetite for humour and our common influences, ranging from the Monty Python to Pierre Desproges. What’s really interesting is trying to step outside the box and not re-hash the same attitude, the same language that is now commonly used and accepted as being political humour, while still labelling ourselves as such. It’s a tiny, tiny shake of the snow globe, and as for the effect it produced, it was completely unexpected.
“Our current government is taking the easy way out, bullying the weak and the vulnerable, or creating monsters to keep the people afraid.”
From being a purely humoristic movement to your groundbreaking stance on the internationally decried treatment of the Roma in the country, how do you explain your position as members of the opposition?
Joaquin: We’re not in the opposition, we identify as right-wing. But even as conservatives, some of the government’s decisions drive us crazy. The whole expulsion of the Roma, it made me sick to my stomach. Using our outreach potential, we just decided to broadcast a message denouncing this racist methodology so we can fight what we believe is this country’s gangrene. With humour, of course. But isn’t it the best therapy?
Nicolas: The treatment of the Roma population, the law against their situation, the expulsion, it was one of the worst legal situations of the last few years. We did react strongly on this, the way we did on other subjects too. I do believe we are in the opposition, but not necessarily in the way traditional politics would define it. We are well-aware that only a few things make a difference between Strauss-Kahn, Sarkozy or even Aubry. I personally believe that courage and common sense are necessary qualities in politics. A political leader, even more so an elected official, has the duty to accept the complexity of his country’s problems and to answer them intelligently. Our current government is taking the easy way out, bullying the weak and the vulnerable, or creating monsters to keep the people afraid. If being a political leader is now equal to kicking Roma families out of the country, spend the whole of a five-year long mandate debating Islam and run to scream at people’s faces in order to play on the emotional palate, I’d personally rather vote for my super. This is how low the political debate has stooped in France; and the UMP is proud of it, they are even proud of how powerless they are next to the rising numbers of unemployment, of frozen salaries, or real social debates… like someone who would lick their own fingers after going to the bathroom.
Robin: We didn’t really “decide” to become activists. When we first started, we were denouncing how unabashed and obnoxious the ring-wing branch was, this racism being part of the ordinary. The more radical the right was becoming, we proportionally reacted. I don’t think we can consider ourselves activists since none of us would become involved politically. We are involved and active within Humour de Droite, but on no other platform. We are more about raising awareness than into direct action.
Don: The Roma episode was a turning point. It was when the catholic right or the “social conservatives” were starting to ask themselves, “what the fuck are we doing here?” It was the same thing for us, we realised we couldn’t just limit ourselves to overplaying existing schemes and that we had to get a little more involved. I’m not sure we are in the opposition. We do not belong to any existing movement, we’re more about mocking people who do subscribe to a specific political affiliation. But we are definitely part of a growing movement, albeit a blurry one – web-based activism.
Josh: As far as I am concerned, I am part of the opposition. And I do have a political affiliation. The rest of the guys don’t know about this.
“They own a considerable part of the media, and control almost all national institutions. And now they’re trying to own being funny on the internet?”
What do you think of the relevatively failed attempts by the right-wing majority to work against you (creating a similar « left wing humour » account on Twitter), to win support on the internet platform that you so clearly dominate ?
Joaquin: The UMP tried to exist on the intrawebs. They created what they called the « iRiposte » (« iRetaliation », NdlR), which is to be understood as, « the internet is constantly mocking us and belongs to the left, we must try to tap into their base. » Which was a massive failure.
I see two issues – first, the right thought the internet was poking fun at them because they believed our movement to be from the left – whereas it is only because they were (and still are) completely ridiculous. The UMP, the first political party in France, placed people in charge of internet communication even when it was obvious they didn’t know anything about the internet. They should have let their grassroot base do it. Yet most of those communication directors are in their fifties.
The second issue is that the young UMP members, the very same ones that attempted to pry internet control away from us, have leadership to answer to, inside a party system that is all about control, wants to control everything, wants to control the use of the Internet – which is part of its attempt at domination – but also control those who work within the realm of the internet. We do not have to answer to anyone. We have complete freedom to write whatever we want to write. We can only be sanctioned by our Facebook fans or Twitter followers, but we don’t really care at this point. The numbers speak for themselves … and as far as talent goes…
Nicolas: I don’t have much to say on the question. I get that they’re trying to gain some space on the platform, but so far it hasn’t really been a success. What’s really funny is that we even sometimes are a legit source of information and entertainement for their own youth movement, even for UNI (right-wing student union, NdlR) members…
Robin: It’s important to mention that they have control of the press, though. Even traditionally left-leaning newspapers tend to linger for too long on the media noise that the right knows how to create in order to mask the real issues. When Liberation is losing its mind over the debate on laicity, they’re not lashing out at the government about unemployment rates. The right doesn’t need to have an Internet presence, its audience is elsewhere. They seem to want to waste money on it though… I’m not against it, it’s good for the economy.
Don: It’s not easy to be both in the government and be funny. They own a considerable part of the media, and control almost all national institutions. And now they’re trying to own being funny on the internet ? The internet will always laugh at them, not with them.
Josh: If you only knew how much money is thrown into it… not even bringing in fantastic results, their appeal close to zero.
HDD now has over 18,000 fans on Facebook. Do you consider yourselves disappointed by the traditional left in its failure to oppose Sarkozy’s policies, or simply as pioneers of interactive and participative political activism ?
Joaquin: I believe in the latter. HDD has, from the get-go, created a new media thanks to social networking. We don’t have any website or blog. We only have a Facebook page and a Twitter account with over 40,000 followers – it’s exceptionally high for a french-based account. We also have a Tumblr (tumblr.com/bonjourlancar). Any of our followers are free to comment and participate. We are a community. A strong one.
Nicolas: Definitely disappointed by the left, especially the Socialist Party. When I see Martine Aubry withdrawing her signature on a petition against the debate on laicity, only because Tariq Ramadan signe dit as well, what do you want me to think ? That she wouldn’t have supported the end of the death penalty if Tariq Ramandan had as well ? I don’t know who her counsellors are, but it was one of the biggest mistakes of the last few months, it defies common sense. She just appears as some sort of fearful old lady who only worries about her reputation.
Robin: We are a media focused on awareness. We are here to make people understand that the only way to change things is to go vote, and if they choose not to, they lost their right to complain, that they can only shut the fuck up for the ensuing five years. We offer support to people, we’re your local Weight Watchers support group, the political chapter. We are indeed based on interactivity and participation.
Don: Disappointed by the left, for sure. Strauss-Kahn, Aubry, Hollande have little to no impact on us. We do like Jospin, as he represents a beloved and cherished time before Sarkozy. I’m not sure we’re pioneers, though. Political entertainment isn’t new. What is new is how successful we’ve become.
Josh: I agree with my team. I think we’re all more or less disappointed by the left. Strauss-Kahn or Aubry, there’s no difference. As far as Hollande goes, I’d admit I’m on the fence. He’s been admirably successful in his evolution.
Will HDD officially endorse a candidate for the 2012 presidential election ?
Joaquin: We are running for the UMP primaries, if there is one. Exclusive info.
Nicolas: We might.
Robin: If it hadn’t been for the 500 required sponsors, we would have run for the socialist primaries. But to answer on a personal level, I’d rather not endorse a particular candidate, I’d rather have a single candidate on the Left.
Josh: And if it ends up being Hollande, we won’t mind.
Don: I think we’d lose credibility if we endorsed someone. We must keep the whole « couldn’t give less of a shit » vibe or we’re selling out. Thank god there are five of us, so we can keep some balance.
“If each and single one of our followers could start a political conversation with their parents, grandparents to talk about what they’re expecting from their country, what bothers them, what they hope for, I think we could honestly find national cohesion”
Your new motto is making no prisoners (« In France, you either fear the Arabs or fear the National Front. If you are Sarkozy, you fear both »). What do you make of the rise of the National Front and do you believe in an organized front to avoid a catastrophe ?
Joaquin: Our previous motto was, « If you don’t like it, go set yourself on fire in Tunisia », and even before that, « If you don’t like it, you can always go live in North Korea. » Our mottos are always topical.
There is, today, an undeniable rise of the National Front and it’s only due to the xenophobic policies implemented by the government and orchestrated since Election Day by the Sarkozy administration. It’s a campaign strategy : increase the numbers of the National Front while turning racism into something mainstream, decomplexing the working class, then grab all the National Front votes in 2012.
Jacques Chirac did just that in 2002 with his infamous line on « the noise and the smell », then Sarkozy in 2007 when he claimed to clean the country « with a karsher » and that suburban youth were just « scum ». There is a noticeable increase in the governmental linguistic slips, essentially directed against Islam. It’s just this basic fear of the immigrant, of « the arab ». It’s profoundly disgusting. And so far, it’s failing. This strategy only empowered the National Front. They don’t even need to campaign anymore. But those disappointed by Sarkozy won’t go back to the fold. So, yes, it is worrying. We’re trying to open people’s eyes on what is going on, on our own scale. But Twitter users are not the working classes that are courted by the extreme right.
Nicolas: If each and single one of our followers could start a political conversation with their parents, grandparents to talk about what they’re expecting from their country, what bothers them, what they hope for, I think we could honestly find national cohesion : most families have a discussion before making an important decision. I envision a vote from the same prism. We are relying on a young generation, very wired, mostly middle class or even upper middle class, but most importantly educated, to transmit and communicate key points in current affairs. In short, every one can relay an opinion. I don’t even know why I’m telling you that.
Regarding the rise of the National Front, I consider its ideas as being widely spread already, being carried by Marine Le Pen, Jean-Francois Cope, Claude Gueant, I don’t know who, it doesn’t matter. We still have to fight them.
Robin: I’m not afraid of the National Front. What is scary to me is their capacity to mobilize their base on issues that the mainstream parties refuse or are incapable to address. I won’t comment on their ideas, there has always been incredibly idiotic people on Earth and I don’t think it’s ever going to change.
Josh: The train is speeding on the tracks and the UMP is doing whatever it takes to create « inception » with the public opinion. Honestly, do you see a clear difference between Marine Le Pen and Claude Gueant ? I’m also absolutely convinced that this presidential campaign is going to stoop to an absolutely horrifying low. It will be even worse than in 2007.
Don: I’m not afraid of the National Front. To be honest I’m not sure she’ll reach the second round. And even if she does – what will it change ?
You’ve never refrained from personal attacks on openly racist elected officials (Brice Hortefeux) or on the youth movement’s leaders. You also reignited an interest for the right to vote with interactive operations (« In the voting booth », where people are asked to submit pictures on a given theme). Are you influenced by stateside satirical figures like Colbert or Stewart, targeting a young base ?
Joaquin: Americans do not exist.
Robin: Not really, the closest we have to Colbert and Stewart are Debbouze and Dieudonné, as they’re capitalizing on their sympathy level to communicate a political message. And they’re right to do so. The real difference with Colbert and Stewart is that France doesn’t have its own political comedian with his own TV show on a network with a real political affiliation, that is not afraid to attack the government. France doesn’t have that. We have no powerful and/or efficient counter-power.
We’re not really inspired by the US. We’re pretty far from the US mentality. We’re really fans of some cultural elements for sure, but not in our mindset. We’re pretty skeptical.
Don:I’m not personally into the whole « go vote, youngins ! » theme. I’m not a brother figure or a guy out to make people more responsible. I’m more into pissing the old people off.
Nicolas: Americans have a choice between two parties… in France, small parties are gnawing at majorities and gain some cumulative power. Small parties are the ones creating the nuances in policing. In our jokes and our daily production, we also try to translate those nuances because it’s in the daily details that a voter will make its choice between what he is offered. Everyone is pretty much aware that there are major political issues with their own major answers with which everyone agrees : that’s what made Sarkozy’s « working more to earn more » slogan so successful. It’s also what drowned Royal in quicksand when she got mad during the final debate : she tried to get angry to draw attention on one of the few topics on which every single party should agree (ie. the rights of the handicapped).
Josh: Obama playing the game by appearing on Stewart’s show. Do you see it being translated in french culture ? Really ?Colbert and Stewart in the US. In France, Yann Barthes. I think there’s nothing more to say.
What goals are you setting for HDD for the upcoming election year ? What role will you play in the election coverage and mobilization for the youth vote ?
Joaquin: There will be a lot of surprises… Can’t talk about any of them yet.
Josh: We will show our cute little faces and court a potential ministry position.
Nicolas: A lot of things are in the works. Big things.
Robin: To continue up until Election Day, and depending on the outcome, we will change course, towards a new project we are currently working on… and yeah, why not show our faces ? We’re handsome dudes.
Don: We will continue to gather more followers and then have a giant revolutionary booze party.