The Marquis de Sade, whose "One more time Frenchmen if you wish to be Republican" sounded the glas of the French revolution, set the challenge before the recent Presidential election in France. Not a call to revolution, for that had finally ended in the bicentennial parade up the Champs Elysees, not May 68, where the Republic imploded with a bang, but May 95, where the Republic fell under the sign of T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, ending in a whimper. Surrounded, not by sex - scandalous or not - but by a series of corruption trials France enters the contemporary world: a type of Deleuzean becoming Italian.
The French Presidential election of 1995 was the first election fully on the Internet. An election, where not only was the election over before voting had ended owing to exit polls, its news value also was instantaneously realized in the bilingual posting by the French Ministry of the Interior on the Net. Thus, a precursor to what is to come. A real time election where entrance polling provides a continuous read out of the vote. Unlike the past, the future now precedes the "real" event.
Who's on first...
It all began when the political class, having little success in appealing to "public opinion" with ideological positions, took to bringing out dossiers on the "corruption" of politicians. In successive waves the mayors of some of France's major cities: Lyon, Nice, Grenoble, all fell under judicial review. The succession of revelations increased as the election approached with three ministers of then Prime Minister Balladur's government, a chief fund raiser of Jacques Chirac's party and, even, the "almost candidate" of the Socialist party and its first secretary, Henri Emanuelli, all charged with various forms of influence peddling. Its effect, though, was good television, especially if combined with a sports bribery scandal which provided a spectacular and quick political execution of Bernard Tapie, the favorite of Francois Mitterand and a popular socialist, who perished at the hands of his sport, political and media partners.
In a land of the blind, or more precisely the corrupt, the temptation to find an honest man proved to be overwhelming as the pre-selection of Jacques Delors showed. Delors, head of the European Union at the time, had skillfully avoided internal politics and immediately was rewarded by being the pre-election favorite despite his views, that were largely out of favor. His pro European stance coupled with his socialist leanings held little support. His abandonment of his putative candidacy was a non-event concerning a non-event but it was a perfect, virtual media event.
The abandonment by Delors was followed by the virtual victory of Edward Balladur whose political positions were the opposite of Delors. The destruction of his campaign was equally swift as his ascendancy in the polls. It came on three fronts. The first, was Balladur's attempt at fiscal realism - a type of contorted socialist realism on the right. Having opted for the role of truth-sayer he suffered the fate of most messengers. Politics has had little time for the real and, certainly not, when juxtaposed against the virtual spectral images. The second, was being ahead in the polls which turned the virtual candidate into a possible President - not a pleasant thought. The third, and knock out blow, was not delivered by the real or the possible, however, but by the virtual, that is, by the puppets that parody the news each evening. Having started out in the lead Balludur's image had to be mutated to the benefit of both Chirac and the future Socialist candidate, Jospin.
The early polls of Chirac, Balladur's co-partner on the right, showed him about to fall entirely out of the race having been reduced by the survey crews to the remains of the fallen Pompidou years. But voila! Chirac had been "betrayed" by Balladur, his friend of thirty years, who had purportedly accepted the Prime Minister's job in lieu of becoming a Presidential candidate - a form of (dis)honor amongst thieves. And more to the point, the puppet shows had Chirac sticking pins into a Balludurian doll. Thus, having pre- selected Delors and pre-elected Balladur the citizens "decided", decided, of course, by survey techniques, to put Chirac in the lead. However, Chirac would not remain ahead on the carrousel for long.
Jospin, whom many had never heard of and whom no one thought of, became the Socialist candidate, as not only Delors, but others, scurried for cover sensing the "apres moi le deluge" collapse after Mitterand whose monument complex had turned socialism into imperialism. This gave Jospin a break. The well meaning, honest but naive candidate, without a chance, was a perfect image - a virtual life when politically the socialists were dead in the water.
The consequence, Jospin launches himself on the theme of change - just like Chirac. This platform of "change but not necessarily change" created another reversal as Jospin appears from "nowhere" to capture the highest vote on the first of the two Presidential votes.
What this cascading of projected winners shows is just how politics has become based on the virtual. Non-events, that is the simulated state of the citizen's choice become, as such, events that are the basis for the next round of projections and newscasts. Whether Chirac, Jospin or Balladur were actually in the lead remained as part of the set of virtual events, real but not actualized. The only real, actual event was the vote which collapsed the possible - and it was itself "unreal" - surprising all, even, the candidates and the voters.
Welcome, then, to the survey citizen. The survey citizen has become the afterimage of the thinking, rational subject - a replacement for the economic individual refashioned now into the well-behaved ideal citizen - however, a creature that shows increasing signs of being out of control. Initially a technology used to manipulate the political calculus by the politicians, the scanning techniques have clearly turned, in part, against the stasis of the political elites. The use of the survey citizen has created a parasitical loop both outside of the formal political institutional structures which continue to lose speed and outside the calculus of the rational political voter. The appearance of parasites within the body politics creates the cancerous dimension of electorate feeding off the political class that feeds off of the electorate. A symbiotic, as Goya suggested, that puts reason to sleep and creates monsters.
The electorate is, thus, able to alter the political calculus on the basis of its own "hidden perverse" aspect. The outrage expressed by party "spokesmen" after the first ballot where the citizen did not follow the projection of the polls at the time of the vote underlined how this has interjected an element of the uncontrollable in what has been an increasingly set piece. That is to say, the survey is a mutating field scape that repulses from the image of itself. This mutant viral aspect of the passive serial voter not only perturbs the political field but creates a growing vector of parodic mimicking of the political - in other words a triumph of democracy.
The Emperor's New Puppets
The election was "fought", as befitting a postmodern site, almost solely on television. This is a politics in the older style of image-making but brought under the increasing virtualization of the personae of the candidates. This is accomplished by simple techniques of presenting clonal images. The interviewee, not being larger than life in person, is projected beside him or herself at an enhanced dimensionality. Or the individual image is given a mirror effect where the image is a multiple of itself. All of this "suspended" in a set, usually above the Seine, with the monuments of Paris by night as a backdrop. Such strategic inflating of the person creates an image that dominates the image, making a refractory, spectral politics.
This is combined with the growing recognition that electoral television must also become a parody of itself if it is to be watched. The growing popularity of the puppet shows that immediately precede the news played a role in the election that rivaled that of the opinion polls. The premiere television chain, TF1, precedes the news with Le bebete a show which, in ten minutes, presents the "actualities" prior to their sanitation at eight. On Canal+, a double parody, with Les guignols de l'infos which directly satirize the TF1 newscast as well as the news. Both emissions, more popular and more informative, they render the news as a parodic echo of receding events.
As the Liberation of 26 January 1995 noted, Jacques Chirac's contact with the "young" was through the performance of his marionette - an advantage that was impregnable to attack from Jospin. Of course, no one admitted voting on the basis of the puppet shows except children who consistently confused the real with the puppets, or rather like the tale of the "Emperor's New Clothes" were, perhaps, the only ones capable of admitting the facts of the matter.
French culture has profited from the recycling of the past. The city of Paris, Chirac's base, has been a stunning success aggressively retrofitting its monuments captured in the renovations of the Louvre. A similar retrofitting dominated the Chirac campaign. It ensured in large measure Chirac's triumph. The baggage of Chirac's three attempts at the Presidency was reversed when Chirac, learning a lesson from Marx and Napoleon III, borrowed a new costume and made history.
To the Socialist leaders, Chirac presented an even greater dilemma. Chirac became a type of schizoid target. For having to fight the series of Chirac's ghost the campaign fractured against the multiple personalities of Chirac whose record of changing was unparalleled. Exhausted, like an army fighting on multiple fronts, the Socialists never found what never existed - that being the real Chirac.
The virtualization of Chirac held out another immense advantage for he had "covered" all the positions at one time or another so he had always a response, glib and superficial for the most part to any enquiry. This diffraction from the ideological campaign towards a generalized populism signaled the trend in French politics towards the American. Chirac becomes a type of afterimage of Reagan, riding a set of generalisms that are delivered with a telemonic touch. No debate, no ideology, no differences - epitomized in Chirac's campaign symbol of the apple, or as it is better expressed by the puppets: "Pas de polemique. Mangez les pommes."
"Ah, Putain, j'ai gagne."
- Puppet Chirac, Les guignols de l'infos
As befitting the postmodern style of election the results were broadcast at the instant the voting closed having been determined some hours earlier by exit polls. Thus, television programming had to be inverted to focus on the virtual resurrection of the candidates and the vote. Desperate to ensure a measure of suspense, the media seized on its trump card of image-making by using, as a relief for the set of the public network, a computer image that, in hologramic mode, alternated features of each of the candidates making collages. The announcers used the play of the image to try to simulate a race telling the telespectator that the winner was encoded in the ever mutating image - a hologramic game show instead of a news report.
They were right in this for many reasons. First, the candidates had deliberately conflated their own images so that one had a great deal of difficulty in finding a difference in the real. Second, it underscored that the image process was the political. Third, it demonstrated that computer simulation was the winner, could declare the winner, and knew the winner. But this may not be "last minute" - to paraphrase Les guignols de l'infos. For the commercial station Canal+, not being constrained to the image repertoire of the real, elected to cover the event with their puppets. Hence, the puppet show continued to the end declaring Chirac's victory and launching the immediate post-election parodies - a politics, then, as game show, on the one hand, and parody, on the other.
The winner in the election may in the end have been prozac. It would appear that prozac has achieved a significant step in the controlling and taming political ideologies. At least, the television debate between Chirac and Jospin gave all the appearances of a nirvana-like state. Even Jospin, straining to find differences with Chirac, seemed to disappear in the soft, gelatinous prose - a type of disappearance into a softness without content, a state of constant dampening of second-order effects. And why not if the aim is to cover the electorate? For anything but the superficial, the thin layering of flossy computer chip arguments runs the risk of being stalled in the depths, of losing the electorate. Like a museum visit any attempt to study the objects in depth results in seeing "nothing" - a rapid tour is the only way to go. So it is with the Presidential election, and with all elections in the postmodern. The winner - Chirac - probably only because he was the slickest, made of galium arsenide, hence, the closest to superconductivity and the computer logic of binary choice. Had Mitterrand's cancer struck him down before the election Jospin might have had the victory, or some other event, the more improbable the better, anything to perturb the prozac state.
3. The Franc Fort
More and more elections having lost any sense of the real for the virtual focus on what has now been called the "excluded". Precisely that portion of the population, symbolized by the homeless of the rue du Dragon in Paris, whose interest in the political has disappeared becoming a figural entity that gives rise to a spectral politics. This politics appropriates the remains of the religious, a moralizing dimension surrounded by a phantom space - a depowered site - a site that has been voided of the problems of the powerful to focus on the Other. This text though is an anagram for the fact that politics itself is now excluded, excluded from the global economy as being nothing more than a resistance in the flow. Useful for the creation of labor pools the state becomes the shop steward of the virtual economy.
Thus, France, itself, also becomes the excluded, excluded from its past revolutionary glory, excluded from the councils of the world powers, reduced to the bondage entailed in the defense of the "hard franc", excluded, even, from the recent American reversal of devaluation. In fact, the campaign had throughout its real opinion polls in the value of the franc which moved with each candidate signaling immediately its real time evaluation of the politics proposed. It was the virtual indicator of the campaign. Hence, it is not surprising that the first thing Chirac did as President was to visit Helmut Kohl who may turn out to be the President of France.
4. The Marquis
And what of the divine Marquis? Probably, he had long ago became bored and switched newsgroups.
David Cook has been living and writing in France during the past year. He is the author of Northrop Frye: A Vision of the New World and co-author with Arthur Kroker of The Postmodern Scene. He teaches Political Theory at Erindale College, University of Toronto.