February 2, 2004



The French have jokes, but do they have a sense of humour?

This scene in the film “Ridicule”, by Patrice Leconte, shows a marquis

at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles telling other courtiers and

their crinolined companions about his discovery of humour during a trip

to England. He tries to illustrate this peculiar phenomenon by telling

a joke he has heard in England. No one laughs until another courtier

adds a witty, slightly dirty remark to the English joke.

Does humour exist in France? Before the French revolution of 1789, the

word HUMOUR was hardly known. People knew ESPRIT (wit), FARCE (prank),

BOUFFONNERIE (drollery) and HUMEUR (a state of mind, or mood), but not

humour. Only in 1878 did the French Academy, the institution that

stands guard over the French language, accept HUMORISTIQUE as a French

word. A year later Edmond de Goncourt used HUMOUR without italics as a

French word in his novel “Les Freres Zemganno”, but not until 1932 did

the academicians give their approval to the noun HUMOUR.

Writers and intellectuals musing about English humour searched for an

equivalent in France. Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, France’s

best-known writer in the 18th century, tells the Abbot d’Olivet in a

letter in 1762 that the English pronounce humour YUMOR, and think they

are the only ones to have a term to express that state of mind. Madame

de Stael, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a finance minister of Louis

XVI, wrote in a discourse on literature: “The English language created

a word, humour, to express a hilarity, which is in the blood almost as

much as in the mind …What the English depict with great talent is

bizarre characters, because they have lots of those amongst them.”


When Goncourt used the word humour in 1879, he was discussing

caricaturists. This was the year of the death of Honore Daumier, the

caricaturist who had become famous all over France after being

sentenced to six months in jail for his depiction of King

Louis-Philippe d’Orleans as Rabelais’s gluttonous giant Gargantua.

Daumier’s works–“Memories” is reproduced on the left–were published

weekly in LA CARICATURE, until the government prohibited political

caricature in 1835.

With Daumier, Charles Joseph Travies, Henry Monnier, Gavarni and later

Grandville, Cham and Gustave Dore, French caricature had its golden age

in the 19th century. These caricaturists had a field day during the

four years of the ephemeral Second Republic after the 1848 revolution,

when they were able to make fun of Louis-Philippe without risking jail.

Even under Napoleon III they could get away with most of their

satirical sketches about the Parisian bourgeoisie, the armed forces or

bouffant-haired ladies and mean landlords. During France’s wars in the

Crimea (1853-56), with Austria (1859) and, most notably, with Prussia

in 1870, the country’s caricaturists became fiercely chauvinistic. A

favourite target of Daumier’s pen was Germany’s chancellor, Otto von

Bismarck, and his spiked helmet.

To this day L’HUMOUR ENGAGe–political satire and caricature–features

prominently in France. Comic films and plays are either farcical or

witty, with plenty of wordplays and rapid-fire verbal exchanges. But

humour, in the English sense, remains an alien concept.

One of the fiercest critics of the government, “Les Guignols de l’Info”

(“The News Puppets”), a daily television programme similar to Britain’s

satirical “Spitting Image”, is a huge success. “Les Guignols” has

become sharper, even crueller, since it started in 1988. Hardly

anything is taboo now. SUPERMENTEUR (“Superliar”), President Jacques

Chirac’s alter ego, is a particular favourite. In the following

exchange he is pondering Mr Chirac’s legal difficulties:

“Les Guignols” has felt obliged to apologise only a few times–once to

Mr Chirac’s wife, Bernadette, whom it had portrayed masturbating with

her handbag.

LE CANARD ENCHAiNe, a satirical weekly, is equally feared by

politicians and public personalities because of its investigative

journalism and trenchant wit. CHARLIE HEBDO (Charlie Brown of the

Peanuts cartoon strip was godfather to the magazine) and HARA-KIRI

HEBDO, two satirical weeklies launched in 1969, are competing on the

same ground. HARA-KIRI, which was created in 1960 as a monthly French

version of MAD, an American satirical magazine, was twice censored by

the government before its relaunch as a weekly. It has absorbed LA

GROSSE BERTHA, another satirical magazine that was launched in 1991

during the first Gulf war. CHARLIE HEBDO went bust in 1981, just after

supporting Coluche, a comedian, in his bid for the presidency. It was

relaunched ten years later.

None of these magazines can boast a political caricaturist as well

known in France as Jean Plantureux, or Plantu. A satirical cartoon by

Plantu–like the one on the right–has been on the front page of LE

MONDE, France’s pre-eminent daily, for the past 20 years. Plantu used

to pick his subject himself, but Edwy Plenel and Jean-Marie Colombani,

who took over as the paper’s editors in 1994, made him give up the

right to choose his topic in 1995; now it is always the main story of

the day. Earlier this year Plantu vehemently clashed with his bosses

over a sketch (posted on his website) that showed Plantu’s trademark

mouse gagged while reading “La Face Cachee du Monde” (“The Hidden face

of LE MONDE”), a best-selling polemic about the editors’ arrogance and

abuses in their quest for political power.

“We still have the naivety to believe in certain things,” says Plantu.

“We do not have the detachment that characterises English humour, we

are more militant. If we have a cause to protest, however minor, we

tear open our shirts, run into the street and shout ‘Shoot me!'”


If the Latin emotions of the French sit uneasily with humour, so does

the French logical mind. French children are instilled with Cartesian

ESPRIT (here meaning mind) at school and, even more, in the GRANDES

eCOLES, the country’s elite universities. When your correspondent was

at university in France, she was told her poor performance was due to

an Anglo-Saxon mind that made her unable to think properly, or rather

logically. A French Cartesian mind does not know what to make of a

nonsensical story, such as this one. “The governor of the Bank of

England began an address to an assembly of bankers with these words:

‘There are three kinds of economists, those who can count and those who

can’t.'” A joke of this kind would be met with incomprehension by

French listeners. It is not logical.

Self-deprecation, another essential ingredient of a “detached” sense of

humour, is not the forte of the French. But if France is too emotional,

too logical or too unsure of itself for humour, it can at least fall

back on farce as a way of releasing the emotions. The French love Jerry

Lewis, the American they call LE ROI DU CRAZY; he has even been awarded

the Legion of Honour, the country’s highest decoration. And of course

France produces its own farces. One of the best-loved of recent years

is the at times heavy-handed film “Le Pere Noel est une Ordure”

(“Father Christmas is a Shit”), directed by Jean-Marie Poire. It shows

Pierre and Therese, staffers at a charity, manning the telephones on

Christmas Eve to help callers in despair. Zezette, a pregnant woman,

arrives at the office, fleeing her violent husband, Felix, who is close

behind her. Felix, still wearing his working clothes as Father

Christmas, is subdued by Pierre and Therese and ends up in hospital.

The second visitor at the office is Katia, a manic-depressive

transvestite in search of Mr or Miss Right. The ensuing series of

catastrophes reaches its climax when Felix returns with a gun, a lift

repairman is killed, Pierre loses his virginity to Therese, and Felix

and Zezette dispose of the dead repairman.

“Le Pere Noel est une Ordure” was a big hit in France, but flopped

elsewhere, especially in America, where “Santa Claus is a Louse”, as it

was called, bombed. So did Mr Poire’s next film, “The Visitors”,

another farce, this one about medieval life, which also won a cult

following in France.

Why do French comic films not travel well when those made in Britain or

America–whether by Woody Allen, John Cleese or the Monty Python

team–seem to make people laugh all over the world? One answer,

perhaps, is that audiences in other countries simply do not have the

French fondness of puerile farce. Another, though, may be that the

things that make the French laugh involve linguistic somersaults that

only work in their own language. Much of French humour is JEUX DES

MOTS, untranslatable wordplays.

Cartoons are an exception. French-made cartoons and illustrated stories

are a huge success worldwide. Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo created

Asterix, one of the most successful cartoons ever. They are also the

fathers of Lucky Luke. And Jean-Jacques Sempe and Mr Goscinny together

created a series of books about the adventures of a little boy, LE



A meeting organised by the French Ethnological Society in 1997 about

“The Universe of Asterix” found that probably the most successful

French cartoon was translated into 72 languages, five regional

languages (such as Corsican and Alsatian) and 18 dialects, including

Berliner German and Cantonese Chinese. Yet the cartoon’s jokes were

hard work for translators. Much of the humour in Asterix consists of

wordplays, onomatopoeia and animal noises that are impossible to render

in another language. Translators tended to leave onomatopoetic

expressions like SNIP, TCHAC, PAF or TCHAC in the original, though they

mean nothing in Cantonese or Swedish. The cartoon’s text also makes

frequent use of the French language’s countless homonyms such as LA

TRIBU (the tribe) and L’ATTRIBUT (the attribute), or MA REINE (my

queen) and MARRAINE (godmother). They generally have no equivalent in

other languages, so the joke is lost.

The translation of “Asterix chez les Bretons” was particularly

difficult, says Henriette Touillier-Feyrabend of the National Centre

for Scientific Research, as its humour depended on using English

grammar in French. Asterix and his companions would, for instance, look

for the MAGIQUE POTION’S TONNEAU (the magic potion’s cask) rather than


Yet, despite translators’ best efforts, a MeSENTENTE CORDIALE remains

when it comes to funniness. At the end of the film “Ridicule”,

mentioned at the start of this article, the hat of the Marquis de

Bellegarde is blown away by the wind. Interrupting his lamentations, an

English lord (who has caught the hat) remarks that it is better than

losing one’s head. Ah, cries Bellegarde, this is English humour!


(c) 2003 The Economist Newspaper Group Limited. All rights reserved.


December 18, 2003