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Onstage, the French Election Is a Landslide Win for Cynicism

PARIS — If elections are spectacles, France’s presidential campaign, caught between voter apathy and war in Europe, has so far struggled to connect with its audience. Yet on French stages, a number of artists are making hay out of the upcoming vote — and the picture is hardly flattering.

Across comedy and drama, performers and directors of varied backgrounds seem to agree on one thing: The country’s politicians are uniformly terrible and their performances a little too close to theater to be trusted.

Not that the political calendar is headline material in every playhouse. While many prestigious French theaters that receive public funding pride themselves on staging political works, they tend to refer to current events only obliquely. For highbrow theatergoers here, a lack of intellectual distance suggests a lack of taste. Shows actually addressing the presidential campaign are mostly found elsewhere, in smaller venues that rely on box-office revenues.

Two of them, the Café de la Gare and the Théâtre des Deux Ânes, are comedy venues. On the nights I attended, they drew large, albeit different, crowds. While visitors to the Café de la Gare skewed younger, the silver-haired audience at the Théâtre des Deux Ânes, in the Pigalle district of Paris, appeared to include many regulars, who cheered for several comedians as soon as they appeared onstage.

The jokes were dissimilar, too. At the Deux Ânes, the show “Elect Us” strings together five comic and musical acts, ranging from witty (Florence Brunold’s parody of a history lesson, with “Macron the First” as a Jupiterian king) to downright misogynistic. Every female politician mentioned throughout the performance was described as either an airhead or physically unattractive. Some of their male peers, on the other hand, were more gratifyingly characterized as “too smart” (Macron) or as a Casanova (the far-right candidate Éric Zemmour).

The shows on offer at the Café de la Gare, on the other hand, tried to turn these tropes on their head. “We’ve Reached That Point!,” written by Jérémy Manesse and directed by Odile Huleux, envisions a television debate between two fictional contenders during the next presidential election, in 2027. One of them is a woman, well played by the deadpan Florence Savignat, who maintains a purposely bland persona to avoid personal attacks. In another show at the venue, “Meurice 2022,” the well-known comic Guillaume Meurice — a daily presence on a popular radio station, France Inter — plays a presidential candidate whose patronizing rhetoric is ultimately undermined by the feminist manager in charge of running his events, played by Julie Duquenoy.

Still, despite their contrasting values, all these shows portray the French political class as far removed from the audience and its concerns. The historical left-right divide, which has been in flux since Macron won office as a centrist and far-right figures started gaining ground, often gave way onstage to an “us versus them” dynamic, with acts that riffed on the public’s perceived disdain for every presidential candidate.

Meurice’s cartoonishly out-of-touch character, for instance, isn’t affiliated with any party. One recurring gag is that every time he mentions another politician, he describes that person as “a personal friend,” from far-left figures to Macron and Zemmour — the implication being that they all belong to the same social group. By way of parody, “Meurice 2022” also offers empty slogans like “The future is already tomorrow” and “Winning now.”

From a comedy perspective, it works. Yet “Meurice 2022” speaks to a larger malaise in the country, which “We’ve Reached That Point!” makes even more explicit. The plot revolves around the improbable notion that the two 2027 contenders, unbeknown to them, have been given a newly discovered truth serum before the start of their live debate. When the serum kicks in, suddenly they find themselves blurting out their real feelings about the hot issues of the campaign.

Manesse, a shrewd writer, inserts several coups de théâtre along the way, which makes for a genuinely entertaining play. Yet the premise remains that no politician could possibly be telling the truth.

When politicians are portrayed as liars, the age-old comparison between politics and theater is never far away — and in Paris, two plays about former French presidents are also leaning into it. “The Life and Death of J. Chirac, King of the French,” directed by Léo Cohen-Paperman, shows Jacques Chirac, the French head of state from 1995 to 2007, as a deeply theatrical figure, as does “Élysée,” a play about the relationship between Chirac and his predecessor, François Mitterrand, who was elected president in 1981.

Audience members looking for policy analysis will be disappointed. “Elysée,” directed by Jean-Claude Idée at the Petit Montparnasse theater, is mostly uninterested in Chirac’s and Mitterrand’s politics. The playwright, Hervé Bentégéat, focuses on what they have in common: a wandering eye, for starters, in some cringe-inducing scenes with the only woman in the cast, and the fact that they are “good comedians.” Cue the unlikely bargain they reportedly struck in 1981 to help the left-wing Mitterrand get elected — a cynical long-term calculation for Chirac, a right-wing figure.

“The Life and Death of J. Chirac, King of the French,” at the Théâtre de Belleville, is the more compelling show, despite some inconsistencies. It is the first installment in a planned series of presidential portraits, “Eight Kings.” (The president-as-king metaphor has a life of its own in France.) In the opening scene, which manages to be brilliantly funny while recapping Chirac’s life, Julien Campani and Clovis Fouin play overenthusiastic Chirac fans who have created a zany 24-hour theater production about his life. Cohen-Paperman then segues into far more traditional vignettes drawn from Chirac’s youth and career.

Campani is impressively convincing in the title role, but “The Life and Death of J. Chirac, King of the French” never really explores what Chirac achieved, or didn’t achieve, as a politician. Instead, it posits politics as a game of chess, with Chirac on the lookout for the next useful move.

The cynicism across all these shows isn’t just striking. It also renders politics null and void: What difference is there between left and right, or even the far left and the far right, some of these shows seemed to imply.

For a punchier take on French politics, audiences can still look to “Antis,” a smartly constructed play by Perrine Gérard. Directed by Julie Guichard at the Théâtre du Point du Jour in Lyon, 270 miles south of Paris, “Antis” depicts in 80 minutes the rise of a shadowy, violent organization with government ties that crusades for a “unified” national identity.

While no party or political affiliation is ever mentioned, the concept of national identity has been a recurring anti-immigration theme in France, and the excellent cast of five manages to tread a fine line between humorous characterization and uncomfortable dystopia. Politics may involve some performance, but its potential real-life consequences belong onstage, too.

On En Est Là! Directed by Odile Huleux. Café de la Gare, Paris, through March 22.
Meurice 2022. Created by Guillaume Meurice. Café de la Gare, Paris, through March 29.
Élysez-Nous. Théâtre des Deux Ânes, Paris, through June 29.
La Vie et la Mort de J. Chirac, Roi des Français. Directed by Léo Cohen-Paperman. Théâtre de Belleville, Paris, through March 31.
Élysée. Directed by Jean-Claude Idée. Petit Montparnasse, Paris, through April 30.
Antis. Directed by Julie Guichard. Théâtre du Point du Jour; Lyon, France, through March 10.

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