A “divided society”: Guillaume Meurice removed from France Inter, what the comedian’s suspension tells us

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Published on May 12, 2024 at 2:21 p.m.

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In a short article from an immense work, the French medievalist Jacques le Goff looked at laughter in the Middle Ages and told us a famous formula that can be paraphrased as follows: “Tell me what and who you are laughing at, and I will tell you who you are.”

Since the controversies surrounding Guillaume Meurice’s joke in October 2023 and its recent amplification which led the comedian to be removed from the broadcast of France Inter, much has been said, and more than ever this widely publicized and relayed discord says something about France today. This article aims to identify this problem through the interdisciplinary prism of work on humor.

Analysis of a joke

The specialized literature on laughter generally recognizes three main schools which understand the phenomenon: incongruity – often used in linguistics – which explains laughter by the gap between what is expected and what occurs; laughter of superiority – of which we find traces in Hobbes or Bergson – which analyzes the social relationship between the laugher and his victim; and liberation laughter of Freudian tendency which concerns the link between laughter and taboos.

The particularity of Guillaume Meurice’s joke, comparing Benjamin Netanyahu to “a kind of Nazi without a foreskin” is that it fits into all categories. There is at the same time a paradoxical element, using the word “Nazi” to describe an Israeli leader, a particular relationship between the laugher and his target and a reference to a genital organ.

The second element seems particularly interesting to me to investigate. By directing this sarcasm to the Israeli Prime Minister, Guillaume Meurice uses this humor of reversing the balance of power since he attacks someone who has more power than him.

He then resorts to humor as a weapon of the oppressed. But at the same time, by daring this incongruous formulation, he hurts a part of the Jewish community, traumatized by the Holocaust.

This humorous formula, whatever one thinks of it on a personal level, clearly shows all the ambivalence of humor, both a weapon of the weakest and an innocent alibi capable of allowing any interpretation.

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While there is no doubt that Guillaume Meurice is neither anti-Semitic nor the author of an anti-Semitic joke, as the courts demonstrated by dismissing the complaint addressed to him, the joke he pronounced and reiterated illustrates the polarization that humor can generate.

Linguistic tools for analyzing humor

Based on a fundamental article for the discipline by the linguist Patrick Charaudeau, I established an original coding grid to measure the speech of comedians during radio and television broadcasts. This grid is directly inspired by theories of superiority and makes it possible to measure the target and the way in which comedians target political figures.

Applied to the broadcast The great Sunday evening, this grid demonstrates how the French political spectrum, divided into three large blocs during the 2022 presidential election, reproduces and rebuilds itself during this broadcast. In addition, this broadcast is now in public, which allows the level of applause and reactions of spectators to be integrated.

The analysis then draws on work in sociology to show how the show brings together a left-wing audience to mock both the presidential majority and the political representatives of the National Rally, against the backdrop of a media war with CNews And Time for the proswho target each other at regular intervals.

To return to the introductory remarks borrowed from Jacques le Goff, this analysis demonstrates that France is a deeply divided country today and that humor amplifies this division by accentuating the borders between political groups.

Far from easing tensions and offering a valve that brings France together, the issue The great Sunday eveningdriven by the public present on site and the excellent audiences, brings together progressive France against the far right and the presidential majority.

Far from espousing psychological approaches here which see humor as a form of healing, this program is rather a political theater with abundant content for political scientists, which reproduces the balance of power in the National Assembly.

Humor as a democratic thermometer

The controversy surrounding Guillaume Meurice’s joke invites us to temper the pacifying virtues that we regularly attribute to humor. On the contrary, inspired by Bergson’s rather pessimistic book and other recent works which go in the same direction, humor appears in this context as a political weapon of division which crystallizes identities between groups and where each camp is unites against the others by the innocent alibi of the comic.

It seems important to me to nuance and clarify the point. It is not a question here of saying that the comedians of France Inter intend to divide the country further every Sunday, their intentions are eminently benevolent. But on the contrary, it is a question of showing how the deep division of French society, combined with the presence of the public which excites the Sunday show, is exported to the stages of comedians who despite themselves become political figures of their public.

At no time during my research did I come across any comedians who sincerely believed they were playing a political role or who claimed any form of activism. It is not the comedians who have an impact on society, it is on the contrary society which impacts their work and the scale of their jokes.

In conclusion, humor thus appears to be a real democratic thermometer, enough to perhaps formulate a law or a causal relationship to be demonstrated in future research: the more a democratic society manages to laugh at itself, the better it becomes. door.

Converselythe more divided society is, the less it manages to come together through laughter.

The ambivalence of humor then appears to be a relevant tool for thinking about the democratic solidity of a society. The provisional ousting of Guillaume Meurice from France Inter would thus be the signal of a France deeply divided and marked by hatred of the other camp, enough to give humor a particularly fruitful field in view of the presidential election of 2027.

Guillaume Grignard, FNRS Researcher in political science, Free University of Brussels (ULB)

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