The presidential clown, Coluche

Alongside the road between Valbonne and Opio, not far from the English Car Mechanics, there is a corner that looks like a graffitied bus stop. A grossly painted face on the wall is surrounded by wilted flowers and strange tokens left at the scene.

This is a shrine in memory of the French humorist Michel Gérard Joseph Colucci whose stage name was Coluche. To many of the French, especially bikers, it remains a sacred place. He died on that spot in a motorcycle accident in 1986 and conspiracy theorists still maintain he was “accidented” due to his critical humour about the French elite – politicians, journalists and the police – who wanted him silenced. No theory that he was murdered has ever been proven but the rumour persists.

Coluche ShrineA French administration is a place where those who leave early
pass
in the hallway those who arrive late.” Coluche
Photo © Dierk Schaefer

With his red nose and salopette trousers, Coluche looked like the clown he professed to be – an image that didn’t sit well with the high-minded political elite of the time. He snubbed them by announcing his candidature for presidency in 1980 and easily obtained the 500 endorsements required to run.

The establishment was quick to react. Interior Minister Christian Bonnet cited Coluche for insults to the police and he was fined 3000 francs. Attempts were made to discredit him whenever possible but his popularity continued to grow. By the time polls gave him 15% of the vote he was receiving anonymous death threats and daily harassment. In November 1980, his theatrical manager was found murdered by two shots to the head from an assassin that has never been found. Coluche then decided to pull out of the race, which was only intended to be a demonstration of just how disconnected and ruthless the political class was. He had made his point and in May 1981 François Mitterrand was elected president.

The secret to Coluche’s immense popularity was that his anecdotes and punch lines were not only funny, but rang painfully true to the French public. The only other French comedian to dare strike as close to the bone was Thierry Le Luron who also died in 1986, of throat cancer – a diagnosis that some conspiracy theorists also question. Le Luron made no secret of his contempt for French politics, notably President Mitterrand’s ruling Socialist Party.

Until his death, Coluche openly challenged political inadequacy in dealing with the French social problems of the day. He maintained that these were indeed solvable by anyone who would really try. He was met with political guffaws and accusations that he simply didn’t understand the difficulties in resolving important issues like how to feed the poor. He quickly proved them wrong by founding the Restos du Coeur food banks (www.restosducoeur.org) that to this day still distribute some 1.3 million meals to the needy in winter, with help from 66,000 volunteers.

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