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Guardian’s Steve Bell on French politicians and poetry

With savage depictions of Theresa May as a ‘scary clown’ in leopard print shoes, or Donald Trump with a toilet-shaped head, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell is famous for his caustic take on politics. 

France has given him plenty of in­spi­­­ration too. Oliver Rowland spoke to him during his first French exhibition, at Rouen’s Hôtel de Ville, which tied in with him being a judge in the annual This is England short films festival

How did you get involved with the festival?

Olivier Auvray, a retired English teacher [and part of Rouen-Norwich Club twinning body, which runs the festival] got in touch years ago as he’d been using my cartoons in his lessons, which was great – I was chuffed he was doing that. He used them as teaching aids to help them learn about the absurdities of English.

He used to come to England with lycée students on school trips and he would bring a group to see me work – it was an annual event for a long time.

What did the kids make of your cartoons?

I was never too sure, but one of the nice things about cartoons is you can appreciate them on different levels – they can be ambiguous and mean all sorts of things to different people.

My exhibition in Rouen isn’t the actual art, it’s prints because the artwork is very small and it would look unimpressive in a massive baroque corridor in the Hôtel de Ville. They blew them up and it works well.

The images have a linking theme of being inspired by works of art, so you can appreciate them as pictures even if you don’t understand all the arcane convolutions of British politics.
Works of art have a unifying effect because people know them.

You’ve often been inspired by French art?

Yes, the most frequent one being Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people, which I’ve used so many times I’ve lost count; along with Millais’ Ophelia and Munch’s The Scream – they’re useful for getting your point across. I’m just borrowing the image and using it for my own nefarious purposes.

Plus Manet or Toulouse-Lautrec, among others – do you have a particular interest in French art, or is it inevitable given France has produced famous painters?

Well yes, France is the land of the artiste. I did French A-level and loved the sound. I stumble by in French. 

I do a character who speaks in a revolting French accent – I write it phonetically – and I always enjoy it, but that’s one of the hardest things to explain to a native French-speaker who wants to know ‘why have you written it like this?’ I’m trying to say, that’s just my English interpretation of a French accent. It’s franglais.

One of my influences is romantic French poets like Verlaine and Leconte de Lisle and Gautier, and the concept of l’art pour art [art for art’s sake], though I personally find that idea rather ridiculous and I take the p**s out of it. Being English, we tend to regard the French as a bit pretentious, and they probably see us rather pig-headed. So close yet so far apart.

Which French politicians have you enjoyed doing?

I used to do Mitterrand a lot, though he was hard to get right. And Giscard d’Estaing before him. Chirac was good, but again not easy – French cartoonists did him better, because I only do French politics intermittently.

Sarko stood out – he’s ready-made for comedy; he looks like the Devil… Le Pen père and fille stand out. I did one of Le Pen with his hideous face coming out of a French cockerel’s arse. It was an expression of disgust; he’s a grotesque character.

You like to be caustic; you don’t like it if the subjects like them…

Yes, it’s always slightly disappointing if they like them. It is an offensive medium; you’re trying to be offensive. It’s also a problem when you find yourself agreeing with your subjects because then I can’t attack them. Corbyn is a slight problem. I can still take the p**s for him being an old bearded fart, but, politically, I’m not going to trash him for expressing things I agree with.

What do you make of Macron?

He’s an interesting phenomenon. I’ve done him a bit more in my strip than in my big press cartoons. The strip is where I do the leg-work. You get a character, break it down, and simplify it so you can do it again and again.

Politically, he’s a bit like a cross between Thatcher and Blair, but he’s not really, he’s something different.

Macron says he will reform, reform, reform and modernise, modernise, modernise, but these are classic bullshit words Blair made much of.

There are similarities – he’s vacuous in the same way Blair was vacuous. I was never disappointed in Blair because I could see what he was like.

Brexit also provides a lot of fuel…

It’s breath-taking. I’ve always been anti-Tory, but this lot are staggering in their sheer incompetence. They don’t even agree among themselves so how do they expect to negotiate with anybody? It will only stop if someone presses the ‘off’ button on article 50. We’re on a course to nowhere.

Is that why you depict Theresa May as a clown?

You often have to take a punt in this job and go on instinct. Over a year ago people dressing up as evil clowns and frightening people was in the news and I put two and two together.
Because she hadn’t had this disastrous election yet, she appeared to be riding high, talking of being strong and stable, and seemed more evil to me. But now she’s just incompetent and the clown works well – clowns stumble around putting pies in their own faces like this lot. I don’t see how they can last, but they creak on.

What about French cartoonists?

I know [Le Monde cartoonist] Jean Plantu, who organises exhibitions called Cartooning for Peace. I went to one in Strasbourg last year, just before the referendum, and seeing all the flags brought home to me what an amazing institution the EU is, with so many nations in one place.

And I met one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who died in the attack, Tignous, who was a lovely guy. He was a livewire, so funny and mad. And he had that French style: loose, almost scribbly, but at the same time elegant, and very rude.

We in England are ruder about personally abusing politicians, but the French are more lubricious, sex is more acceptable.

To hear Tignous had been shot was a horrible shock. They were just doing what I do, which is abusing everybody, right, left and centre. Cartoons have to push barriers and no one expects to get gunned down. I salute them for what they did.

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