A clown in the Elysee Palace?

French comedian Michel Colucci, better known as "Coluche," entered the race for the French presidential elections next March as a joke. Like the little boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes" who shouts that the emperor is really naked, Coluche's campaign, using the motto, "They think you're clowns.So why not vote for one?" has struck a nerve.

Dressed in overalls, and sporting a blue, white, and red sash and a devilishly innocent grin, Coluche kicked off his campaign by proclaiming that France "should invade Albania because it's the only country we can defeat." He then went on to explain that he planned to win with the 20 percent of the French population that never votes because it is too disgusted.

Despite the comedy, there is an underlying note of seriousness. "The right makes promises it never keeps," says Coluche dryly. "The left raises hopes and leaves disappointment."

To Coluche's amazement, the response has been overwhelming. The French newsmagazine Nouvel Observateur ran a straw poll among 500 readers and reported that 27 percent said they would vote for Coluche if he ran. Jerome Jaffre, chief of political studies at Softes, France's most respected pollster, estimates that Coluche could easily win 10 percent in current opinion polls simply because people are so fed up with current French politicians.

Ironically Coluche's career as Frence's leading comic began with a seven-minute TV appearance on election night in 1974. His rolypoly, blank-faced expression filled the screen in between voter returns announcing Valery Giscard d'Estaing's election as president. His routine about a doomed Belgian, which started off with: "It's the story of a guy . . ." has now entered into everyday French speech. Both Coluche and Giscard have had seven years to perfect their routines, adn at least in the view of the broad public, Coluche seems to have been more successful at his. "Why elect an amateur comedian," asks Coluche wrily, "when you can have a pro?"

Giscard was reportedly sufficiently upset about Coluche's candidacy to bring the subject up during a Cabinet meeting. One government official later railed, "He is making a mockery out of democracy." In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Coluche seems to be saying openly what many Frenchmen feel privately: that one of the political choices available express their real desires, or work in their real interests.

The only candidate though to have a serious chance of giving Mr. Giscard d'Estaing serious competition was up-and-coming Socialist, Michel Rocard, who dropped out of the election race in favor Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand.

The average Frenchman is not happy that Giscard has used the presidency to put members of his own family into positions of power, or that he received gifts of diamonds from self-proclaimed Central African Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa at a time when the French tax payer was being called upon to finance the coronation of a man who would later be accused of engaging in cannibalism.

But whatever the drawbacks Giscard may have as president, the other candidates are even less appealing. French Communist leader Georges Marchais remains a hardened Stalinist, with an outdated approach that even convinced communists outside France find hard to stomach. Mr. Mitterrand seems incapable to winning, imbued with fuzzy economic theories, and a patrician aloofness that leaves him little in common with the average French voter.

French presidential elections are run in two rounds of voting. The first ballot pits all candidates against one another. The second is a run-off between the two top contenders. Coluche has already announced that he will refuse to participate in the second run-off ballotting. But even his presence in the first round could rock the election.

To even run in the first round, Coluche needs signatures from 500 of France's 41,433 elected officials. Two hundred organization have already offered to help him get them, and it seems quite possible that he will.

For Coluche, who has spent most of his life beieving that to be a clown is the highest calling, it is a very sweet victory.

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