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French celebrate 'Spitting Image'

LIONEL JOSPIN is sitting at his desk at the Palais Matignon. The phone doesn't ring. "This is very strange," he says. "Something's going on. Everything seems fine this morning."

It soon becomes clear why everything is fine. There are no problems because there are no people. Everyone in France has vanished, save the politicians. Unemployment, and journalists, wiped out. Jospin is Prime Minister forever because there are no more voters ...

So starts the first full-length movie starring the "Guignols d'Info", the French version of Spitting Image, screened on Friday night to mark the 10th anniversary of one of the most successful shows on French TV.

Unlike their British progenitor, the French satirical puppets show no signs of flagging. In a country which loves mockery, but where politicians are treated with kindness by TV interviewers, the Guignols have become a national institution.

The hour-long movie, The Fiction, which cost pounds 1m to make, draws all the show's themes and characters together in one continuous narrative. Its message is clear: French politicians are so obsessed with their petty quarrels that they would hardly notice if the country vanished.

The only exception in the movie is the much-loved big-nosed puppet of President Jacques Chirac, who feels lonely with no hands to shake. "It's all my fault," he says. "I dissolved the country by mistake."

The lovable nature of the Chirac puppet was blamed by his opponents for the full-size Mr Chirac's miraculous recovery to win the presidency in 1995. Bruno Gaccio, 39, one of the three men behind the Guignols, laughs off the show's influence: "We're just three guys whose job is to do what everyone else does in their spare time: laugh at the news."