The News, French Style

Patrick Poivre d'Arvor on French TV

I propose that it might help to understand what makes a country tick by watching, without even necessarily fully understanding, the primetime news bulletin at around 8 or 9pm. The best known news bulletin in France is at 8pm, on the most popular terrestrial TV channel TF1. On of the presenters – and certainly the most famous – is Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, also known affectionately as “PPDA”. He’s the author of about 20 books, known as something of a womaniser, is a marathon runner and does a lot of work for charity. A lot of this work is centered around teenage psychological care — his daughter Solenn died as a result of anorexia at the age of 19, and he won a lot of public sympathy (though he angered some) when he went on air to present the news the very next day. He’s a very well known figure in France, and his silicone puppet presents a daily news parody on a competing channel (Canal+) too!

In France the local news is often of regional interest : agrictulture issues, strikes in ports or on the Parisian public transport network, local festivals and events. France has roughly the same population as England but three times the geographical area, so the news often covers regions quite far apart (by European standards). It always displays maps of the region involved, the main town in that region, and the town being talked about. People outside Paris want to hear about their region, and the diversity in style of each region means there are many events around France that are grouped around the differing agriculture, history or politics of a given place. For example Marseille is known for its football team and ferry port principally serving Corsica – a strike just ended there; the Beaujolais region known for the new wine (Beaujolais nouveau) festival; the suburbs of Paris notorious for their problems with unemployment and the related social tensions.

What I find particularly striking about the news content however is that there are often interviews with people who are invited to the studio to talk about not only the news (politicians, commentators, scientists and the like) but cultural events. Authors, musicians, actors and dancers for example will often be seen appearing on the evening news. Bruce Willis was recently interviewed by PPDA while promoting his new film. Authors are given a good amount of airtime, as are musicians. Concerts, exhibitions and book launches of a reasonably small scale are promoted and their cultural value highlighted.

Aside from local content it is important to note that a minimum of 30-40% of all news bulletins are dedicated to international issues, currently Iraq, Pakistan, and the socio-political situation in the US get a lot of coverage. Often there are special reports which try to understand current affairs from a local point of view, and given the high proportion of French muslims of Arabic descent, the country is well placed to understand – perhaps better than many others in Europe – just how important it is to watch radical fundamentalists closely whilst still trying to present their point of view accurately.

You can probably learn a lot from watching a news bulletin from another country. Compare Fox News to Sky News, the BBC to CBS, and you already have a good take on the UK as compared to the US. Here in France, it’s a good mix of culture, international news, and regional specifics (and a well respected and quite famous presenter) which the news bulletin uses to monitor the country’s pulse.


  1. Just out of curiosity, how would you compare news in France to other parts of the world. Is it, let’s say, as opinionated as it appears to be here in the US? For example, CBS tends to lean a little more on the liberal side, whereas, FOX… need I say more? Are their news programs that lean a certain way or do they try to refrain from too much bias?

  2. Simon

    19/10/2005 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Dave,

    That’s a good question. Basically I’m not particularly aware of political leanings. I would assume that there are some notable political undercurrents just like everywhere else, but I wouldn’t say it’s as obvious as the cases of Fox or CBS. Just like the BBC in England prides itself on political neutrality, so the French have even legally adopted a “principe de référence” – a sort of share of voice for all political parties.

    From an excellent French Media Landscape article

    The independent Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA) was created in 1989. It appoints the CEO’s of the public broadcasting channels – both television and radio. In accordance with European regulation, the CSA also monitors the degree of political pluralism on national television. Since 2001, TF1, France 2, France 3, Canal + and M6 are submitted to the so called principe de référence. According to this principle, channels are obliged to allow exactly as much speaking time to representatives of the government, members of the parliamentary majority and members of the parliamentary opposition.

    The group Bouyges owns 40%+ of TF1 so clearly they may have an underlying political point to make. France 2 and France 3 are state run channels, so may be inclined to side with the incumbent government but should be held to the “principe de référence”. The other three channels are much less political, the exception being Canal+ for the news parody mentioned in the original post. Canal+ is owned by Vivendi.

  3. Thanks for the info. I always hear people complaining about foreign press, particularly from Fance and England. I always wonder where they are getting their facts from, but, they never have a response. Instead, they get mad and yell. Like I’m a bleeding heart liberal for just questioning their authority on the matter. Oh, well.

    How are the Nathan and Yasmina doing?

  4. I meant, how are Nathan and Yasmina doing, not “the.”

  5. What a French coincidence!

    Just on BE a fellow blogger was talking about France and a virtual French tour and I was going to talk about The Boulevard de Clichy,a street in Montmartre, the artists’ neighborhood, because I dream of going there to write a novel.

    Van Gogh painted the Boulevard de Clichy as seen from the Place Blanche. And I am also an artist.

  6. Simon

    20/10/2005 at 7:26 pm

    Dave – Nathan and Yasmina are doing fine. Nathan is doing his best to deprive me of sleep, but I’m managing to keep awake and look after him and catching up on Zs when I can.

    Orikinla – Indeed the Boulevard de Clichy is actually in Montmartre and Pigalle, and goes from the Place de Clichy to Barbes at least. It’s actually mostly filled with sex shops and of course the famous Moulin Rouge is there too. While there are a couple of interesting little theatres and shops along the boulevard, I’d recommend going further up the hill to Sacré Coeur and walking around that area, since down on the actual Boulevard there isn’t as much to see – unless you like sex shops of course :-).

  7. Simon,

    A very perceptive piece. I particularly liked your observations about the wider cultural dimension one finds on French TV news. If anything, this is even more true of TF1’s 1pm bulletin than it is of the “Vingt Heures” in the evening. On the face of it, the two bulletins are similar: same set, same opening titles, etc., but the lunchtime broadcast has a subtly more relaxed feel. This is due in no small way to its lead anchor, the avuncular Jean-Pierre Pernaut (like PPDA, known universally by his initials, JPP). This is partly because of the way he presents the news – friendly and easy-going, often amused and sometimes amusing (I remember him once producing a sprig of mistletoe and blowing a kiss to the viewers at the end of his last broadcast before Christmas), but never in a flippant or inappropriate way, always managing to come across with authority. More importantly, however, it is because of the content of the bulletin, which – very much influenced by Pernaut personally, it is said – always reserves some space for human interest stories from around provincial France. These are real human interest stories – not the proverbial skateboarding hamsters or whatever which used to go out “and finally” on the old ITN News at Ten in the UK, but informative snapshots of France’s traditional ways of life, its culture and heritage, its artisans and their crafts. JPP gathers these wonderful portraits together in a dedicated magazine show which also goes out on TF1 and is very popular. He has also produced two beautiful books on the subject, entitled “Les Magnifiques Metiers de l’Artisanat”. One of his main collaborators in these projects died over the New Year, and JPP presented a very moving tribute on the 13 Heures bulletin, when he seemed genuinely close to tears. I think it was the only time I have ever seen him deliver the news without his big, friendly smile. I think it was then that I realised why I like JPP so much, because you feel that it is a real human being on the screen. But he is no fool – in fact he has been on the Board of Directors of TF1, as one of the two staff nominees, for many years. Before finishing my comments about the 13H news, a mention in passing for JPP’s main stand-in on the lunchtime bulletin, Jacques Legros, who also delivers the news in a friendly, sincere and reassuring style and is also very popular. The Vingt Heures carries a little more gravitas, I suppose, and a smile comes much less easily to PPDA’s features. But is this just the house style or is it that PPDA has had so much sadness in his life (e.g. the early deaths of two of his daughters, one of them famously in an annorexia-driven suicide)? My French fiancee tells me that the younger PPDA’s on-screen demeanour was a little bouncier, anyway. He certainly has a unique style of anchoring these days, peering up through those sad eyes and almost appearing to back away from the camera sometimes, looking like a timid rabbit, but always somehow commanding complete authority, with that rich, resonant voice, the whispered tail-offs and the gentle, unperturbed delivery. There is something almost mystical in the way PPDA delivers the news – and, you know, occasionally one does get a glimmer of a smile too. All in all, TF1 has a fine team (honourable mention for Claire Chazal, too), which certainly beats all the absurdities on modern-day UK news, with all THEIR emphases IN the wrong PLACes.

  8. Simon

    17/1/2006 at 10:16 pm

    Thankyou for your excellent and very informative comment Colin. You are quite right to talk about JPP and the midday bulletin, which I only catch rarely due to being at work most of the time. PPDA is part of the evening routine – as is Claire Chazal who was Catwoman this year in the TF1 Christmas special. Robbie Williams was on (singing live, not miming) and was on stage at the same time as Claire. When it was explained to him that she was an evening news anchor, his very British exclamation “fantastic!” had me in stitches.

    I guess I’ll be paying a bit more attention to JPP when I catch him at weekends or in the holiday period. The news in France has a quality about it that I feel is sadly lacking on channels I can get here like Sky News and BBC World. I miss a couple of the ITN guys though, like Peter Sissons and of course Trevor McDonald. I don’t know if they’re still broadcasting though.