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.