RENOWNED abroad for their fine culture, at home the French busily consume trashy television. The latest hit is La Ferme Célébrités, a reality-TV show that maroons 14 C-list celebrities on a Provençal farm, with neither running water nor electricity. The contestants include a Caribbean-born transvestite who totters across the mud in stilettos and a germ-phobic choreographer who dons rubber gloves while trying to herd sheep. Last month's opening night beat French records for reality-TV … Why has it touched such a nerve?
In part, it is popular devotion to low culture, a phenomenon often ignored by the elite. A few politicians have noticed: Gilles de Robien, the transport minister, invited Elodie Gossuin, a former Miss France who is on the show, to stand on his centre-right list at March's regional elections. She won a seat. Her participation in the TV show prompted local tut-tutting, but a poll showed that most people saw no conflict of interest. Ms Gossuin was even given permission by TF1, the station airing the show, to nip out to attend council sessions.
The show's casting breaks new ground. The contestants may lack stardom, but not diversity. Every tint, from black African to swarthy Corsican, is represented. Throw in the middle-aged, sexually ambiguous or fat, and there is a mix that defies the usual rules of all-young, all-beautiful prime-time French television. But the biggest reason for the show's appeal is what it says about rural life. Farming has long had a peculiar grip on the French imagination, blending nostalgia with genuine traditions. Politically too it holds unusual power. President Jacques Chirac, whose political life began in rural Corrèze, is a staunch defender of EU farm subsidies. Today, though, only 3.5% of the working population is engaged in agriculture. The celebrities in the show were picked partly for their ignorance of farming—though they managed to deliver a kid goat. But their metropolitan disconnect from rural life strikes a chord with viewers.
Needless to say, this depiction of farming life also upsets real farmers. This week, the Confédération Paysanne, a rural union formerly run by José Bové, an anti-globalisation campaigner, threatened to blockade the set. Scores of farmers gathered to demand that TF1 close down the show. The series, they said, “ridiculed” farming life and gave the rural world a “degrading image”. A few years ago, Mr Bové's confederation trashed another symbol of evil, McDonald's. Between junk food and junk TV, rural life in France appears to be perpetually under threat. But many French people seem to like both.
Sunday, May 16, 2004
What a celebrity-TV show says about French attitudes to rural life
Excerpts from Down on the farm, an article in The Economist: