La campagne présidentielle française vue des Etats-Unis, la campagne telle que le New York Times l’observe à travers nos débats télé. « So Chic« , titre le prestigieux quotidien américain, qui raconte une présidentielle où se côtoient des journalistes et écrivains si typiquement français. A l’image de Philippe Labro, de Direct 8, (photo), interrogé par nos confrères. In english.
« TONIGHT OR NEVER” onFrance3 television here welcomes its guests with jewel-colored macaroons andChampagneserved in black opaque flutes. A small army of hairdressers and makeup artists fusses over them with curling irons, blow driers, powders, lotions and gels. There are private dressing rooms for deep thinking and last-minute preening.
In theUnited Statesmakeup is guaranteed only on the big shows, and, if you’re lucky, coffee and a candy bar.
The French take “le talk show” very seriously. The clash of ideas has been part ofFrance’s national identity for centuries, and the intellectual — almost anyone with an air of gravitas and the confidence to opine on any subject in three points — enjoys a special status in society and a place of prominence on television. Days beforeFrance’s presidential election, the country has gone into talk overload, with both serious debates and silly posturing.
“For you Americans the national sport is football; for us French, it’s talk,” said Philippe Labro, a columnist, novelist, essayist and screenwriter whose program “Don’t Lie to Us” is broadcast Wednesday nights on Direct 8. “We talk, we criticize, we argue. We ask you to share your story, and then we try to destroy you.”
There was a time when “le talk show” meant “Apostrophes,” a live prime-time chat between an author and the host Bernard Pivot. An appearance on his show, which ran for 15 years until 1990, could turn a literary loser into a best seller overnight.
Now more than a score of talk shows compete on national and cable networks and online, with vastly different levels of politesse and combativeness. Many put a premium on what Alain Minc, the consultant and sometime adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, calls the hallmark of a true intellectual: “profound superficiality.”
Intimidating one’s fellow guests before the jousting begins is expected. “Why are you here, Madame?” a longtime talking-head philosopher in a black velvet suit and white socks asked an American journalist making her debut on one show. (Oh, O.K., he asked me the question.)
“You use notes?” a female biographer asked me on another show. “I never use notes. Notes are a trap. You’re trapped.”
Some have the look of another era, like the respectable “It’s in the Air,” with Yves Calvi, every weeknight onFrance 5. The large majority of his guests are white men over 50 with mainstream political views. (In 2010 only 10 percent were women.)
Others, like Laurent Ruquier’s “We’re Not in Bed” every Saturday night at 11, stress entertainment. But when Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate for the presidency, turned up in February, a record 2.3 million viewers tuned in.
The most cerebral of the shows is the Arte network’s “28 Minutes,” a five-times-a-week encounter with five intellectuals. It seeks pedagogy rather than heat.
“We are television iconoclasts,” said Elisabeth Quin, the host. “Our goal is to enlighten, to spark reflection, to find connections among the arts and sciences, to enrich French intellectual life.”
She draws her inspiration from Germaine de Staël, the novelist and “salonnière,” who noted in 1810 that for the French talking is not only a means of communicating; it’s “an instrument that one likes to play.”
One recent “28 Minutes” episode asked, “Does a French genius of seduction exist?” Among the guests were an art historian who discussed whether Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting “The Bolt” represented seduction or attempted rape, a philosopher who had written a book about sex and death and a neurobiologist who studied body parts and how they correspond to the brain’s concept of beauty.
At the other end of the spectrum is the free-for-all best represented by the weekly 2-hour-20-minute “Tonight or Never.” Eight to 10 guests are seated on uncomfortable translucent plexiglass chairs lighted in white. They are expected to move effortlessly “du coq à l’âne” — “from the rooster to the donkey,” or from one subject to another. On a recent show guests were asked if political polls are reliable, if war reporters are necessary, if the title “mademoiselle” should be banned from official documents and if “The Artist” deserved so many Academy Awards.
Aggression trumps cleverness. Guests who refuse to cede the microphone win. In a recent exchange (on the question “Must we impose European protectionism?”) Jean-Luc Gréau, an economist, drowned out Matthieu Pigasse, the banker and news magnate.
“Try to be polite,” Mr. Gréau shouted. “It’s the least you can do.”
Mr. Pigasse replied, “I am.”
“Then shut up!” Mr. Gréau said.
“Beautiful example,” Mr. Pigasse responded. “Thank you so much.”
“You’ll speak when I have finished!” Mr. Gréau roared.
The host, Frédéric Taddeï, looked on with glee. “All the guests have the right to say what they want to say without being cut off,” he said afterward. “I have never, ever interrupted a guest. It can get very annoying. Too bad.”
The most unusual setting for a show in recent years was the faux-intimate, now-defunct “93 Faubourg Saint-Honoré,” held in an apartment at that address. Over a candlelit, wine-filled dinner, the host Thierry Ardisson urged guests to gossip and reveal secrets.
At a dinner in 2007 Tristane Banon, a young writer, first said that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund director later accused of rape by a New York hotel maid, had tried to rape her during an interview. She told the other guests that he undid her bra and jeans and put his hand in her underwear. She described how he wrestled with her, calling him “a chimpanzee in heat.”
The interview did not make news. Ms. Banon smiled and spoke in a chirpy voice; when the show was broadcast, Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s name was bleeped out. Ms. Banon did not press charges at the time. (Last year she did, but prosecutors declined to charge attempted rape and said they could not bring a charge of sexual assault given the statute of limitations.)
But the dinner made for good television. And at one point, as she was telling her story, Mr. Ardisson purred, “J’adore.”0