The Americanization of French Presidential Campaigns

Oh no, it’s happening in Paris too.  Just when the US presidential campaign is almost over and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief; the French contest is starting and local TV is trying a new thing – producing political “shows a l’américaine”.  I saw one last week and couldn’t believe my eyes or ears.  It was a horrible harbinger, an omen of how bad the French presidential campaign just might become.

The name of the show is “Une Ambition Intime,” which translates to “A Private Ambition.”

This photo certainly sets the tone of the program.
This photo certainly sets the tone of the program.

The presenter is a beautiful, sexy lady named Karine Le Marchand, who usually hosts a popular reality show where she helps French farmers find love in the comfort of their own home.  (It’s called “L’Amour Est dans Le Pré” or “Love is in the Field”.)  She oversees the matchmaking of the contestants and interviews them in their country surroundings.  It’s a stretch to go from hosting a heartfelt, love-farm program to interviewing political candidates.  However, Karine does it while sitting on a couch and drinking wine.  She even makes the politicians cry and give up family secrets.  So, in the end, it’s not such a stretch.  And, in the end, it made me cry too – but for different reasons.

Karine Le Marchand is the producer of this show. Television rumor has it that she threatened to quit if the M6 channel, which broadcasts the program, didn’t give her the chance to host something else besides the Farmer takes a Wife.  The first airing of “Une Ambition Intime” received some bad reviews but the head of M6, Nicolas de Tavernost, defended Karine’s show saying that people would be surprised at the number of politicians who want a place on Madame Le Marchand’s sofa (that’s right; that’s what he said).  He added that he was proud of her.  Critics claimed that Karine doesn’t know anything about politics.  However, knowledge of French politics is irrelevant since, in “A Private Ambition,” Karine exposes the human side of the presidential candidates or, rather, lets them expose themselves.  A lot.

Karine asking Nicolas Sarkozy about his feminine track record.
Karine asking Nicolas Sarkozy about his feminine track record.

The objective of the program is to unveil another facet of the presidential candidate – one the audience would not see on a typical political program.  There is absolutely no discussion of current issues, social problems, the deficit, security or jobs.  Karine Le Marchand doesn’t grill the candidate as to what the basis of their political platform is and how he or she would accomplish their goals.  Instead, with sappy pop music in the background, (appropriately chosen by her 13-year-old daughter), Karine coyly asked the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, if she should call him “Nicolas” or “Mr. President”.

She cuddled up on the couch; poured him a glass of red wine and asked him about the ladies in his life.  He told her he had an “enormous track record” with women and she then asked if that was the only “enormous” thing he had.  She followed that with a pathetically fake giggle.

It got worse.  There were three more candidates to go.  The emotional highlight of Arnaud Montebourg’s interview was when he got all teary-eyed thinking of his premature baby.    The next candidate, Bruno Lemaire, shed tears when he talked about his wife (she’s fine, by the way).  Then Karine Le Marchand had a conversation in the garden this time (no couch) with Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate.  With Marine, she evoked favorite recipes and flowers and commiserated about how both Karine and Marine are single moms.  She offered wine again (white wine, this time) and they toasted to life.

Jugging down the wine in an attempt to get "cozy".
Jugging down the wine in an attempt to get “cozy”.

Madame Le Pen went on to talk about her difficult, if not impossible, relationship with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who used to be the head of the National Front party.  She threw him out of the party a few months ago and they haven’t spoken since.  Marine said that was an extremely painful thing to do – second only to childbirth.  Wow.

That politicians have turned into entertainers in the United States is not a new phenomenon.  But this is new is for France and, personally speaking, I hope it stops right here.  However, “A Private Ambition” attracted 3.1 million viewers; that’s 14% of the Sunday evening market so it looks like it will probably continue.  The French are voluntarily lowering their standards of political campaigning and the candidates are letting them do it.  Why, oh why, did these potential presidents agree to do such a program?  They could have all nipped this trend in the bud by just saying no.

Let’s hope that one day we will all pick our presidents in the same way we choose a doctor.  For example, if you were going to have a knee operation, would you care about your surgeon’s romantic liaisons?  About his or her favorite recipes, gardening talents, musical preferences?

Let's talk about skills, not stories, please.
Let’s talk about skills, not stories, please.

No, there’s no time for silly small talk and, truthfully, you would just want a skilled professional with experience.  You would probably check out his team; the reputation of the clinic; his or her surgical success rate.  Let’s face it, we’re all human and we all have stories.  But, when it comes to deciding who will govern a country, there are some stories we just don’t need to hear.

Rural Romance – Finding Love in a French Haystack

I rented a car this week and ventured outside of the Paris capital to catch a glimpse of the seaside before it is invaded by vacationers. On the way there, I was amazed at how close the country is to the city. Whatever direction you might take on your way out of the French capital, in less than a 30 minute drive, you will start seeing endless fields of grain, corn or other crops bordered by green pastures and grazing cows. The cows might be white or brown or black and white depending on what direction you take, but they will always be there watching you watching them.

The surface of France is 48% rural and France is the top agricultural country in the European Union. It is a star producer of wheat, sugar, wine (of course!), milk and dairy products (over 300 kinds of cheeses), fruits, vegetables and poultry. But, as I was driving along the magnificent countryside, I was wondering – where are the farmers?   I didn’t see a soul in any of the fields I passed. And then, on Monday evening, I got my answer. They’re on TV.

Here's the pretty presenter getting comfy in the haystack.
Here’s the pretty presenter getting comfy in the haystack.

It was a coincidence, really. In general, I do not watch reality television shows in any country. But it was raining and that was all there was to do in the sleepy seaside town I landed in – and I had been thinking about farmers all day. It was destiny throwing me some crumbs of entertainment, which I totally enjoyed.

The show is called “L’Amour est dans le Pré”, which literally translates into “Love is in the Meadow”. It’s a spin-off from the original UK series that is called “Farmer Wants a Wife.” You must admit that the French title is a bit more glamorous than the British one, a clear tribute to France’s romantic reputation. When you think about it, farmers would most certainly need a little help in the love department. The daily schedule for agricultural workers is pretty hectic. They wake up early; go to bed even earlier and spend most of their day with machines and animals. Their routine leaves little time for dating so it’s only natural that they turn to reality TV for a little help in the matchmaking department.

Here's one of this season's Love Crop.
Here’s one of this season’s Love Crop.

It works like this. The farmers are introduced to the public in January and would-be wives and lovers send in letters, actual hand-written letters, in which they pour out their hearts in the hopes of being one of the ten candidates who are chosen in the first round. Then, there is a televised speed-dating session in which the rural bachelors and bachelorettes narrow it down to only two candidates who subsequently get to spend a week on the farm. The week is really “up close and personal” – sometimes both candidates are there at the same time, which could make for colourful entertaining.

This year marks the 10th season for “L’Amour est dans le Pré ” and the first time that a gay farmer, Guillaume, joined the love search party. However, he didn’t last long. He made it through the speed dating part but got cold feet soon after and abandoned the show…much to the dismay of his handsome would-be partners.

This summer’s show is now down to 12 farmers – 10 men and 2 women.

Women farmers look for love in the meadow too.
Women farmers look for love in the meadow too.

It has just started and there already are serious internet forums about “Who is Your Favorite Farmer?” This year’s “crop” (no pun intended) is a handsome one with various interests. They breed cows and horses; raise pigs; make wine and cheese and range in age from 25 – 64. They are fun to watch and the scenery that goes along with the program is gorgeous. “L’Amour est dans le Pré” has a great track record too. Out of the 111 farmers whose search for love has been documented in the past nine seasons, 60 of them are now living with a partner; 14 of them are married; and 32 children have been born and 2 more are on the way. Love statistics speak louder than words.

“L’Amour est dans le Pré”, with its record-breaking 6.3 million viewers, is second only to soccer in popularity. After watching just one episode, I can totally understand that. And I know that I will be looking really closely the next time I drive by a meadow. You never know what might be hiding behind a haystack – especially a French one.

French Farmers Looking for Love – on Prime Time TV

True Confession

I am only admitting this because I can’t see all of you out there in anonymous, electronic blog-land.  I would never say this to anyone face-to-face.  I am a fan, a real fan of a French reality show called, “L’Amour est dans Le Pre”, which means “Love is in the Meadow”.  I usually stay away from these types of programs in any country, (feeling like they are way below my intellectual capabilities), but I happened upon this one on a lazy Monday evening in Paris and I got hooked.  But, in my own defense, I got hooked on this romantic saga for aesthetic reasons only, really.

Here’s the logo of my favorite reality-tv show!

You see, this program takes place in some of the most beautiful, idyllic corners of France.  In this seventh season, there are 14 French farmers (11 men and 3 women) who are looking for their soul mates.  Geographically, they pretty much cover the whole country, including Corsica.  The eye-candy in this love show is in the scenery – it’s just drop-dead gorgeous.  The farmers come from several different agricultural worlds – raising cows, making wine, keeping bees, brewing cognac, breeding horses, growing wheat.  They are all are very passionate about what they do for a living – and that’s what I’m interested in – honestly.

Lovey-Dovey Rules

“L’Amour est dans Le Pré” is a French copy of a British show called, “The Farmer Wants a Wife.”  In January, the candidates go on the show to paint their personal portraits and talk about what they are looking for in their ideal mate.  They then receive thousands of letters of potential candidates who are interested in sharing their tractors and milking their cows.  During their long winter nights, these farmers select about eight of them who come to Paris for a speed-dating session.  After the session, they narrow the competition down to two lucky contenders who are invited to spend up to six days together with the farmer in his home and participate in his daily activities.  That’s when the fun starts.

It is a set-up for lovey-dovey disaster but the participants know the rules.   They can’t pretend to be surprised.  They all start out in an awkward mode – like fish out of water – but eventually get the hang of it and start entertaining the 5.5 million French spectators who follow their romantic endeavors.  There could be scenes of jealousy, tears, premature departures, desperate phone calls to their mothers, stolen kisses, guitar or accordion serenades, serious philosophical discussions and, sometimes, a genuine broken heart (from the farmer or the “farmee”).

City Folk in the Country

It’s funny to see city-folk try to milk cows and do physical labor.  And it’s even funnier to listen to the improbable conversations that arise.  One candidate recently asked her respective farmer why he never cleaned up the meadow where the cows graze – she was serious.  He didn’t answer. I’m betting her question was a deal breaker and he was trying to be polite.  The cow next to her rubbed his head against her behind as if to nudge her off the TV set – she did eventually leave.

Change of Scenery

But, like I said, I pay more attention to the scenery than to the drama that’s going on inside the stables and wine cellars.  France is such a magnificent, agriculturally-blessed country that it’s a feast to get up close and personal to citizens who actually work the land.  “L’Amour est Dans le Pré” supposedly has a 40% success rate in its matchmaking attempts.  Those aren’t bad odds.  Maybe someday I will write that letter – and get my own personal  change of scenery.

If you want to practice your French – watch this farmer on a real double-date!