France's favourite game show host not amused by allegations of funny business

Is the country's most popular television game show a fix? At least three fingers of suspicion point at the presenter of Intervilles, the prototype for Jeux sans Frontieres. A French institution lies in ruins. John Lichfield plays the joker ...
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The Independent Online
Say it ain't so, Olivier. The problem is that Olivier Chiabodo has vociferously said it ain't so but, in the face of the photographic evidence, no one much believes him.

Mr Chiabodo is the referee and co-presenter of Intervilles, the knockabout knockout contest which has been one of France's favourite television programmes for three decades. General de Gaulle, at the height of his powers, would re-arrange his schedule to ensure that he could watch the show, celebrated, among other things, for a kind of mock bullfight with adolescent cows wearing rubber balls on their horns.

It is now alleged that on at least two occasions, this year's semi-final and last year's final, the outcome was fixed by the referee, Mr Chiabodo. On both occasions the beneficiary was Puy-du-Fou, a collection of villages in western France, whose chief local big-wig is Philippe de Villiers, an aristocratic, ultra-conservative, anti-European politician.

The videotape of the semi-final in July shows Mr Chiabodo giving a surreptitious, three-fingered gesture on three occasions, as the Puy-du-Fou villagers were struggling to answer a multiple-choice question. "We are agreed that the answer is number three," announced the team leader. A few minutes later, with the referee out of camera shot, the Puy-du-Fou team again gave the right answer but, once again, seemed to know the number of the answer, rather than the answer itself.

The main French private television channel, TF1, and the production company of Intervilles, have said they will start legal action against Mr Chiabodo. He has said he will sue the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, which first made the allegations. So has Jean-Marie Delahaye, mayor of one of the Puy-du-Fou villages and leader of the team on the fateful night.

In the meantime, everyone has started throwing mud at everyone else - rather like a sequence from Intervilles itself.

The mayor of a village beaten by Puy-du-Fou last year announced he had seen Mr Chiabodo making similar signs at a similarly tense point in the 1996 final. Gilbert Baumet, mayor of Pont-Saint-Esprit, said he believed the gestures were made to the saintly Mr de Villiers himself, sitting in the audience, who relayed them to his team.

After a crisis meeting at TF1, senior executives were shown every edition of Intervilles for the last two years (itself an exquisite form of punishment). They also came to the conclusion that there was funny business in last year's final.

Mr Chiabodo tersely denies all charges. "I was scratching myself," he is reported to have told his bosses. "You'd have to be an idiot," he told Canard.

But why would he help Puy-du-Fou to win? The show has 7 million viewers, one in eight of all French people. For small French communities, appearing on Intervilles, and especially making an extended run, is second only to being visited by the Tour de France as a means of boosting domestic tourism.

Villages already pay for the right to be on the show. The suspicion - as yet no more than that - is that some villages might also pay to win. Puy-du-Fou, in the Vendee, south of Brittany, has a musical and dance festival each summer, which attracts tens of thousands. It also has a son et lumiere show which seeks to vindicate the actions of the local royalist counter-revolutionaries massacred in thousands during the French Revolution - an issue dear to Mr de Villiers' heart.

TF1 has promised the most vigorous investigation. It says it will start legal action, not just against Mr Chiabodo, but also against persons unknown, suggesting it suspects some kind of conspiracy. "The credibility of the station is threatened," said its director of communications.