France finds a pregnant president a switch-off

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The people of France have voted with their television remote controls. A woman as Présidente de la République? What a silly idea.

The woman in question is not Ségolène Royal, the Socialist front-runner for next year's presidential elections. She looks very like Mme Royal. She straddles the normal left and right political categories like Mme Royal. Her name, however, is Grace Bellanger, the first fictional French president, man or woman, ever to star in a series on French television. The word "star" should perhaps be changed to "flop".

After three weeks, the sit-com Etat de Grace (State of Grace) - based loosely on an American television series about a woman president, Commander in Chief - has captured only 12 per cent of the Wednesday prime-time audience.

In one episode, the fictional, unmarried President Bellanger turns out to be pregnant. She goes into labour during an EU summit, and the other leaders are shown wheeling her away on a chaise longue.

Since French television rarely invests in high-profile comedy or drama, and the series is well acted and often funny, the public response is a crushing disappointment for the public channel, France 2.

The failure begs a question. Are the people of France not ready to contemplate a woman as head of state, whatever Mme Royal's standing in the opinion polls? Or have they rejected the irreverent, fictional series because they take the idea of a woman president very seriously indeed? Political and critical reactions to the series, and its failure, have been divided between the two possible explanations.

Critics in right-wing newspapers complained initially that the series was a free, weekly campaign broadcast for Mme Royal. They now interpret the rejection of the fictional President Grace as a rejection of a putative President Ségolène.

Television viewers contributing to France 2's own forum on the internet say that the series has been rebuffed because it is a "cheap caricature" and "un turnip" (a bomb). By assuming that a woman in the Elysée palace would inevitably be beset by personal problems and sitcom absurdities, the series is a gift to Mme Royal's opponents, they say.

One viewer protested that the series was nothing but an "ad for Sarko" - in other words, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is likely to be Mme Royal's opponent in next spring's elections.

In fact, France 2 began to make the series long before Mme Royal emerged as favourite to be the candidate of the left. The network rubbed its hands when she soared in the polls, assuming that its series would benefit from "Segomania". The opposite proved to be true.

Grace Bellanger (played by Anne Consigny) is a former publisher, turned politician. Ignoring the normal "mainstream" issues, she campaigns for fair housing for all and better treatment for the Third World.

The one person who has so far refused to comment on the series - or even say whether she has bothered to watch it - is Mme Royal herself.