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France's new TV star hit by De Niro farce

With a name like Ferrari, you might be expected to get off to a whirlwind start. The debut of Laurence Ferrari, as the presidentially-approved star of French television news, has been both pedestrian and accident-prone.

Mme Ferrari, 41, took over three weeks ago as the anchorwoman of the evening news on TFI, France’s most watched television channel. She replaced – at the instigation of President Nicolas Sarkozy - France’s longest serving and most popular news journalist, Patrick Poivre d’Arvor.

In her three weeks in charge, the viewing figures for the TF1 8pm news show have swollen and now collapsed. Older viewers have defected in droves to the rival show on France 2.

Mme Ferrari – once linked romantically with the President by the French press - suffered a double humiliation on her own programme last night. A live interview with the veteran American film stars, Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, standing outside a cinema on the Champs Elysées, turned to farce.

The actors were in France to promote their movie, "Righteous Kill". Neither could understand the questions, asked by Mme Ferrari in the studio and translated by an off-air interpreter. "I wasn’t sure what that was," said de Niro, pulling a face. "Where are you, by the way?" Mr Pacino asked Mme Ferrari in a bored voice. "Are you not here?"

Just as the interview broke up in confusion, a familiar figure ambled across the screen. The man deposed to make way for Mme Ferrari, Patrick Poivre d’Arvor walked past smirking, like the ghost of Banquo. He had been invited to the première and made an accidental – or possibly deliberate - cameo appearance on his old show.

Mme Ferrari, a highly respected journalist and political interviewer, has often appeared out of her depth, or in the wrong job, since she took over the TF1 nightly news. Viewers complain on internet chat sites that she swallows her words and frequently sticks out her tongue.

There were reports last November that Mme Ferrari had been seen dining with the recently divorced President Sarkozy but speculation about an imminent marriage came to nothing. Soon afterwards the President began his whirlwind romance with his future wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Last June President Sarkozy was reported to have lobbied his billionaire friend, Martin Bouygues, the majority shareholder in TF1, to have M. Poivre d’Arvor fired and Mme Ferrari promoted into the highest profile job on French television.

M. Poivre d’Arvor, 60, who had presented the show for 21 years, had angered the president soon after his election in May last year. The veteran news anchor, universally known in France as "PPDA", had asked M. Sarkozy, on air, if he sometimes felt like a "little boy in the big boys’ playground".

M. Sarkozy, 5ft 5in tall, is hyper-sensitive about his size.

On her first night as presenter of the new on 25 August, Mme Ferrari attracted 8,300,000 viewers – just over 40 per cent of the audience. From an average of 38.5 per cent in her first week, she slid to 36.1 per cent in her second week and 34.3 per cent in her third (even falling to 32 per cent one evening).

PPDA, in the same period last year, had scores of between 40 and 38 per cent. "If she continues to slip this week, the situation will be alarming for TF1," said Emmanuel Charonnta, deputy director general of the advertising company, Starcom.

In advertising terms, the good news for TFI is that Mme Ferrari is holding onto, or even increasing, the number of younger viewers for her 8pm news show. The alarming news is that older viewers – who form the backbone of TV news watchers in France, as in Britain – are defecting in great numbers to the 8pm news on France 2.

In blogs and interent chat sites TV, viewers complain that Laurence Ferrari "always looks tired", "stares at her notes too much", "has an exasperating way of swallowing her words" and is "always sticking out her tongue".