How the French finally acquired a taste for soap

With glamorous young actors and racy storylines, two new shows are taking viewers into unfamiliar territory
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The Independent Online

For decades, French television could not make a successful soap opera to save its life. From this week, it may have two of them. The four-year-old series, Plus Belle la Vie (Life is Sweet), an everyday story of urban, Provençal folk, is already watched by 13 million French viewers on the state channel, France 3, every week. Today, a rival channel, M6, will launch an ambitious daily serial, set in Paris. Is France about to relive the North v South "battle of the soaps" which has gripped Britain for 24 years? Coronation Street-en-Provence versus EastEnders-sur-Seine?

A North v South, capital-against-the-provinces battle there may well be, but comparisons with Coronation Street and Albert Square will be difficult to sustain. Plus Belle la Vie (or PBLV)– France's first successful TV soap – is set in a tatty district of Marseilles, with a multi-racial cast of ordinary-seeming people who have anything but ordinary lives.

In four years in the Quartier du Mistral, there have been 45 murders, a riot, a spying scandal, a serious epidemic, the apparition of a vengeful ghost and several rapes and kidnappings. There have also been, more plausibly, a serious loss of food through a broken refrigerator and the first homosexual kiss on French TV.

Unlike the authentic Mancunian-Salfordian accents of Corrie, the residents of Le Mistral speak in bland, received or typical teenage French. There is hardly a word spoken in the guttural Eric Cantona-accent of the real Marseilles. PBLV, for all its surface realism, is closer to the bizarre, parallel universe of American daytime TV than to the British – and German – tradition of soap mixed with grit.

The new series, Paris 16ème, will not be about Parisian east-enders but about the bling-bling lives of nouveaux riches Paris west-enders. It is set in the most bourgeois of arrondissements and follows two super-rich families and a poor, orphaned, teenaged girl from Burgundy who settles among them. One of the main protagonists is a short, dodgy shipping tycoon who apes the swaggering walk, and talk, of Nicolas Sarkozy. His tall, beautiful (second) wife looks like a cross between Jane Birkin and Carla Bruni.

On the surface, Paris 16ème is about to remake the mistakes which burst the bubble of all other French TV soaps, before the triumph of Plus Belle la Vie. It is not about ordinary and recognisable people; it is more like a kind of Dallas-sur-Seine. Much care and money has been lavished on the soap's writing, acting and production values. The producers believe they may have come up with the right formula for angry-envious recessionary times: a peep into the lifestyle of a cold-hearted, cynical elite, through the eyes of a beautiful, provincial Cinderella.

Nicolas Coppermann, managing director of Paris 16ème's production company, Calt, said: "We didn't just want to copy Plus Belle La Vie. We wanted to have the same success, with a different approach. Some say we have hit exactly the right subject at the right moment, that the recession means people are fascinated with, and repulsed by, the lives of the rich. Others say we have got it entirely wrong, that the last thing people want to see is the lifestyle of a lot of wealthy people. I will tell you in 12 months who is right."

The lack of creativity in French television has long been a mystery. A nation which still sustains a lively, and sometimes excellent, cinema industry has never been able to produce a show to match the quality of, say, Desperate Housewives, or even a decent sitcom, such as The Office.

Until the past couple of years, there was not even a long-running successful soap on French television. Different TV series came and went but none lodged themselves in the French popular psyche. M. Coppermann said: "It used to be the case that the surest way of getting fired in French TV was to launch a new soap opera."

Plus Belle la Vie, shown five times a week, has passed its 1,000th episode, a record for French television. Coronation Street, with two weekly slots, is on 7,000 episodes and counting. EastEnders, with four episodes a week, is approaching 4,000 shows.

Previous French attempts at making successful TV feuilletons, or soaps, had mostly followed the US/Australian model of romantic intrigues between bland, classless, vacuously handsome people. Even if they were hairdressers or waitresses, they lived in large, sun-filled apartments and drove expensive cars.

Plus Belle la Vie, launched in 2004, shattered that mould. It tried, consciously, to follow the British model of a televised chronicle of the recognisable lives of lower- or middle-class characters with their mildly melodramatic, but recognisable, heartbreaks and failures and triumphs. Above all, not all the characters in PBLV were good-looking; nor white; nor heterosexual. The series was an utter flop. After 80 episodes, the social realism was abandoned or, rather, preserved amidst lurid story-lines of murder, plague and supernatural visitation. The audiences leapt through the roof.

PBLV has become a cultural phenomenon. So many tourists demanded to see the Place du Mistral in Marseilles – which does not exist – that a Plus Belle La Vie shop was set up in the city to sell memorabilia to them. The soap has been hailed, by the sociologist Michel Maffesoli, a professor at the Sorbonne, as a 21st- century televised version of the Comédie Humaine, the grim novels of 19th-century Parisian life by Honoré de Balzac. "The series represents a new fascination with the everyday, the resurrection of the 'banal' in the dictionary sense of the word," said Professor Maffesoli. "The main characters are caricatures, but they are caricatures of recognisable types. People fall in and out of love, nothing is embellished, people are shown in their everyday life." True, but only if you ignore the ghosts, plagues, murders, rapes and riots which habitually beset the residents.

Tthe producers of Paris 16ème have chosen a different route. Judging by the first 14 episodes, viewed by The Independent, the story lines are less bizarre, the writing and the acting and the production values are of much higher quality but the world portrayed is alien to the lives of 90 per cent of Parisians, never mind France as a whole. Unlike PBLV, the characters are all white, except for the occasional servant.

M. Coppermann admits this approach is a risk. "We knew we would be murdered if we just tried to do another Plus Belle La Vie. We have gone for better-known actors and we have given them time to prepare properly. We have gone for a lot of location filming, more elaborate lighting."

"The story is about the world of a super-wealthy elite but seen through the eyes of an ordinary girl, Laurene, who is drawn into mysteries and intrigues and gradually realises that the lives of the rich are not as perfect as they seem."

Paris 16eme is a cut above most previous French soaps; it may be a success. But a French cultural paradox remains. Why is a nation with a thriving, literary scene and a successful, independent cinema industry, incapable of making – or supporting – more realistic and intelligent TV drama?

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