Split over Miss France becomes a war of morals

France is the most fractured country in the world. How can you govern a country which has 1,000 different cheeses, eight rival trades union federations and several flavours of all political movements, including the Trotskyists?

From this weekend, the French love of the "choice" or the "breakaway" or the "split" will extend to another great national institution – the beauty pageant. By Sunday night, there will be two rival claimants to be the perfect expression of young French womanhood.

There will be the "official" Miss France, crowned on prime-time TV by the company which invented Big Brother. There will also be a "historic wing" or "traditionalist" Miss France, known for legal reasons as "Miss Nationale".

The most obvious difference between them will be that Miss France will wear a bikini while Miss Nationale will wear a one-piece swimsuit.

A legal action, involving millions of euros, has been raging since March but "La guerre des miss" (the war of the misses) is about more than cash, according to Geneviève de Fontenay, one of its chief protagonists. It is a battle to defend the "soul" of the nation and "traditional French values" in a wicked world obsessed with money and sex.

Ms Fontenay, 78, was for more than half a century the co-owner, then owner and self-appointed conscience, of the Miss France organisation. Tall and severe-looking with an affected aristocratic voice, she is never seen in public without a large hat (either white with a black band or black with a white band).

Eight years ago she sold her rights to the Miss France name for several million euros to Endemol, the company which specialises in reality television. She remained as head of the Miss France organisation, despite several rows with the TV production company – now controlled by the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi – about what she saw as a "sexing up" of the innocent, ethical beauty pageant concept.

"A Miss should be the antithesis of the permissive and the sloppy and the vulgar," she said. "They should have no similarity to those awful advertisements where you see a girl's buttocks separated by a piece of string."

Against her wishes, bikinis were swapped for one-piece swimsuits. Endemol reluctantly agreed to keep her strict ban on contestants who "behave in a immoral way" such as posing in the nude. However, the company infuriated Ms Fontenay in March by inviting a former Miss Paris, who had been deprived of her crown for appearing in an erotic video, to join one of its reality TV shows.

Ms Fontenay announced that she was leaving Miss France after 56 years to set up a rival contest. Twelve regional committees of Miss France defected with her. Endemol sued and won, but then lost on appeal. A further appeal is pending.

The official Miss France contest will take place tonight, shown live on channel TF1. The ageing French heart-throb actor Alain Delon will be the chairman of the judges. Miss Nationale will take place in a theatre near the Arc de Triomphe tomorrow night, with extracts shown on YouTube. A cable TV channel had agreed to buy the show but then withdrew, allegedly under pressure from Endemol.

The Miss France organisation is now run by a former protégée of Ms Fontenay, Sylvie Tellier, 32, who was Miss France 2002. She suggests that the rivalry is, in fact, no contest. "Miss France will be elected live by millions of television viewers," she said. "She will be the only legitimate holder of the title. There is more to the Miss France contest than Geneviève de Fontenay."

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