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`Miss France was fixed' row in court

THE DECISION of the television-viewing French public was clear: it was Miss Paris who should be crowned Miss France 1999. But royalty and popular democracy seldom go well together, especially in France. Great was the fury of the public when their choice for the crown was rejected, despite the fact that they had spent FF3.71 (37p) on each phone-in vote.

The studio jury of six decided that Miss France should be Miss Tahiti, who got 25 per cent fewer viewer votes than Miss Paris. After the contest last December, the switchboards at TF1, the most popular French television channel, were jammed with complaints. Fix, the viewers cried. And scandal.

A few viewers were not prepared to leave it there. They started a pressure group, with the impressive title "Association Nationale Pour La Transparence de L'Election Nationale de Miss France" (Anten).

They began a legal action to overturn the verdict and managed to push it through all the bureaucratic and lawyerly obstacles in just six months - a startling achievement in France. The case - Anten v the Miss France organisation - came to court in Paris yesterday.

The disgruntled viewers alleged that the Miss France organisation - namely Genevieve de Fontenay and her son Xavier - had chosen the winner in advance. The protesters' lawyers asked for Miss Tahiti to be stripped of her title, together with its lucrative spin-off rights to open black-pudding festivals and boules contests. The honour should instead be given to Miss Paris, they said.

As evidence, they offered the fact that Miss Tahiti (Mareva Galanter) had not given the customary look of surprised modesty when the result was announced. She had also been allowed to pose for advance publicity shots in a bikini, while all the others wore one-piece swimsuits. On top of that, Ms Galanter's grandmother was Ms de Fontenay's hat-maker.

Lawyers representing Ms de Fontenay and her son contemptuously rejected the charges. They said that the rules - giving two-thirds of the final weighted vote to the studio jury - had been well publicised in advance (although not announced on the night). They alleged that the protesters were motivated by pique: they were led by the father of a girl once rejected as a Miss France contestant because she had already appeared in a rival show, Miss Teenage Ile-de-France.

And the alleged hat connection was absurd, they said. "Albertine [the hat-maker] is a very good worker," said Ms de Fontenay, who is well-known for her startling headgear. "But she's not going to give me a free hat, just because her granddaughter is Miss France."

The protesters had also complained that the winner was the niece of the singer, Sacha Distel, a previous jury member. Not a bit of it, said the De Fontenays. She is a distant cousin of the Tahitian second wife of the singer's wife's father.

However, the nub of their argument was that it would be improper to allow the people of France to choose Miss France unaided. The jury members were showbusiness professionals, who could truly judge the girls' comportment and looks, the organisers said. If left to themselves, some regions of France "especially those north of the Loire" tended to skew the outcome by voting en bloc for their local girls. The contest became one of regional pride, rather than beauty.

Why, then, have a phone-in vote in the first place? At 37p a call - or 12p on the Minitel - and 301,746 calls received, the answer is obvious - roughly pounds 75,000.

The judges (legal, not showbusiness) are expected to delay their decision for several weeks. They were making up their minds purely on the factual and legal arguments. None of the young women who took part in the contest was present in court.