Our Man In Paris: When politics upstaged reality TV

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The children were just settling down to watch their favourite French programme - a reality-TV contest for would-be pop-stars - when, wham, politics exploded into our living-room, and six million other living-rooms across France.

The children were just settling down to watch their favourite French programme - a reality-TV contest for would-be pop-stars - when, wham, politics exploded into our living-room, and six million other living-rooms across France.

The contestants, in their look-at-me hairdos and tight, glittering clothes, had just finished their usual opening number, "La Bamba". The live studio audience, in look-at-me hairdos and tight, glittering clothes, had just finished applauding.

On to the set of Star Academy, the French forerunner of Fame Academy, there shambled, in jeans, long skirts and woolly hats, a score of grave, self-conscious young men and women. They carried a large sign - upside down. The presenter of Star Academy, Nikos Aliagas, wittily or perhaps unable to resist the instinct to stage-manage his show, said: "You could at least put your sign the right way up."

They did. It read: "Eteignez vos télés." ("Switch off your telly.")

The leader of the intruders began to make a halting statement about the grievances of freelance workers in the performing and televisual arts (a dispute that has been going on since July and wrecked most of the summer arts festivals in France).

Off-screen, another bunch of intruders was fighting it out with the TV company's security guards. Four people, two "actors" and two "film directors", were arrested. A TV "hostess" and three demonstrators were injured. The TV channel's bosses substituted a 10-year-old detective drama, Julie Lescaux, which had been seen three times before.

My daughters, aged nine and six, were furious and distraught. What had happened to their favourite would-be singers? Who were these rude, and worse, badly dressed, people who had invaded the screen? It was a difficult business to explain to a nine-year-old. (Her little sister wisely went off to do some colouring.) It's a difficult business to explain to anyone. It's a very French story - a story of the emptiness that characterises much of French TV culture, confronted with the earnest priggishness of the French far left.

Freelance workers in the French arts - from jobbing birthday-party clowns to film directors - enjoy a very generous system of unemployment protection, which allows them to switch weekly, or even daily, between paid work and the dole. So long as they can prove that they have worked a given number of hours in the past 12 months, they can claim benefit for the days when they have no work.

The system is being widely abused, mostly, it has to be said, by television and film companies. The business federation and some unions (who, between them, run the French unemployment-benefit system) tightened the rules in July but left the basic policy - the most generous of its kind in the world - intact.

More radical unions, and many of the so-called intermittents (occasional workers) flew into a great and pompous rage. The French performing arts were under threat, they said. This was part of an ultra-capitalist, globalising plot to convert all forms of culture into a "commodity". Etc, etc.

Four months later, the dispute rumbles on, but most authentic jobbing clowns, magicians, film directors, cameramen and actors seem to have gone back to work. The dispute is being prolonged largely by people of an unreconstructed anti-capitalist persuasion. (Much is made of the ugliness of the far right in France, and correctly so. But the far left, now posing fashionably as anti-globalist, is equally ugly and might be equally powerful if it was not splintered into a dozen fragments.) Hence the woolly-hat invasion of prime time, and the injunction to Middle France to switch off its televisions.

Middle France did not. The TV ratings indicate that the vast bulk of the audience carried on watching the old detective series. About half stayed up to watch Star Academy when it started again just before midnight.

It would be nice to believe that this was a refusal to be bullied. More likely, it was a refusal to consider what else, other than watching the television, they could possibly do.

Whore of the Republic changes her tune

Christine Deviers-Joncour, who once described herself in print as the "whore of the Republic", is to start a new career next month as a singer. In terms of American slang, she has been singing for some time. The only problem is that she tends to change her tune. As the former mistress of the former French foreign minister, Roland Dumas, she has been at the centre of the most colourful, far-reaching and ultimately frustrating legal action against political corruption in French history. Now 56, she was convicted three years ago of embezzling funds from the state-owned Elf oil company in the late 1980s but let off with a light sentence on appeal.

Her evidence, altered on several occasions, was at the heart of attempts to expose Elf's role as an oil well of funds for French political parties, undercover state activities, and African dictators. Despite some convictions, the broader investigation failed.

Mme Deviers-Joncour, who gave one of her versions of the affair in a book called La putain de la République, is bringing out her first extended single under the name Chris Devi. One of the songs is said to be about love, politics and corruption. Sounds more like what we oldies used to call a "long-player".

The existential angst of a philosopherÿs wife

The actress Arielle Dombasle has been excluded from Who's Who for refusing for her date of birth to be published. The wife of the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, she declares on her website that she was "born in 1958", so why the refusal? She could have cleared up the mistake that has crept into other biographies that she was born in 1955.

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