And now for the good news in France

SHAFAQNA – The economy is in ruins, religious tensions are on the rise and the president is at a loss for a solution — but there is hope for France, at least to judge by the evening news on TF1, the country’s biggest channel.

Viewers learn, for example, that the beauty queen from Calais who had won the Miss France contest was tired but happy; that gendarmes had mounted an efficient operation to counter oyster thieves; and that 27 steel workers had saved their jobs and their foundry from bankruptcy.

You might think there were more important things going on in the world, particularly in downtrodden France, but Claire Chazal, the country’s most popular news anchor, knows otherwise. She has been reading the main lunchtime and evening news at the weekend for the past 23 years and has acquired a unique insight into the demands of French viewers.

What French citizens want, she says, is reassurance that their country is not going down the pan. “We want to be balanced, because people often complain that the news is dark and worrying. So we try to make sure there is good news as well.”

Her vision is supported by a promotional campaign that is running on TF1. This features widely held criticisms of the French — that they are bad-tempered, lazy, racist, gloomy and defeatist — accompanied by films designed to show the opposite. The message, expressed clearly, is that you get a brighter picture on TF1.

Chazal is the channel’s star and much more than a straightforward newsreader, according to Olivier Royant, the editor of Paris Match. He describes her as the embodiment of the contemporary French woman — a latterday version of Marianne, the allegorical figure who came to symbolise Republican France in 19th century.

Her love life is followed with curiosity — she has had relationships with another TF1 anchor, a television executive and a model 19 years her junior — and her smiling face features regularly on the cover of glossy magazines. She is, in short, part of the Gallic landscape, like Mont-Saint-Michel or the lavender fields of Provence.

I met her at her elegantly decorated flat in central Paris the day after 8.6 million viewers had tuned in to watch her lead the news with the Miss France report, and immediately it was obvious why the French are so attached to her. Her welcoming smile, friendly demeanour and upbeat outlook are a perfect antidote to their pessimism.

“Often, people tell me that I reassure them,” she says. “In this ocean of bad news, they have the feeling that I am not anguished. That is not really true, but perhaps because I am blonde and because I have a reassuring voice, I manage to give the impression that I have no worries.”

Chazal reads the news in designer clothes — such as Dior, Chanel, Ralph Lauren — and looks today almost exactly as she did on her first day in August 1991. She says that she works hard at staying young, eating healthy food and going to dance classes every day.

“Women are never forgiven for ageing in a significant way,” she says. “When a man is mature, he retains his charm and perhaps increases his credibility. Women are expected to remain fresh.”

Yet not everyone has fallen under her charm. Consider, for example, William Irigoyen, a journalist and the author of a recent essay entitled Throw Away The Television News. He said that anchors such as Chazal acted more like gameshow hosts than news readers and lacked a Jeremy Paxman-style cutting edge.

“This consensual type of journalism contributes to the belief that France is an oligarchy and serves the National Front, which says political and media elite are the same thing here. Journalists must become the Fifth Estate once more,” he said.

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