Miss France: the ageless queen of kitsch

The annual Miss France competition takes place in the eastern city of Dijon on Saturday night. In postmodern France, where women hold cabinet positions and beauty pageants are mercilessly mocked, you might think nobody will be watching. You'd be very wrong.

Miss France: the ageless queen of kitsch
Is it just sentimentalists, dirty old men and snarky hipsters who watch Miss France in their millions? Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

Who is Miss France?

Well, at time of writing she is one of 33 young beauty queens, vying for the mantle.

Why is she in the news this week?

First of all, the Miss France ceremony takes place at exactly 8.50pm on Saturday night. But the approach of the annual competition has reignited debate in France about is place in postmodern society.

So what’s the controversy?

Well, as has become routine in “Miss” competitions and beauty pageants throughout the world, French feminist groups have protested against this weekends festivities.

One might have thought that in the 21st century, contests such as this would have become more irrelevant than divisive, if it weren’t for one fact – last year’s ceremony garnered nearly 10 million viewers on French TV TF1.

Is that a big number?

Well, TF1 said it was the highest audience in half a decade.

Before and After. Miss Bourgogne, Marine Lorphelin, becomes Miss France 2013. Photos: P Andrieu/AFP/GeeyomYam/Youtube

So why is it still so popular?

That’s the question that many have been asking in France this week. The French have something of a reputation for casual sexism, but it’s not clear that this would explain why 39 percent of the available audience watched Marine Lorphelin (Miss Bourgogne) crowned last year.

There are a few separate (and very different) audiences for Miss France, as François Jost, professor of semiology at the Sorbonne (seriously) told French daily 20 Minutes on Friday.

“The biggest audience love beauty contests – the age-old story of the farm girl who becomes a princess."

However, there is an emerging second group which watches Miss France more out of irony than genuine interest. To them the whole thing is “so bad it’s good”, and social networks such as Twitter play a big role in fuelling this kind of spectatorship.

“These are the ones who watch the show on an ironic level, and mock it,” says Jost.

Then, of course, there is the “male audience”, which in the words of the good professor, “appreciates seeing beautiful girls lining up in swimsuits.” Enough said.

(L to R) Julie Legros, Savoy; Laetizia Penmellen, Provence; Aurianne Sinacola, Côte d'Azur. Photos: Jeu Miss France/Youtube

So it’s essentially sentimentalists, dirty old men and snarky hipsters who watch Miss France?

Not quite. As Virginie Spies, a media analyst at the university of Avignon pointed out to 20 Minutes, there’s something reassuring to many French people about sitting down in front of the TV to watch something so familiar since it was first broadcast in 1986.

There is, also, one would venture, an element of “train crash” TV about the whole thing. With every competitor smiling nervously for several hours, and with families on tenterhooks waiting for verdicts, drama is inevitable.

Take, for example, this horrifying moment from 2009, when Miss Guadeloupe did the unthinkable during the group’s ball-gown entrance.

Or the response of Peggy Zlotowski, Miss Aquitaine 1989 whose joy at being crowned Miss France was too much for her body to handle.

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OPINION: In the year of #MeToo it’s time for the French to switch off Miss France

Eight million French people will watch Miss France on Saturday night but surely in the year that Harvey Weinstein's scandalous behaviour emerged and the #MeToo hashtag took over Twitter, it's time the annual degrading beauty pageant was confined to history, writes The Local's Evie Burrows-Taylor.

OPINION: In the year of #MeToo it's time for the French to switch off Miss France
Photo: AFP
Every year the Miss France contest draws in an astounding eight million viewers.  
And the final for Miss France 2018, which will air on Saturday night, is set to attract just as large an audience as previous years despite the spotlight on feminism in 2017 thanks in no small part to the women who exposed Harvey Weinstein.
Somewhat worryingly, the longevity of the French competition, now in its 88th edition, is in stark contrast to the story of beauty pageants in other countries, which have either been ditched after TV ratings plummeted or after they were slammed for being sexist and outdated.
But it isn't just the competition that's the problem, after all the people behind it aren't forcing millions of people to tune in. 
Miss France contest ridiculed for dedicating beauty pageant to women's rights Photo: AFP
One of the most bizarre aspects of the Miss France phenomenon is how much coverage it gets in the mainstream press. 
Some of France's most respected publications and news sites — including those that proudly exposed the stories of sexually abused and harassed women who came forward as part of the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc (Squeal on your pig) campaigns — dedicate article after article to the contest.
It's not just the articles that make you feel like you have travelled back to the 1950s, but also the photo galleries published in almost every media site that give readers a chance to check out each contestant.
This year these slideshows of swimsuit wearing women with beaming smiles sit alongside stories of French actresses accusing Harvey Weinstein of abuse and rape, exposés on harassment in the workplace and articles with stats on the number of women who expect to be groped when they get on the Paris Metro or who have died under at the hands of their partners. 
One of France's two newspapers of record saw fit to do a gallery on the contestants in their swimsuit (see below). 
And another of the country's major newspapers Le Parisien somehow thought it was a good idea to put their gallery of the contestants in the women's section La Parisienne
Who knows? Perhaps the people running these sites are choosing not to see the link between the way Miss France reduces its contestants to objects to be pitted against one another and the way women are regularly reduced to sex objects in their everyday lives. But it's more likely they don't care.  
One group in France that has drawn a connection between Miss France and the position of women in society at large are the organisers themselves. 
Miss France: Why 8.5 million French tuned in
Photo: AFP
National director of the competition Sylvie Tellier, who won the title herself in 2002, provoked ridicule when she said this year's “ceremony will be an opportunity to denounce violence against women during an hour of prime time television.” 
But this is nothing short of a cynical attempt to offer a salve to a problem that they themselves are contributing to. Trying to legitimise what is essentially a chance to watch women strut around in swimwear and judge them on their appearance with a nod to feminism is laughable.  
Unsurprisingly French feminist group Osez le Feminisme is no fan of the competition either.
“Sexism against women is still in the majority and its is supported in many ways including this way of valuing women as objects rather than subjects,” spokesperson for the group Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu told The Local. 
To find out just how backward the pageant is, look no further than the guidelines contestants must adhere to if they want to compete. 
Contestants should never have been married and have no children. They should not have had any plastic surgery, visible tattoos or piercings and they should not have ever posed partially or completely naked. Several contestants have fallen foul of  that rule in the past and have lost their crowns as a result.
Miss France: Are we really still doing this?
Photo: AFP
So it seems the ideal “role model” for women should be someone who is untouched and unblemished and hasn't been sullied by previous ogling eyes, that way they're fresh for the audience of Miss France. How modern!
Clearly there are issues to be addressed in terms of how France sees its women. 
And in a year that has seen a wave of women around the world, including in France, show strength and solidarity in coming forward to denounce the aggressors in their lives, the country needs to acknowledge that Miss France is a part of its past, not future.