Miss France: Why 8.5 million French tuned in

The annual Miss France contest took place on Saturday in front of millions of French TV viewers. As Miss Nord-Pas-de-Calais was crowned France's beauty queen The Local looks at why the pageant is such headline news in a country where égalité is a fundamental principle.

Miss France: Why 8.5 million French tuned in
Camille Serf is hugged after the Miss Nord-Pas-de-Calais was elected the beauty queen of France. Photo:AFP

Camille Cerf (photo) was crowned Miss France 2015 on Saturday night in front of 8.5 million TV viewers. That meant 300,000 more French people tuned in to see an emotional Cerf come out on top than the previous year when Flora Coqueral was the beauty queen of France.

The result dominated the headlines in France, with breaking news alerts being seen sent out by all major media sites.

Within hours profiles of Camille Serf were being published by sites across the web.

For the last few weeks the French media has been abuzz with news surrounding the competition that brought together 33 young women from different regions of France, and not just the gossip mags.

The mainstream broadsheet publications were caught up in the frenzy with even Le Figaro publishing an article last week titled: 'Miss France: The unsuspected secrets of the 33 candidates'.

Most news sites have produced a photo gallery of the contestants (as have we, CLICK HERE) to allow them to see who is representing their region.

So why is it that so many French people are drawn to a beauty contest that objectifies women in a country where "égalité" is supposed to be one of its fundamental principles?

There is the fact that it's essentially reality TV, a format that always seems to guarantee a certain amount of success these days, but one argument is that many in France can simply relate to the young women taking part.

"The contestants are often from modest rural backgrounds, they represent a certain simplicity and an authenticity," Paris university professor François Jost, a media specialist, told L'Express magazine.

"The reflect a desire for social revenge shared by many French people.

Jost says the competition is the antithesis of feminism, yet it must appeal to many.

“They have a short interview but are basically asked to be beautiful and quiet. It’s anything but feminist but it’s popular,” she says adding that the fact it takes place at Christmas probably adds to it's success.

Michel Le Parmentier who organized the Mini Miss contests for teenage girls, which were recently banned in France, rejects the idea the competitions are sexist.

"Beauty pageants are a way of giving someone back the confidence they may have lost,” Le Parmentier said.

“There’s no chauvinism behind the competitions, there are even feminist groups that organize pageants,” he said.

Le Parmentier said that competitions need to be made more modern and the organizers of this year’s Miss France contest seem to have taken a step in that direction.

For the first time ever in a competition that dates back to 1920, they have introduced a general knowledge quiz where contestants had to prove they’re familiar with subjects like politics, literature, and history.

"Miss France is a reflection of the French people. She will be invited to a lot of television shows and it would not serve us well if we elected someone who does not at least know what's going on around her," said Sylvie Tellier, former contestant and now director general of Miss France.

The move seems to be an attempt by organizers of Miss France to disprove accusations that contestants might have all the beauty but no brains.

The winner of Miss Round France Solange Marais had a simple explanation for the pull of the pageant.

"People just like to see pretty girls walking around the stage and wearing bikinis," Marais told The Local. "It's always been that way," she added.

She probably has a point. Watching a selection of the country's most attractive young women prance around on stage in fancy dresses and bathing suits will undoubtedly be attractive to some, but there's got to be more than that, hasn't there?

Muriel Trueba, president of Comité Miss France, an annual non-televised beauty pageant, told The Local that part of the attraction of Miss France was that the competition stirred feelings of regional pride, that run deep in the country.

“The French are very attached to traditions and especially to their regions,” said Trueba. “The competition is mostly for entertainment, but people want to support the girl competing for their region and want to see her win.”

Virginie Spies, a lecturer at the University of Avignon says the fact the entrants must adhere to a code i.e. not posing nude for any photo shoot, means the competition is “showcases a respectable France” which holds true to its values”.

“Clearly that’s a reassuring concept in a time of economic and social uncertainty,” she told L'Express magazine.

The longevity of Miss France is in contrast to the story of beauty pageants in other countries which were either ditched after TV ratings plummeted or after they were slammed for being sexist and outdated. 

There have been some recent controversies that have dogged the competition, such as when a black community rights group accused it of being "too white". There was also the time one of the contestants had to give up her chance when it emerged she had posed nude for a photo shoot. 

But the competition goes from strength to strength.

CLICK HERE to get to see the 33 contestants

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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.