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7 TV shows that will help you understand France

The Local France
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7 TV shows that will help you understand France
Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

The international image of French culture tends to veer towards the highbrow - but you shouldn't underestimate the role of TV in helping you to really understand what the country is all about (and giving you a free French class).

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French TV has an international reputation as dull, formulaic and amateurish, packed with cheesy talent contests and stuffy panel shows full of philosophers - and both those shows do exist in primetime schedules.

But there's more to it than that, and watching some TV is a good way to get some insight into a country's culture, as well as improving your language skills and giving you something to chat to neighbours and colleagues about.

Le village préféré des Français (France's favourite village)

This will help you to very literally discover France, as the programme takes a tour around the country, showing off the different regions and their traditions.

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It's an annual event, usually presented by French TV fixture Stéphane Bern in the early summer, and its title is fairly self-explanatory as it allows TV viewers to vote every year for the country's 'best' village.

The shortlist of around 14 villages shows off each place and there are usually events based on local industries and traditions so it's a great way to learn a bit more about each region.

The competition is a closely-fought one as the winning village usually gets a good boost in tourist revenue, so if you're looking for ideas for your next French holiday, look no further.

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L'amour est dans le pré (Love is in the meadow)

This actually started life as a UK TV show called The Farmer wants a Wife, but while the UK series ended in 2009, franchises in the USA, Australia and France have proved a lot more popular and enduring.

It's a reality TV show based on the premise of setting up farmers (and other agricultural workers) on dates in the hope that they will find love.

There have been 19 seasons of L'amour est dans le pré so far and its popularity shows no sign of waning, perhaps due to the importance of agriculture in France's self image.

More than half of mainland France is still agricultural land and farming, produce and food are regarded as an important part of France's patrimoine. French governments carefully protect the country's agriculture and a visit to the annual farm show in Paris is regarded as a must for anyone who aspires to be French president.

The show is also unashamedly romantic so you get a good insight into dating codes, as well as a vision of how ordinary French people live. 

The show is on terrestrial channel M6 and you can find old episodes online at 6play.fr (which also works outside France).

READ ALSO How I used cold callers and lovelorn farmers to learn French

Le Meilleur Pâtissier (the best baker)

Food-based reality TV shows are popular the world over and France is a country that takes its cuisine very seriously, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that there are lots of foodie shows in France.

Among the most popular are TopChef and Le Meilleur Pâtissier (the French version of The Great British Bake Off).

READ ALSO 5 reasons the Bake Off is better in France than the UK

As well as learning about the country's fine pâtisserie tradition, Le Meilleur Pâtissier also teaches you about French attitudes to swearing - the family baking show is littered with 'putain' whenever the bakers screw up - and sex - in a feature very much not copied from the UK original, the French show has a 50 nuances de crème (50 shades of cream) week which is dedicated to erotic baking. 

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Contestants are also often asked to create bakes that reflect an aspect of themselves, their jobs or their home region - one episode featured bakers making cakes that featured a 'northern stereotype' or a 'southern stereotype' - so you get to learn all sorts of useful snippets about modern France.

This is another M6 one, and past series can be viewed online at 6play.fr

Quotidien

If you want to follow the news and politics in France there are plenty of good options, with the main terrestrial channels running daily news programmes at 8pm - Journal de 20 heures (often known as 20h) on France 2 is still the place where politicians wanting to make announcements can be found.

But if you want something slightly less serious, try Quotidien, a daily talk-show on commercial channel TMC where presenter Yann Barthès and his guests - usually a mixture of journalists, entertainment figures and politicians - dissect the events of the day.

"National and international politics, music, cinema, culture, social issues, sport: Quotidien examines everything with a touch of impertinence" - is the show's mission statement and it's a good way to get an overview of what's going on with a few laughs.

It's on TMC, Monday to Friday at 7.25pm.

Tour de France

Hear us out. Even if you're among those who think that watching a big clump of cyclists riding bikes faster than you ever could isn't that interesting, give it a shot next July.

Not only might you actually surprise yourself by finding the three weeks of afternoon TV surprisingly entertaining (you may even miss it on the rest days), you can also learn fascinating little snippets about towns and villages that otherwise zip past in a flash of sweaty lycra. And the aerial views of the country from the helicopters can be, frankly, stunning.

It helps, too, that the commentators are professionals and generally speak clearly.

Vendredi, Tout est Permis  

At the end of a long week, you need a laugh. Enter Vendredi, Tout est Permis avec Arthur. Think of it as an in-studio cross between Whose Line is It, Anyway? and Taskmaster. 

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Basically, between six and eight leading French stars of stage, screen and comedy, take part in a series of light-hearted challenges, while host Arthur (real name Jacques Essebag) keeps something that looks vaguely like order if you squint.

You might not pick up everything that's said, in between the occasionally very rapid-fire delivery and the fact you're laughing too much, but you'll keep coming back for the humour and - imperceptibly - your ear for the language will get better and better ... and you might learn some exciting new ways to swear, too.

Unsurprisingly given the name, it's on late on Friday nights, on TF1.

Miss France

No, we have no idea why this is still given a primetime Saturday night slot in France when most other countries have quietly dropped their versions of it. 

Most younger French people will tell you that it's an embarrassing anachronism, but it reliably pulls in big viewing figures so clearly someone is watching it.

It does have an educational aspect though, as contestants are tested on their knowledge of French history, geography and culture.

It's usually screened on a Saturday night by TF1 in December.

France's most-watched TV

A quick look at France's TV shows with the highest ever audience figures would suggest that the French people love only two things - Emmanuel Macron and football.

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Macron's speech to the nation in April 2020, announcing the first Covid lockdown, had the country's highest ever recorded viewing figures with 36 million viewers.

Macron's speech was broadcast over multiple channels and it was an exceptional event, but his viewing figures are not a fluke - he also takes the number 2, 3, 5 and 7 slots with other Covid speeches (most of which occurred during lockdown when there wasn't a lot else to do in the evening) and he also takes number 8 with his 2018 speech in response to 'yellow vest' protests.

His predecessor François Hollande comes in at number 9 with his speech to the nation after the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in 2015.

The only non-political events in the top 10 are both football - the finals of the 2018 and 1998 World Cups.

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