New TV anchor becomes France's cause célèbre

Laurence Ferrari took over the country's most-watched night news program last week, with a rock star's debut and a litany of criticism

Special to The Globe and Mail

PARIS -- The most-watched evening news program in France rolled out its new anchor. She is pretty, blonde and 42. It did not take long for the critics' claws to show.

Laurence Ferrari, a 20-year veteran of television chat shows who was once voted the most glamorous person on television, took over the 8 p.m. news last week on the private channel TF1.

She had a rock star's debut: more than 150 interviews in the past three months, a rumoured but fiercely denied dalliance with President Nicolas Sarkozy and several choice photo layouts showing her posing in tank tops and T-shirts.

"A new era begins," said Marion Ruggieri, an editor for Elle magazine, in a review for French radio of Ms. Ferrari's first newscast. "But she was a bit squeezed into her bra."

Women have hosted serious political and news shows for many years in France, and the public television channel France 2 hired its first woman anchor for the evening news in 1981.

They and other high-profile women have drawn comments on their hairstyles, clothing choices and public demeanour. Former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, the first woman nominated by a major political party, was constantly critiqued on the way she dressed.

But the frenzy of attention paid to Ms. Ferrari's looks and private life has especially irritated many ordinary women.

"I find the coverage excessive," said Anne-Marie Le Guevel, the director of the City of Architecture and Heritage museum in Paris. "And it annoys me how women are always first judged on their appearance and there are always these little remarks about your physique. It never happens with men."

To be fair, though, the man that Ms. Ferrari replaced was also the butt of jokes and comments about his looks.

Patrick Poivre d'Arvor was the TF1 nightly news anchor for 21 years, until he was dethroned in June. As he aged and grew bald, he was lampooned for his comb-over haircut and then for his hair implants.

"What's happening is not at all specific to women," said Jean-Louis Missika, a professor of politics and media at the Institute for Political Studies. "There's an ironic dimension to the way the French look at their television news presenters. They're not especially considered journalists as much as stars."

Mr. Poivre d'Arvor delivered the news in a deadpan manner but was a veritable public institution. He is so familiar to so many people that he is generally identified just by his initials, PPDA, and is also a prolific writer with several autobiographies to his name.

His ouster this summer was front-page news, making his successor's entrance all that more attention-grabbing.

Another subtext to the melodrama was Mr. Sarkozy's alleged role as a backstage casting director.

He was widely reported to have suggested Ms. Ferrari to his close friend, Martin Bouygues, the owner of TF1. Those reports were never confirmed. The station's managers said she was hired to help reverse the sagging ratings of the evening news and appeal to younger viewers.

For her part, however, Ms. Ferrari has tried hard to disassociate herself from Mr. Sarkozy.

Late last year, numerous Internet sites and a few French publications claimed that she was dating the President, who was then between marriages. Ms. Ferrari, who is divorced, filed defamation lawsuits against two of the publications that printed the rumours and won damages in both cases.

She also recently sued another newspaper for invasion of privacy after it printed an interview in which her father talked about their family.

She got her new job, she said in a recent interview, as the result of hard work. It was also a "victory for women" and "a symbol of our growing power."

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