Debate and the clash of ideas seem to be an essential and intrinsic element of the French mentality. Whilst the British instinctively shy away from confrontation and find refuge in polite public consensus, the French seem to relish the sport of arguing!
Television in France is full of forums that facilitate this kind of interaction. Debates are intellectual boxing matches in which politicians, journalists and philosophers of the left and right do battle over the issue of the day around a futuristic coffee table.
Sur le plateau
People as diverse as politicians, philosophers, actors and actresses, designers, singers, rappers come together sur le plateau. Although it has now finished, the programme ‘Tout le monde en parle’, with Thierry Ardisson, was the pioneer of this genre of television.
On n’est pas couché
The successor is ‘On n’est pas couché’. As in any talkshow, the guest usually has a book/film/album/election to sell. The presenter is Laurent Ruquier who chats to the guest in the way a chatshow host would talk to a guest in the UK, that is to say politely and with the intention of drawing out the principal points of interest for the audience.
However, Ruquier is accompanied by two chroniqueurs whose role is to review the guest’s offering and give their assessment. I reckon part of this comes from the French tradition of rationalist thinking and un esprit critique which means that everything from globalisation to the lyrics of Lady Gada are analysed and critiqued.
Les deux Erics
The two Erics: Eric Zemmour and Eric Naulleau, the ‘deux méchants de la télé,’ became known for the panache with which they put down the invited guests. Eric Naulleau, a publishing editor, focussed more on literary and artistic critique. He adopted a sarcastic manner that served to goad and descendre the object of his ridicule.
Eric Zemmour is journalist at Le Figaro. He is a bit of a pantomine villain and is extremely right wing in his idiosyncratic way. He used his encounters with the guests to sortir his pet theories on American cultural imperialism, colonialism, liberal economics, globalisation, or le rapport de force in male-female sexual relations. However, he speaks as if he is setting out his argument for a thesis. He is clear and precise has an elegant, if sometimes rather violent way, of expressing himself.
The approach of les deux méchants was, depending on your viewpoint, a refreshing and necessary antidote to the sycophantic indulgence of celebrities and figures of power, or a sadistic enjoyment of these personalities being put to sword (or sometimes slaying the monsters) in a gladiatorial arena.
The two Erics were replaced in 2011 by Audrey Pulvar and Natasha Polony. They were less belligerent and consequently made rather less compulsive television. In 2012 Pulvar was replaced with Aymeric Caron. This young mousquetaire is attempting to carve out a niche for himself as an aggressive interrogator of the guests. To this end his clash with former chroniquer Eric Naulleau was clearly an attempt to announce himself as a personality.
Les clashes et le français
Typing the phrase ‘le clash’ into Youtube will yield encounters with many of the people outlined above. The value of these clips is that you come across people from different backgrounds and with a variety of points of view, engaging and arguing with each other about a range of topics. Often the french is very well crafted and one guest even observes that Tariq Ramadan ‘parle un peu comme Proust.’ Tariq Ramadan’s duel with Zemmour and Naulleau is a master class in how to deal intelligently and eloquently when under fire from impassioned questioning and criticism.
However, they also expose the viewer to the register of the street when, for example, the rapper La Fouine spars with Zemmour.
Sometimes there are heated discussions, in which numerous people speak at the same time and sentences are started but interrupted, against a background of crowd noise. Above all, you find yourself getting caught up with the drama and passion of the exchange, and enjoying the verbal duels. Watching these clips thus helps your speaking skills as well as your listening skills, as they teach how french can be used to explain, convince, attack, defend and inspire!