Hit French reality TV takes viewers back to 'the farm'

Farmers' union objects to derisive portrayal of peasants.

The Frenchman's love for all things agricultural is legendary. Now that love has found new expression in a reality TV show that is breaking all records for audience size and, arguably, for idiocy.

"The Celebrity Farm" takes a dozen or so has-beens and not-yets who would have difficulty scraping onto a celebrity B-list, and drops them in a circa-1900 farm, with no running water, no electricity, and a outdoor privy. There they are confronted with challenges such as building a chicken coop, delivering a kid goat, and milking the cows.

Never have French TV viewers been so glued to the screen. The nightly updates on developments down on the trash farm attract about one third of the total television audience. But the program's hick image of country life has also provoked controversy.

The farmers' union, formerly led by antiglobalization activist Jose Bové, has picketed the farm, complaining that it "subjects the peasant's profession to derision," in the words of spokesman Jean Émile Sanchez.

Since Mr. Bové and his followers once dismantled a McDonald's restaurant they didn't like, the Celebrity Farm could be forgiven for stepping up its security. But Mr. Sanchez promises only a "symbolic and peaceful" protest next Sunday, when demonstrators will try to encircle the farm.

The French Society for the Protection of Animals has also chimed in, fearful for the farmyard animals' welfare at the hands of former Miss France Élodie Gossuin and fellow contestants.

"We shall remain vigilant," the society warned in a statement, "and will not hesitate to sue as soon as the participants' actions endanger the animals' health."

None of this, however, has given the average French TV viewer pause for thought, though opinions are divided over exactly why the show is so popular. Some say it is that most French citizens are provincial and get a kick out of watching townies make fools of themselves trying to herd sheep.

Others point out that France's rural exodus happened relatively recently, and that many people here still have childhood memories of life on Grandpa's farm - or have heard mythologized accounts of that life from their parents. So viewers identify with the TV contestants' travails, while perceiving them as being in a fundamentally good cause - such as boosting egg production.

Certainly rural life exerts a curiously strong pull on the French popular imagination, considering that only 3.5 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture.

The annual agricultural fair in Paris attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, and there is no stronger champion of agricultural production subsidies - which many see as wasteful and unjust - than the French President Jacques Chirac.

France may also be the only industrialized country where the term "peasant" is not derogatory.

Indeed, French "paysans" are proud of the attachment to the land ("le pays") that their name implies, especially when that land produces delicious poultry, tasty cheese, or fine wine.

And of course, France has a history of privileged personalities playing at being peasants. King Louis XVI's wife, Marie-Antoinette, had a little farm created for her at Versailles, where she would escape to dress up as a milkmaid and perform farmyard chores until she got bored.

It was also Marie-Antoinette, when told of bread shortages in prerevolutionary Paris, who famously said, "let them eat cake."

Few of the Celebrity Farm contestants seem much more in touch with rural reality, but at least they are not risking the guillotine. When they get the chop, they are simply voted off the program.

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