June 23rd marks the last taping of “Le Petit Journal,” the French satirical weeknight news show on Canal Plus. I’ve been faithfully watching every episode since 2013 (blessedly free online!), and I’m more than a little sad that it’s coming to an end. The daily 30-minute program often denigrated by the French political machine has occupied a major place in my ongoing relationship with France, its politics, its press, and its society.
It’s not uncommon to describe “Le Petit Journal” as the French version of the “Daily Show,” and on a surface level I think the comparison worked: two silver-haired presenters calling out the hypocrisy, the narcissism and the opacity of the political sphere. But whereas Jon Stewart seemed worn-down and jaded by politics, especially towards the end of his tenure, “Le Petit Journal’s” host Yann Barthès never let go of his acute curiosity. Yes, you could expect the same old inconsistencies and double-speak, but they were constantly manifesting themselves in new ways, and this appeared to be the primary interest of the show. The journalists never expected to get the truth straight from the source, but rather focused on the lies and deliberate ambiguities that were more telling than the facts.
And so, the show chipped away at the carefully composed responses, press releases and media appearances, rarely getting behind the artifice but exposing the artifice for what it is. A poignant example was a feature on a Tunisian representative’s visit to the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. A LPJ analysis of the official Algerian news footage of the meeting showed different-colored roses on the coffee table for long-shots of Bouteflika and medium-shots, suggesting that footage from a previous meeting with the Malian President was used for the medium-shots and close-ups to make Bouteflika appear in better health. The implications of this revelation are made all the more significant by team’s subsequent Algerian visa troubles.
The journalists’ uncomfortable questions could transform seasoned politicians from hyper-confident to irascible in a matter of seconds, essentially allowing politicians to generate their own caricatures. And this I believe was another difference between “Le Petit Journal” and the “Daily Show.” The “Daily Show” has always maintained, somewhat dubiously, that the show is not news but comedy. Even the show’s studio had “Abandon All News Ye Who Enter Here” lettered above the entrance. Meanwhile, “Daily Show” alum John Oliver insists on the same premise for his own show, “Last Week Tonight” -- I am not a journalist, I am a comedian.
Derided by French politicians as comedic garbage, denied press accreditations for political gatherings, “Le Petit Journal” was nevertheless a news show. If elected officials contradict themselves, embellish themselves and disgrace themselves, is that not news? And so what if it’s funny - should we not laugh to keep from crying? Yet no one could deny the professionalism of the foreign correspondent sections, reporting on the ground from conflict zones like Ukraine and Syria.
“Le Petit Journal” also had some of the the best and most-shared news coverage in the wake of tragic events. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo prompted Fox News to release a map of “no-go zones” in Paris, a painfully inaccurate map of areas where they claimed French police were afraid to patrol. The LPJ team responded with a hilarious parody of Fox News reporters terrified of Paris, and mobilized their viewerbase to email Roger Ailes and demand a correction - they even got an apology! (Really? Roger Ailes apologized for something?”)
After the horrific November 2015 attack on the Bataclan, the team took to the streets and chose to focus on the personal responses of grieving French people. Their simultaneously heart-wrenching and hopeful clip of a father explaining the attacks to his young son went viral worldwide. Despite the show’s obsession with powerful people, they never lost sight of the significance of quotidian life.
Do I intellectualize too much? There was enough immature humor to suscitate many an eye-roll. Some French people I know said the content tended to be “tiré par les cheveux” - too pedantic, too prowling. Still, I lost it for a good ten minutes when they compared Gollum to Michel Houellebecq going for a swim.
Watched over many dinners in college, “Le Petit Journal” served as my daily link to France, a country I have missed immensely since studying at university there. What’s more, in order to keep up with the fast-talk and humor, I was forced to begin learning French in a new way. I commenced what I call “active listening” - watching the show with a high level of focus in order to catch words or phrases I didn’t understand, all while keeping a WordReference tab open on the side. I later wrote these all down, accumulating an impressive knowledge of everything from vulgarities to French tax agencies. And when I could finally understand the Catherine et Liliane segment, I knew I had come a long way.
More than language itself, the show gave me a robust picture of French social, political and cultural life, acquainting me with everyone from Alain Juppé to Nabila. And this, I think, is hugely important. If the goal of learning a foreign language is to be able to converse comfortably with native speakers, what’s the point of it all if you have nothing to say?
Alors, merci Yann et Le Petit Journal, de m’avoir rendus en peu moins idiote en français. Vous me manquerez !
Some favorite words/expressions I learned from this show:
- jeter l'éponge (to throw the sponge): to throw in the towel
- pompette: tipsy
- micmac: wheeling and dealing
- clientélisme: cronyism
- benêt: simpleton
- être sur la sellette: to be in the hot seat
- excuses en béton: solid excuses