Miss France is still going strong

As Miss Normandy, Malika Menard, is named Miss France 2010, Connexion looks back at the contest's history, characters and controversies

26 November 2009

MISS France is a big draw, attracting nine million viewers for last year’s final on TF1 - making it the second most popular “entertainment” show of the year on France’s most watched TV channel.

This year’s final comes from Nice on December 5, featuring Robbie Williams as the star guest and a judging panel of French celebrities including Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Miss World – which was started in the UK in 1951 – once also attracted strong audiences in its home country, but now suffers from a non-PC image there while thriving elsewhere. It was dropped from mainstream TV in 1988 and the final is no longer held in the UK. Miss France, which dates from 1921, seems to suffer from no such qualms among the French.

The finals are held each year in December to crown the “Miss” for the following year. Miss France 2009 is Miss Albigeois Midi-Pyrénées, Chloë Mortaud, a mixed-race girl with French and American nationality who was dubbed “Miss Obama” by the press.

For 2010 the show on TF1 will once again be presented by Jean-Pierre Foucault, along with la dame au chapeau Geneviève de Fontenay, who has been involved in the contest since the 1950s (see the December issue of Connexion for an exclusive interview with her)

Miss France presides at events during her year in office and gets a salary and use of a smart Paris flat as well as other perks. She is eligible to compete in Miss World and its American international rival Miss Universe.

Candidates (37 this year) are the regional finalists from the 22 regions of France métropolitaine (the "Hexagon" and Corsica) as well as overseas teritories.

In the week before the final a preselection jury will pick 12 semi-finalists who will be announced on the final night. During the evening they will be whittled down to five girls, who will become Miss France and her four dauphines (deputies), with voting weighted half to the panel of judges on the night and half to the spectators. This year, for the first time, only the spectators will pick Miss France from the last five.

The candidates had a week relaxing in Martinique, before heading for the capital of the Côte d’Azur where they have been practising their modelling and getting ready.

The candidates can be seen at: www.tf1.fr/miss-france/les-miss/

Who can take part?

To take part in Miss France you have to be: Born female, French, 18–25, at least 1.70cm (5ft7in) tall, unmarried and unpacsed, not cohabiting, not divorced, childless, with a clean criminal record, not use any “artifices” like a wig or coloured contact lenses, with no tattoos or piercings (other than ears) and you should never have posed for “partially or totally” nude photographs in “dubious” poses or outfits. There are local, departmental and regional heats.

History and controversies

1920: Agnès Souret from the Midi-Pyrénées is the first Plus Belle Femme de France (the forerunner of Miss France)

1930: This year’s winner, Yvette Labrousse, later marries the Aga Khan

1941–1946: Competition stops during the Second World War

1956: Controversy over the choice of Miss Côte d’Azur at the final at the Palais de la Méditéranée in Nice. Following protests, she is replaced two days later by Miss French Africa

1983: Isabelle Turpault, Miss Paris, loses her title after posing naked in a magazine

1987: The final is shown on TV for the first time. Winner Nathalie Marquay appeared in the show La Ferme Célébrités in 2005 and married TV presenter Jean-Pierre Pernaut in 2007

2001: (False) rumours that Miss France, Elodie Gossuin (now a regional councillor), used to be a man during elections for Miss Universe

2002: This year’s winner, Sylvie Tellier, went on to become head of the Société Miss France

2004: Lucie Degletagne temporarily loses her title after posing in Playboy; regains it after public apologies

2006: Controversy after Miss Languedoc wins despite being the fifth choice of the public. Jury president Laetitia Hallyday is also from the Languedoc-Roussillon

2007: The public is again upset that its favourite by a big margin (a deaf candidate) is passed over, due to the jury having two-thirds of the vote – the system is changed to 50/50 the following year

2008: Geneviève de Fontenay refuses to be seen at events around France with Miss Réunion Valérie Bègue after risqué photos of her (taken years before the competition) are published by a magazine. They include one of her posing on a crucifix in a swimming pool and another in which she is licking spilled yoghurt suggestively. Later, a different set is published by another magazine. She keeps her title after the public and the Société Miss France show support, but is unable to compete in Miss World and Miss Universe or appear at the next year’s regional heats.

2009: Controversy over voting again – winner Chloë Mortaud is only third favourite with the public and a jury member claims to have been influenced in her choice by the production team. An unsuccessful legal challenge over Miss Mortaud’s original election as Miss Albigeois Midi-Pyrénées – which would have disqualified her as Miss France - is launched by a rival who says her family used local influence to help her win

How is the competition run?

Louis de Fontenay (real name Poirot, de Fontenay being, he stated, a pseudonym he used in the Resistence) took up the running of the competition in 1954, as president of the Comité Miss France.

His partner Geneviève and son Xavier took over the running of it after his death in 1981. In 2002 they sold the television and commercial rights to Endemol, who now run La Société Miss France as a subsidiary.

Geneviève remains president of the comité, which now mainly supervises the committees that run the regional heats and “supplies the candidates” for the final.

She also helps the société to organise the final and helps present the show, and she is paid a salary by them as “directrice adjointe” (assistant director).

Xavier de Fontenay was the managing director of the société until 2008 when Sylvie Tellier, 2002’s Miss France, took over.

Mr de Fontenay is no longer involved and has recently written a book of memoirs about Miss France, in which he accuses Endemol of trying to sideline his mother of whom he says they are afraid and says Ms Tellier is their “puppet.”

About Geneviève de Fontenay

Known as la dame au chapeau as she is never seen without a hat, Ms de Fontenay is known for her traditional moral views.

Originally from Moselle, she became model and was elected Miss Elegance in Paris in 1957. She has been involved with running Miss France since 1954.

She has been embroiled in controversies including the magazine photos scandal relating to the 2008 winner (see above) and recently having to pay a €500 fine after calling the 1961 winner, Luce Auger, a salope (slut) in the press.

Ms Auger, supporting Miss Bègue, had alleged the Fontenays asked candidates in the sixties to pose topless, a claim which Ms de Fontenay said made her feel “revolted and scandalised.”

Auger was supported by Michel le Parmentier, head of a rival beauty contest organisation.

She supported Lutte Ouvrière leader Arlette Laguiller for the 2002 presidential elections and Ségolène Royal in 2007.

The Connexion has an exclusive interview with Geneviève de Fontenay in the December issue, out now. Find your nearest stockist here.

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