The Fall of French TV’s ‘Sun King’ and the Myth of Temptation

PARIS — France’s most trusted presenter for decades, he drew millions in an evening news program that some compared to a religious communion. Formerly, he embodied an ideal of the French man – at ease with himself, a TV journalist and man of letters, a husband and father who was also, unashamedly, a great seducer of women.

Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, nicknamed the Sun King of French TV, seemed so convinced of his reputation that last month he sued 16 women for defamation accusing him of rape, assault and harassment, saying they had simply been “dumped” and “bitter.”

Angry this month, nearly 20 women appeared together in a TV studio for Mediapart, France’s leading investigative news site, with some stories of rapes or assaults lasting minutes, carried out in barely a few words.

In what has become arguably the biggest scandal in France’s delayed #MeToo settlement, their accounts amounted to a devastating rejection of the romantic personality that Mr. Poivre d’Arvor cultivated so diligently using the French gossip pages and his most powerful television network. At age 74, he clings to that image, denying all accusations and claiming he is just an inveterate, serial “seducer.”

“He was called a Don Juan for years,” said Hélène Devynck, 55, a journalist who accused Mr Poivre d’Arvor of raping her in his home when she worked as one of his assistants in the early 1990s. “There were articles in Paris Match that said he was the epitome of French seduction. Which now forces us to ask, ‘What does that mean – French seduction?’”

A court could decide. Almost all of the most serious allegations against Mr Poivre d’Arvor have been made so long that the statute of limitations has expired. But since he has now filed suit himself, the case may offer his prosecutors an opportunity to face him publicly in court in the coming months.

“His ego is destroying him,” said Cécile Delarue, 43, a journalist whom Mr. Poivre d’Arvor accused of sexual harassment when she worked with him two decades ago.

Mr Poivre d’Arvor has dismissed the women as being motivated by “revenge” for having “did not enjoy the attention, or even a simple glance, of a man they had once admired,” in a written complaint that has been filed. cited in the news media and whose contents have been verified by his lawyer, Philippe Naepels.

mr. Poivre d’Arvor directed an interview request through Mr. Naepels, who said at least one more woman could be involved in the libel case.

The direct confrontation between the presenter and his accusers has contributed to a wider debate in France about seduction, courtship and consent that is taking place in mainstream and social media, where today the description of a man as a great seducer can provoke ridicule, question and skepticism, not admiration.

According to French news media, Mr Poivre d’Arvor has been married to the same woman for 50 years, who has not publicly commented on the allegations.

As his list of accusers grows, Mr Poivre d’Arvor, who left the evening news in 2008, has become a “pariah”, as Paris Match recently said on the cover.

At the height of his popularity, between 1987 and 2008, 10 million people – one sixth or more of the French population – watched him daily at 8pm on TF1, France’s largest network. Alexis Lévrier, a media historian at the University of Reims, likened the broadcasts to a mass, with Mr Poivre d’Arvor taking on “an almost religious role”.

While the newscaster enjoyed the kind of influence Walter Cronkite had in the United States, Mr. Lévrier, had the public character of Mr. Poivre d’Arvor also has typical French elements. He wrote books like ‘The Women in My Life’ and profiles of him never failed to mention that he was a great lover and seducer.

In the broadcast, he mainly appealed to a target group of women under 50, said Mr. Levrier.

“He had a way of whispering, not speaking clearly, that as he spoke to millions, everyone gave the impression that he was addressing them,” he said.

But in TF1’s imposing headquarters, Mr. Poivre d’Arvor maintained a hypersexual environment, according to former employees and multiple accounts in the French news media. He regularly invited young women to watch his live broadcasts before leading them to his private office, where several women say he assaulted them. According to former employees, including Ms. Devynck, the former assistant, he also pressured or sexually harassed young female employees for sex.

TF1 spokespersons did not respond to requests for interviews.

Ms. Devynck said she had never told anyone in the office that the news anchor had raped her, but had asked to be transferred to other duties within the network.

“I knew then that if I complained, he was the seducer and therefore I the whore – I couldn’t say anything because of his power and the support he had,” said Ms Devynck, who went on to have a successful career with other channels.

A decade later, when Ms. Delarue arrived at TF1 in 2002, she found that little had changed. Being sexually harassed by Mr. Poivre d’Arvor was a rite of passage new female employees had to endure, she recalls.

In her case, after he humiliated her by asking her in front of others if she was married and faithful, she avoided attending editorial meetings, where he often commented on the appearance of women.

Women couldn’t win, Ms Delarue said. When they went to his office, they were considered “sluts” whose careers were subsequently tarnished, she said. If they refused his advances, their career was going nowhere.

“I come from a generation that was brought up with the idea that women and men are equal, and that work would give me freedom – my mother often told me,” said Ms. Delarue. “But this man just saw me as a fresh piece of meat.”

Ms. Delarue left TF1 after 18 months. She worked for other stations and then lived in Los Angeles for several years. She was there when the #MeToo movement erupted in 2017 and within months ended the careers of TV personalities like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer.

“It was exactly the same,” Mrs. Delarue recalled thinking, and waited for someone to speak to Mr. Poivre d’Arvor.

It would take almost four years.

A famous letter written by Catherine Deneuve and other prominent French women denounced #MeToo as “puritanism” and defended “the freedom to be intrusive” as part of French “courage”. Traditional French feminism — and the vehement rejection of #MeToo as an American aberration — was a “trap” that led women to believe they could be free without worrying about sexual assault, Ms Devynck said.

Yet French male identity began to be questioned in books and in public discourse.

In public, Monsieur Poivre d’Arvor was the modern incarnation of a French prowess — upright, literary, and a seducer — with roots in the 17th century, said Ivan Jablonka, a historian at the Sorbonne who has studied the evolution of French masculinity. .

“But if you look at 18th century French literature, almost every book contains a love scene with an element of violence or rape,” said Mr. jablonka.

“In recent years, these alleged great seducers have been further discredited,” he said, adding that Mr Poivre d’Arvor’s case “undermines entire layers of French masculinity.”

Mediapart, the news site, set up an agency to investigate sexual violence and appointed a gender editor. It has exposed a string of #MeToo scandals even without an official investigation – something most French news media are still reluctant to do.

Marine Turchi, the site’s chief reporter on sexual assault, has taken nothing for granted — including the myth of the great seducer, who is regularly called upon in her investigations to justify sexual assault.

“French seduction and French bravery have served as smokescreens and alibis for years,” Ms Turchi said.

But it was Le Parisien newspaper that first broke the story in February 2021 after a writer, Florence Porcel, accused Mr Poivre d’Arvor of sexual assault and authorities opened an investigation.

One of the first women to publicly support her was Clémence de Blasi, another writer, who felt compelled after reading the public reaction tell on Twitter her own experience with Mr Poivre d’Arvor.

“His image was so powerful that people kept saying it’s not possible, he’s such a seducer, she should have been flattered,” Ms de Blasi, 33, recalled. “I kept reading, ‘French charm, bravery and seduction’, when that wasn’t the point at all.”

In 2015, fresh out of journalism school and her first freelance job, Mrs. de Blasi to interview Mr. Poivre d’Arvor, but with warnings from her own editors and friends in journalism.

“Little jokes about not wearing a plunging neckline, makeup or skirt,” she recalls.

The interview went without incident. But Mr. Poivre d’Arvor followed with persistent phone calls asking her to dinner, she said. When she declined, he called her editors to say she was a “bad journalist” who had refused to accept a scoop from him, Ms de Blasi said.

Shielded by his reputation, Monsieur Poivre d’Arvor initially seemed able to clear up the scandal. But then he gave a disastrous TV interview, saying that “seduction was important” to his generation and “hugs around the neck.” Denying that he ever forced a woman, he challenged anyone to “look into his eyes” and tell him otherwise.

The next day, Mrs. Devynck went to the police – one of nearly 30 women who ended up doing so.

“The gap between this man’s image and what I knew was so great,” she recalls.

The great seducer is “such a part of our collective imagination,” she said. “And the problem is that part of French society still believes in it, or at least believes in it.”

Adele Shoemaker reporting contributed.

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