France’s Most Degrading Talk Show Is Promoting Far-Right Politics

It’s easy to think of French public life as more highbrow than its US counterpart. But France’s top-rated talk show is fusing politics and entertainment — and it’s a key part of a billionaire-funded effort to normalize far-right talking points.

Cyril Hanouna on July 17, 2022 in Paris, France. (Tnani Badreddine / DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

If you had to imagine what France’s most-watched TV talk show looks like, you might think of something resembling the high-brow discussions hosted on the nation’s public airwaves — a place where guests debate topics like the legacy of Chopin, the future of EU integration, or the shifting depictions of the American dream in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.

The reality is much grimmer.

According to ratings, France’s most popular talk show is a two-hour sludge of infotainment where topics are selected according to their traction on social media and their capacity for provocation. Typically, these range from a potpourri of pop culture happenings and blood-curdling crimes to trends on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram with just a smidge of political news: welcome to the world of Touche Pas à Mon Poste! (literally “Don’t Touch My TV Set!” in English, a pun on the anti-racist slogan Touche Pas à Mon Pote!, “Don’t Touch My Pal!”), hosted weeknights by the jovial forty-eight-year-old Cyril Hanouna.

It’s all more heinous than it appears. Not only is Hanouna’s show degrading the quality of intellectual debate — it’s helping drag France’s political discourse to the right. Touche Pas à Mon Poste! plays a vital role in the media ecosystem backed by ultraconservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré.

The #TPMP Style

France has never quite adopted the American-style late night talk format, where the star host conducts one-on-one interviews with a slew of guests. Instead, Touche Pas à Mon Poste! follows a standard French talk format: a variety-style show in which the main presenter — in this case, Hanouna — is joined by a cast of regular panelists and guests from the fields of politics, media, entertainment, sports, and culture. Among some of the recent visitors: the actors of a beloved soap opera wrapping up its final episode; the head of a group that highlights cases of missing children to discuss the brutal killing of a fourteen-year-old girl; the Instagram influencer Poupette; two of the most visible leaders of the gilets jaunes protest movement; and a supporter of far-right polemicist and presidential candidate Éric Zemmour. While the show has been around since 2010, it’s soared to record heights in recent years by encouraging on-air clashes, leaning heavily into social media, and figuring out ways to be talked about — cultivating a style of self-referential clownery that doesn’t quite have an equivalent on French television.

The format is designed to generate sparks. The topics selected and the overcrowded studio make for a combustible mix, all but guaranteeing disagreements. Sometimes the arguments degenerate into screaming matches refereed by Hanouna. But while the debates can get heated, they’re never meant to be taken too seriously. At the end of the day, everyone’s part of the same family — at least, that’s the idea. Hanouna frequently employs terms of endearment when addressing the panelists and audience alike: he refers to both groups as mes chéris (“my dears”). And to make sure things stay loose, this son of Sephardic immigrants regularly pulls from a bag of expressions from Tunisian Arabic. Ultimately, it’s all about la darka: fun, laughter, having a good time. The point is to avoid la rassrah: bad vibes, anxiety, negativity. (The more serious political discussions are reserved for Hanouna’s occasional spin-off show, Face à Baba, which has hosted guests like interior minister Gérald Darmanin and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.)

The spectacle varies slightly night to night, but the basic dynamics of Touche Pas à Mon Poste! stay the same. After some discussion with the guests, Hanouna kicks off a hot-button debate. The panelists take sides, holding up placards reading “oui” and “non.” Usually they make jokes about the issue at hand. Sometimes they poke fun at one another. Then they move on. The performance is peppered with references to itself. Panelists often comment on debates they’ve created or fueled themselves, and just about every #TPMP segment is designed to be shared for social media. Hanouna regularly boasts about ratings and viewers during the show itself.

Politics as Entertainment, With a Right-Wing Twist

Touche Pas à Mon Poste degrades political debate by establishing a false equivalence between politics and entertainment. Very deliberately, Hanouna and company treat disagreements about public policy and the distribution of wealth and power the same way they approach discussions about Instagram stars and gruesome true-crime affairs. This buffoonery is embedded into the tone and structure of the show — it is the very essence of #TPMP. This sends an ugly message to a French public that is already voting ever-less frequently: whatever conflicts may exist in the National Assembly, they’re no more serious than the equally passionate disagreements you might have over the credentials of this year’s Miss France or the latest shenanigans of an ex-reality star. Either way, you’re just a passive observer.

When they do devote time to political debates, Hanouna and his producers have demonstrated an irrepressible taste for politics that skew hard to the right.

According to a study from Claire Sécail, a media researcher at the prestigious National Center for Scientific Research, Hanouna’s show devoted an inordinate amount of time to Zemmour in the run-up to this year’s presidential campaign. From September to December 2021, a whopping 45 percent of the program’s political coverage was devoted to the polemicist-turned-candidate. Discussions ranged from whether or not the advocate of the Great Replacement theory was being unfairly treated by the rest of the mainstream media to simple analysis of his campaign events.

As in the early days of Trump’s rise, Zemmour was often depicted as a “controversial” figure who — like it or not — speaks his mind and represents a neglected part of the citizenry. A follow-up study from Sécail confirmed the trend continued well into the campaign, even as national regulations forced TPMP’s host channel to provide equal treatment to the rest of the pack: From January to March, Hanouna’s show devoted 41 percent of its coverage to Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, compared to 28 percent for Emmanuel Macron and 20 percent for the various left-wing candidates.

As well as boosting the far right’s presidential candidates, #TPMP has a knack for setting discussions on their preferred terrain. Panelists regularly debate crime, security, immigration, and French identity at the expense of other issues. Guests do express opposing views — the clash is a big part of the spectacle — but in many respects, the terms of the debate have already coated the reactionary viewpoint with a veneer of legitimacy. “Is there an immigration problem?” “Should gay marriage be revisited?“ “Is it shocking this couple received thousands of euros in unemployment benefits?” If you’re devoting prized on-air time to these types of questions, then you’ve already decided they matter a great deal.

This is where the political objectives of Hanouna’s most loyal financial backer come into view. Since 2015, the show has been financed by the family of Bolloré, an ultraconservative billionaire, logistics titan, and media mogul whose firm owns the channel on which is the show is broadcast, C8. Also known for creating CNews, a Fox News–style channel that helped transform Zemmour into a national star, the seventy-year-old Bolloré has reportedly told his inner circle that he uses his media properties to “lead [a] civilizational combat.”

Hanouna has developed a tight bond with the Bolloré clan, speaking openly of his warm relations with the family. Last year, in an interview with Le Monde, he referred to Bolloré as “an older brother” and the tycoon’s son Yannick, as his “best friend.”

Swallowed by the Black Hole

In November, a young, recently elected MP from La France Insoumise who launched his political career after appearing as a panelist on the show broke an unwritten rule. Coming back on set as a member of the National Assembly, he said the B-word in vain. In a debate over French migration policy, twenty-two-year-old Louis Boyard accused Bolloré of “impoverishing Africa,” quickly earning a stern rebuke from Hanouna. After Boyard refused to back down, the star presenter lost his temper, firing off a chain of insults and expletives that left the rest of the panel speechless. Not very darka.

“I don’t spit in the hand that’s fed me and you shouldn’t spit in the hand that’s fed you,” Hanouna proclaimed to Boyard at one point — a grotesque reminder of where the ultimate power in the room lay. “If you’re an MP, it’s thanks to us.”

At the very least, the dispute has been clarifying.

It’s led to a mini-national reckoning over the power and influence of the show, with much of the mainstream press offering sympathy for the parliamentarian and delivering critical coverage of Hanouna. For his part, the ostensibly neutral entertainer has revealed more of his own political leanings: he has vowed not to allow anyone from La France Insoumise back onto the show until further notice — a pledge that could land him in trouble with national regulators, given that this is the third-largest party in the National Assembly. At any rate, by this point, it should be clear that Hanouna is irredeemable. As the writer Christian Salmon has put it, the show is a “black hole.” It’s not meant for an even-handed exchange of ideas because that it is not how it works: its function is to degrade and discredit political debate.

It’s a shame that figures from La France Insoumise have wasted so much time and energy pretending otherwise. One of the architects of the party’s media strategy, the MP Raquel Garrido has served as a panelist on a different show hosted by Hanouna, while Mélenchon himself has conducted multiple interviews with the TV star. In his defenses of Boyard, the France Insoumise founder has insisted Hanouna and his panelists are “not our pals.” But when Hanouna responded on air by playing various clips of himself getting along swimmingly with the veteran politician, it was obvious that he had a point. France Insoumise fed the beast because they liked the attention that came with it.

Various figures within the party have defended their strategy by arguing it’s worth engaging with Hanouna’s audience — which, it’s true, is quite substantial. Their approach is meant as a populist rebuke to both center-left elites and a bloc of their own supporters who’ve called on the movement to boycott unfriendly corners of the mainstream media. The problem with this reasoning is that it denies how much Hanouna’s show is qualitatively in a league of its own: the particular mix of buffoonery and right-wing edge is simply unparalleled on French television. If France Insoumise’s goal is to reach voters, then where does one draw the line? Should an MP go on a reality TV show if it means exposure? Should they create an Only Fans page if it means expanding their audience?

Of course, the blame for Hanouna’s stature goes far beyond France Insoumise. Swaths of the French political class have allowed the entertainer to flourish because they covet the attention of his audience. As with Zemmour — whose presence on TV transformed him from a conservative writer to a national star — French media elites bear collective responsibility for the Frankenstein’s monster they’ve created.

In a recent debate about #TPMP, the lawyer Bertrand Périer likened Hanouna’s show to a professional wrestling match. The spectators already know the fight is fake, but it can’t to be too fake or else they’ll lose interest. As Périer argued, it’s the continued participation of real-life politicians that gives the show its essential glow of reality. Otherwise, why would anyone care? Heated arguments have no intrinsic political value in and of themselves: a screaming match between a bullfighting aficionado and an animal rights activist, he posited, isn’t a debate worth listening to.

The following night, Hanonua organized a debate between a matador and an animal rights activist.