Every year the Eurovision Song Contest comes to TV’s across Europe. And every year, like a perpetually thwarted cartoon villain, the French have a foolproof plan to win.
The contest began in 1956 as a friendly competition between European nations. Each country chooses a musician or musical group to represent it at the contest (held in the country from which the previous year’s winner yields). After a few elimination rounds, the 25 remaining musical acts each perform their song and are given points by TV audiences, who call in and vote for their favorites.
France’s last Eurovision victory dates back to 1977, and beneath their cool façade, they’re hungry for another moment of glory.
So hungry, in fact, that they can't keep a cool head when it comes to picking a candidate to represent them. The selection of the French contestant seems to consist of writing a bunch of talented musicians' names somewhere and pointing to one of them blindfolded. While other countries' candidates generally tend to stay within the limits of what's liked by Eurovision viewers and the country itself, the only consistent idea among members of the French selection committee is that, since they lost the previous year, the musician or group they choose this year has to be completely different from what they've done before. For example, here’s a list of their last five picks:
2007: Les Fatals Picards, a humorous chanson français group
2008: avant-garde techno musician Sébastien Tellier (who doubtlessly horrified many viewers by having his female backup singers wear suits and fake long beards like his, instead of the Eurovision standard prom dresses and Farrah Fawcett ‘do’s.)
2009: Patricia Kaas, a famous French torch singer who is idolized in Russia and other Eastern European countries. Kaas was considered a heavyweight contender; unfortunately, she chose to perform dressed soberly in black, with only a microphone sharing the stage with her. As you'll see if you read further, simplicity does not belong at the Eurovision contest.
2010: hip-hop/African-Caribbean fusion artist Jessy Matador
2011: Amaury Vassili, a talented 22-year-old opera singer, who sang an aria in Corsican.
The variety and artists are intriguing - but the French selection committee always forgets what the Eurovision contest really seems to be all about. While many of us might imagine that a gathering of European musicians means a dignified soirée, the Eurovision contest is actually one of the biggest cheese fests around. Compared to it, “American Idol” looks subtle and restrained.
- techno/pop music
Every year, my boyfriend and I watch, accompanied by his mom via telephone. It’s thanks to them that I discovered the contest, in fact.
Besides the cheese-covered spectacle of most Eurovision acts, what makes it such an amazing experience is the way the French behave about it.
I’ve already talked about the way they choose their candidates - not only the crazy variety, but also a tendency towards the unusual, rather than pyrotechnics and glittery costumes (then again, this might also be due to the current French disdain for sequins, and their perpetual disdain for over-emoting).
The French just don’t seem to get it. There's no lack of cheesy and/or spectacle-driven pop acts in their country. But I think they consider it a matter of national pride to maintain a certain level of sophistication and difference. You can almost always tell the French candidates from the others. If the participating countries took on human forms, France would be just what we imagine: the cigarette-smoking, all-black-wearing Nouvelle-Vague-looking person sneering down at all the others while contemplating the meaning of existence and the avant-garde.
Add to this the fact that they don’t even speak the same language as everyone else. The two official languages of the Eurovision Song Contest are English and French. But everyone else speaks English, including the other francophone or partially francophone countries. That the French choose to have their candidates sing in their native language (or, this year, in Corsican, a language from a French département) is understandable. But that they wouldn’t even allow the person giving the country’s voting results to greet the English-speaking hosts with a “Hello”, seems a little bit excessive when you watch the 42 other participating countries doing that and happily chatting in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
In a way, it’s easy to be proud of the French for refusing to conform. And maybe it’s inevitable. After all, compliance isn’t in the French character -- they’ve got protest and revolution in their blood, and, as the many strikes they have every year show, they don’t like to simply accept things, be it legislation, a language everyone else is speaking, or, apparently in the case of the Eurovision Contest, the winning power of tacky costumes.
On the other hand, their lack of diplomacy probably costs them even more votes than their choice of artist.
When you call in to pick your favorite Eurovision act, you’re not allowed to vote for your own country’s candidate. This rule was made, of course, to avoid unfair population-related advantages.
It doesn’t completely balance things out, though, because when the results are announced by country, you see that voters tend to give points to the nations with which they share borders – nice for solidarity, but not for more isolated locales. Or for France. Although it borders five participating nations, and though it’s only separated from the UK by the English Channel, France rarely ever gets big points even from these places.
And here’s the sad part: though their disregard for protocol makes it seem like this contest doesn’t mean much to the French, the Eurovision Contest might honestly be the only time I ever see them act…hopeful.
The French are generally a cynical people, but the Eurovision Contest is their Achilles heel. Somehow, despite their bleak track record, every year as the contest approaches, their optimism soars. Journalists and entertainment experts make impressive claims, spoken with as much certainty as a government proclamation: “France has a very strong contender for the ‘Eurovision’ this year. Bookmakers are saying we’ll probably win. We’ve got a solid strategy for victory.’”
The 2011 Eurovision Song Contest took place this past Saturday. The boyfriend and I watched avidly and regularly called my mother-in-law to joke around or get her opinion. Though in general the acts were surprisingly less cheesy than usual, the three of us still had some laughs.
Of course, there was also the customary disappointment when my boyfriend’s country didn’t even make it into the top 12.
There was some consolation, though: As always, as the contest points started to be distributed and it became more and more clear that France wasn’t going to win, the French commentators started good-naturedly riffing on the hosts, announcers, and contestants – and even themselves. It’s one of the best parts about watching the Eurovision contest on French TV.
As the Eurovision contest wound to a close, while everyone else was flashing smiles and shiny costumes, the French were once more like Cyrano de Bergerac, keeping to themselves, first full of secret hope, then full of wry humor that detached them from the whole spectacle and the pain of their wounded hearts.
Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people”. If he were around today, he might add to that, “and losing the Eurovision Song Contest yet again.”
Want to get in on the fun? You can watch the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest here! (Hopefully this will work from outside Europe.) And you can also watch highlights and performances by searching “Eurovision 2011” on YouTube and other sites.