The Fall of the ‘Sun King’ of French TV, and the Myth of Seduction
PARIS — France’s most trusted anchorman for decades, he used to draw millions in an evening news program that some likened to a religious communion. In an earlier time, he embodied an ideal of the French male — at ease with himself, a TV journalist and man of letters, a husband and a father who was also, unabashedly, a great seducer of women.
Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, nicknamed the Sun King of French TV, seemed so confident of his reputation that last month he sued for defamation 16 women who had accused him of rape, sexual assault and harassment, saying that they were simply “jilted” and “bitter.”
Angered, nearly 20 women appeared together this month in a TV studio for Mediapart, France’s leading investigative news site, with some recounting rapes or assaults that lasted minutes, carried out with barely a few words.
In what has become perhaps the biggest scandal in France’s delayed #MeToo reckoning, their accounts amounted to a devastating rejection of the romantic persona that Mr. Poivre d’Arvor so assiduously cultivated with the help of France’s gossip pages and its most powerful television network. At 74, he is clinging to that image, denying all accusations and arguing that he is just an inveterate, serial “seducer.”
“He was called a Don Juan for years,” said Hélène Devynck, 55, a journalist who has accused Mr. Poivre d’Arvor of raping her at 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 paragon of French seduction. Which forces us now to ask, ‘What does that mean — French seduction?’”
A court could decide. Nearly all of the most serious accusations against Mr. Poivre d’Arvor occurred so long ago that the statute of limitations has expired. But since he himself has now sued, the case may provide his accusers the opportunity to confront him publicly in court in the coming months.
“His ego is destroying him,” said Cécile Delarue, 43, a journalist who has accused Mr. Poivre d’Arvor of engaging in sexual harassment when she worked with him two decades ago.
Mr. Poivre d’Arvor has dismissed the women as having been motivated by “vengeance” because they had not “enjoyed the regard, or even a simple look, of a man they had once admired,” in a written complaint that has been cited in the news media and whose contents were authenticated by his lawyer, Philippe Naepels.
Mr. Poivre d’Arvor declined an interview request through Mr. Naepels, who said that at least one more woman could be included in the defamation suit.
The direct confrontation between the anchorman and his accusers has contributed to a wider debate in France about seduction, courtship and consent that is being played out in mainstream and social media, where nowadays the description of a man as a great seducer can elicit derision, questions and skepticism, not admiration.
According to the French news media, Mr. Poivre d’Arvor has been married for 50 years to the same woman, who has not commented publicly on the accusations.
As his list of accusers grows, Mr. Poivre d’Arvor, who stepped down from the evening news in 2008, has become, as Paris Match said on its cover recently, a “pariah.”
At the height of his popularity, between 1987 and 2008, 10 million people — a sixth or more of the French population — watched him daily at 8 p.m. on TF1, France’s biggest network. Alexis Lévrier, a media historian at the University of Reims, compared the broadcasts with a Mass, with Mr. Poivre d’Arvor assuming “a nearly religious role.”
Though the newscaster enjoyed the kind of influence that Walter Cronkite had in the United States, Mr. Lévrier said, Mr. Poivre d’Arvor’s public persona also had quintessential 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.
On air, he appealed especially to a target audience of women under 50, Mr. Lévrier said.
“He had a way of whispering, of not speaking clearly, that while he spoke to millions gave each person the impression that he was addressing them,” he said.
But inside the imposing headquarters of TF1, 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 of the women say he assaulted them. He also pressed young female employees for sex, or sexually harassed them, according to former employees, including Ms. Devynck, the former assistant.
Spokespeople for TF1 did not respond to requests for interviews.
Ms. Devynck said she never told anyone at the office that the news anchor had raped her, but asked to be transferred to other duties inside the network.
“I knew that, at the time, if I complained, he was the seducer and so I was the whore — I couldn’t say anything because of his power and the support he had,” said Ms. Devynck, who went on to a successful career at 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 that new female employees had to endure, she recalled.
In her case, after he humiliated her by asking her in front of others whether she was married and faithful, she said, she avoided attending editorial meetings, where he often made comments about women’s appearances.
Women could not win, Ms. Delarue said. If they went to his office, they were regarded as “sluts” whose careers were subsequently tainted, she said. If they refused his advances, their careers went nowhere.
“I’m of a generation that was raised with the idea that women and men were equal, and that it was through work that I would gain freedom — my mother told me often,” Ms. Delarue said. “But this man just saw me as a fresh piece of meat.”
Ms. Delarue left TF1 after 18 months. She worked at other channels and then lived in Los Angeles for several years. She was there when the #MeToo movement erupted in 2017, ending the careers of TV personalities like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer within months.
“It was exactly the same thing,” Ms. Delarue recalled thinking, and she waited for someone to speak up against Mr. Poivre d’Arvor.
It would take nearly four years.
A famous letter written by Catherine Deneuve and other prominent Frenchwomen denounced #MeToo as “puritanism” and defended “the freedom to importune” as part of French “gallantry.” Traditional French feminism — and its fierce rejection of #MeToo as an American aberration — was a “trap” that led women to believe that they could be free without worrying about sexual violence, Ms. Devynck said.
Still, French male identity began being questioned in books and in public debate.
Publicly, Mr. Poivre d’Arvor had been the modern incarnation of a French gallantry — upright, literary and a seducer — with roots in the 17th century, said Ivan Jablonka, a historian at the Sorbonne who has explored the evolution of French masculinity.
“But if you consider French literature of the 18th century, almost every book contains a love scene with an element of force or rape,” Mr. Jablonka said.
“In recent years, these supposed great seducers have fallen further into disrepute,” he said, adding that Mr. Poivre d’Arvor’s case “is undermining whole strata of French masculinity.”
Mediapart, the news site, established a desk to investigate sexual violence and appointed a gender editor. It has exposed a series of #MeToo scandals, reporting even in the absence of an official inquiry — something that most of the French news media remains reluctant to do.
Marine Turchi, the site’s lead reporter on sexual violence, has taken nothing for granted — including the myth of the great seducer, which, in her investigations, is regularly evoked to justify sexual violence.
“French seduction and French gallantry have served for years as smoke screens and alibis,” Ms. Turchi said.
But it was the newspaper Le Parisien that first broke the story in February 2021 after a writer, Florence Porcel, accused Mr. Poivre d’Arvor of sexual assault and the authorities opened an investigation.
One of the first women to publicly support her was Clémence de Blasi, another writer, who, after reading the public reaction, felt compelled to recount 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, gallantry and seduction,’ when it wasn’t about that at all.”
In 2015, just out of journalism school and on her first freelance assignment, Ms. de Blasi was asked to go interview Mr. Poivre d’Arvor — but with warnings from her own editors and friends in journalism.
“Little jokes about not wearing a décolleté, makeup or a skirt,” she recalled.
The interview went without incident. But Mr. Poivre d’Arvor followed up with persistent calls asking her out to dinner, she said. When she refused, 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, Mr. Poivre d’Arvor initially seemed able to ride out the scandal. But then he gave a disastrous TV interview, saying that “seduction was important” to his generation and included “kisses on the neck.” Denying that he had ever coerced any woman, he challenged anyone to “look into his eyes” and tell him the contrary.
The next day, Ms. Devynck went to the police — one of nearly 30 women who eventually did.
“The gap between this man’s image and what I knew was so great,” she recalled.
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 believed in it.”
Adèle Cordonnier contributed reporting.