Paris, May 6th 2012.
As Sarkozy gets ready to discover if he’ll remain in power for another 5 years – or, more likely, as he prepares himself for a departure from the Elysees Palace – my team and I are already in the control room and I give the countdown:
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”
The France 24 election night special is on air.3 presenters; 6 field reporters; 30 guests in the studio, 4 from different continents… and 1 producer… myself.
The preparation leading up to tonight was bumpy. The arrival of new management less than 3 weeks before the election meant that format, duration, number of guests, etc… had to be reviewed and modified with tighter deadlines than one would expect for such an important event.
The first round of the election went well – but there were flaws… nothing the viewer noticed, but some of our objectives were not achieved. Our 5-hour special was punctuated by guest delays; and the technical and editorial teams were not always in synch… Tonight nothing can go wrong. Nothing.
Once decisions were finally made (“we are staying on air for 6 hours”; “we are taking Washington, London, Berlin, Jerusalem and Ankara”; “there will be only one commercial break 3 hours in to the special… and that’s it”); and after having worked on our guest list over and over again (dozens of members of parliament, senators and political scientists will come and go from our studios tonight) and finalized our scripts (6 hours of programming)… it looks like we are ready for this.
My role in this massive operation was important up to now: I turned some of the directors’ ideas into feasible slots for the program; and was able add some of my vision into the format… But nothing compares to my role tonight:
I have the control room.
That means I will have 15 people following my directions in our studios. When we start, how we launch a report, when we ask a question to our reporter in on the ground, in what order we carry on with guests in the studio… I am responsible for making the magic happen.
It does not take tricks, just the ability to think about 6,794,381,052 things at once and make nearly as many decisions each second.
There is no room for hesitation, or for mistake.
Thankfully I am not alone; and the team tonight is top-notch: 2 audio operators, a visual effects guy, 2 video producers, one server reader and one camera operator. Directing these guys will prove to be a pleasure…
Well, back to the show… we are on air and while one of our presenters hosts the first hour from the smaller news studio upstairs, I brief tonight’s hosts, Francois Picard and Marc Perelman, on the last details: “remember to toss to the reporters at the Socialist Party headquarters first” – we were all prepared for what we were to discover…
The air is all ours. And we are keeping the signal until midnight!There’s only one commercial break – 3 hours from now – and it will be the only moment for the presenters to use d the toilet, for example, and for a make-up retouch.You may think it’s crazy, but the idea of having millions of people in France, US, Israel, Brazil, Japan, Kenya, Thailand tuning in and finding the ‘weather’ or some publicity for an airline when there is so much happening (in our backyard) would be a mistake… the idea that people from all around over the world may be watching us gives a whole new dimension to this operation and we want to be live as long as possible today.
This first hour goes fast. We have just enough time to check in with our reporters at each party’s headquarters, watch a report on the electoral process in France, and let each of our expert guests in studio have a word on the candidates.
The front pages of the main French newspapers today offer a glimpse of the mood in the country and the excitement surrounding this massive event (pictures are from Guardian reporter Alexandra Topping’s Twitter account):
Le Monde’s front page: “The mad hope of the president candidate”; Le Journal du Dimanche asks: “Who?”; and According to Le Figaro, France is to make “historic choice”.
Back to our special, and we are heading to the crucial, most important moment of this night.
According to French law, estimates can only be released at 8 pm – the time when the voting booths close. And even though numbers were floating around online, nothing is official until 8 pm Paris time.
So our 8 o’clock hour began at 7.59.00, when we launched an animated graphic with the countdown… Those 60 seconds felt like 6 hours…
The polling institute we signed a partnership with had sent us a special guest – a computer program that plugs into our system and provides the ‘first official estimates’ at 8.00.
Yes, we knew what was coming. We had people from the Institute around us all day and we heard their conversations. We knew who had the advantage… but now we were about to discover – officially – who the next French President would be.
7:59:40 my screen is divided into a colorful mosaic featuring all our 6 reporters standing by in each of the party’s headquarters and the presenters in the studio. We also featured images from Solférino (the name of the Socialist Party headquarters), Mutualité (UMP headquarters), Place de la Bastille (where François Hollande supporters were gathering) and Place de la Concorde (where Nicolas Sarkozy supporters were expected, but no one was there).
At 8:00:00, a smiling Francois Hollande appeared on our screen. Scoring 51.9% of the votes (later official figures put the margin at 51.6%), here was the next French President.We went straight to Tulle – Hollande’s native city – and to the Socialist Party Headquarters in Paris. Our reporters in both locations could barely be heard with all the cheering.
Soon after those inserts, we turned to the defeated side – Nicolas Sarkozy walked up to the stage at Mutualité:
“I carry the entire responsibility for this defeat”.
The second incumbent president to fail to win re-election since the start of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, Sarkozy stated he was “ready to become a French person amongst French people”.His concessional speech was very personal, but that was not enough to convince the French members of my team in the gallery: “quel langue de bois” – they said about the man leaving office.
Little time was given to the tearful as celebrations carried on across France. The images we kept receiving from TF1, France 2, Reuters and APTN all featured happy Socialists celebrating their historical moment.
Meanwhile, we kept on with our ‘musical chairs’ in the studio… guests coming and going in what was one of the biggest challenges of the night. We had to be extra careful with time slots as many of the guests were shared between both the English and French channels.
We all wanted to hear from the President-elect who – from what we knew – was working on his victory speech with partner Valérie Trierweiler.
“I am here to serve France,” said François Hollande, when he finally walked up to the stage in Tulle.
Right after Hollande’s first words as President-elect, we manage to go to the lone ‘commercial break’. 2’30” for my presenters to have a pee. As for me, I don’t dare move until we hand the signal back to the news studio upstairs.
Our last hour.The night has been a great success and the feeling of ‘mission accomplished’ starts filling the air. This is perhaps the moment where they need me the most in the gallery as we are all tired, and it is hard to keep focused. My directions are more frequent and precise.
A last round up from our reporters on the ground; a word from Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker (one of the last guests joining us from New York) and we are about to end this ‘extraordinary’ effort to cover the night a ‘normal’ man would become the French President.
As Nicolas Sarkozy leaves office, his last words on twitter are “Let us be worthy, let us be patriots, let us be French! I love you”.
Meanwhile, the left-wing newspaper, Liberation, seems to have already forgotten about the past 5 years and turns to the future:
As for us? France 24 carries on with another team taking over for the rest of the night.
My team and I are back tomorrow – for another hour of analysis and discussions on The France 24 Debate dedicated to the outcome of the French election…
*pictures courtesy of Eric Olander