“Plus Belle La Vie” soap opera coming to an end in France

Light technicians at a studio in Marseille install a projector ahead of a scene for the French soap opera
Light technicians at a studio in Marseille install a projector ahead of a scene for the French soap opera “Plus Belle La Vie.” (Sandra Mehl)

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MARSEILLE, France — Over the years, the southern French city of Marseille has seen countless soap opera fans rushing to its TV studios, armed with cameras and publicity photos to be autographed. But in recent months, the people thronging at the studio gates carried something new: protest banners.

Their goal? To stop the looming end of a long-running hit TV series.

“No to the end of ‘Plus Belle La Vie,’” read the banner of protester Laetitia Moiroux, who had traveled more than 100 miles to Marseille to make her discontent heard when we met her this summer. She credits the series with having turned around her life.

After experiencing harassment as a teenager, it “gave me back my self-confidence,” the 36-year-old said.

When “Plus Belle La Vie” — which roughly translates as “Life Is Sweeter” — aired for the last time Friday after almost two decades, it marked the end of a show that was the first and most enduring of its kind in France. Since it started in 2004, the series inserted itself deep into the public debate and transformed the way the French view their second-most-populous city.

At its peak, a weekly audience of 13 million people followed the diverse cast of more or less ordinary characters as they faced the challenges of life—about a fifth of the entire population, or the equivalent of almost 70 million viewers in the United States. Families moved their dinner schedules to make time for it.

The daily soap opera was successful, in part, because it often mirrored the country’s big political or social debates, but within the comforting surroundings of a familiar setting and in the lives of characters whom viewers have grown attached to over the years.

Much of the series took place on a reproduction of a town square that filled an entire TV studio, where the characters fought, laughed and cried. Its buzzing cafe bar, the Mistral, looked so realistic on screen that scores of tourists have tried to locate it over the years in Marseille’s historic old town.

“Sadly, we have to explain to them that it doesn’t actually exist,” a Marseille official said once in a 2006 newscast. Her remarks, however, did little to stop thousands more from trying their luck in the ensuing years.

True fans of the show, however, knew that the real inspiration for the bar was the 200-year-old Bar des 13 Coins in the city’s Panier neighborhood.

When the soap opera was launched, “it was the first time that a series discussed the daily lives of people,” said Laurent Kérusoré, one of the actors.

When France legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 despite fierce resistance, the show’s writers married two of its male characters, including the one played by Kérusoré, in what became the country’s first big televised same-sex wedding. At the height of the 2016 migrant influx into Europe, the show added episodes about the lives of undocumented immigrants in France. And as the cost of living surged in France in recent months, some of the show’s characters faced new challenges in making ends meet.

Despite its sometimes polarizing plots, and criticism that it has leaned too far to the left, the appeal of the series transcended political lines. Rather than lecturing viewers, the show gave them a gentle push, introducing them to characters they might not have previously felt comfortable interacting with in person. For instance, by “showing the little details of their lives,” said Muriel Mille, a sociologist.

And while French cinema struggles with the inclusion of non-White characters to this day, “Plus Belle La Vie” early on reflected the multicultural diversity of Marseille, both on screen and in the writing room, Mille said.

“We really believed in revolutionizing everything,” recalled Serge Ladron de Guevara, an executive producer.

Not every staffer was immediately convinced.

Despite working on the series as a sound engineer, Gilles Cabau did not always follow it on TV. But when he and his grandmother watched an episode together over Christmas, he realized the extent to which the program was shaping public attitudes.

“She told me: ‘This [character] is gay, and he’s with this other man — but anyway, he’s sweet!’ Cabau laughingly recalled. “The topics we discuss in ‘Plus Belle La Vie,’ those are not things she was directly exposed to.”

We met Cabau on a sizzling day in July. It was his last day working for the series, and the crew was filming an outdoor scene near Marseille’s old port, with the city’s seaside fortress towering over them. When the final sequence was shot and Cabau lowered his microphone, the crew around him burst into applause to celebrate their last day with him.

The daily production routine has turned the staff into a tightknit community over the years. “There were weddings, there were births, divorces,” said Claire de La Rochefoucauld, a director and producer with the series. She estimated the number of babies from couples that met on set to be about 45.

The end of the series won’t just be a financial loss for her and the 600 others who worked on it. It will also be the end of a national showcase for Marseille.

Even though it is France’s oldest city, Marseille’s reputation as a crime hot spot has long made it an afterthought for tourists and businesses in France. That has only begun to change in recent years, with Parisians moving to the southern beach city in droves and embracing the city’s multicultural and sometimes chaotic identity.

“Marseille, to some extent, represents everything Paris doesn’t have: the sea, the sun, good humor, joy of life,” said de Guevara, who believes that his series played a part in changing public perceptions.

“It’s a bit like a pop song,” added Pierre Martot, who plays a police officer in the series. “The more you listen to it, the more you become accustomed to it.”

For “Plus Belle La Vie,” that growing familiarity may have been both a blessing and a curse. As viewers grew increasingly accustomed to the storylines and rival series offered new and different content, ratings eventually declined.

Some staffers believe that the pandemic accelerated that trend. The show’s producers largely ignored the pandemic in their scripts, even as the country came to a historic and eerie standstill.

De La Rochefoucauld said the pandemic would have been difficult to fully reflect in the show, given that there was often a six-week delay between production and transmission and the ups and downs of the virus waves were unpredictable.

But she acknowledged that when the viewers tuned in from their quarantined homes or under nighttime curfews, what they saw was “no longer their life.”

When it announced the end of the series, France’s public broadcaster cited the need for “renewal,” arguing that “viewer expectations and program consumption have evolved.”

De Guevara, the executive producer, felt the series was not anywhere near being done. He had been encouraging his writers to team up with ecological activists to put climate change center stage in the scripts.

“There would have been dozens more topics to talk about,” he said.

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