'CNN a la Francaise' launches

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France 24, the country's much buzzed-about 24-hour global news broadcaster, has launched on the Internet despite recent international skepticism, management disputes and union protests.

More than 3,000 guests — including France 24 chairman Alain de Pouzilhac, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Minister of Foreign Affairs Philippe Douste-Blazy and Cultural Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres — gathered Wednesday to watch the massive screens assembled in the Tuileries Gardens as about 500,000 Internet users in more than 100 countries tuned in for the live online webcast of Gaul's first French 24-hour international satellite TV news channel.

Seventy-five percent of the site's hits came from France, Belgium and Switzerland, 15% from North America (with about 100,000 hits from the U.S.) and 10% in other European countries (with a clear majority in the U.K.), France 24 said.

"These figures are very encouraging," de Pouzilhac said. "They are above our expectations."

With a young staff — the average age is 31 — and a large budget ($102 million), the veritable "CNN a la Francaise," initiated by French President Jacques Chirac, was successfully broadcast on France24.com in English, French and Arabic despite connection complaints among some Mac users.

The full version of the France 24 site was to be available Thursday to coincide with the channel's first official global cable and satellite transmission.

"I feel like I'm on a different planet because I've been working on this station now for 12 months, 18 hours a day, including weekends," de Pouzilhac said. "Now, you push a button and you see different languages. It's a very emotional time."

The state-funded channel brings a French perspective to world news in an effort to challenge the Anglo-Saxon views expressed on CNN and BBC.

The premiere broadcast featured extensive coverage of the war in Iraq (complete with criticism of President Bush's policies), a global weather forecast, a short interview with Chirac (despite his claims that the channel was not created as a vehicle for his own world views), a guided tour of the network's vast headquarters in Issy-les-Moulineaux and bilingual commercials for French products.

The cooperative effort between France's largest independent broadcaster, TF1, and national network France Televisions was to be diffused on television Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on two parallel channels — one in English, the other in French — to more than 80 million households, mainly in Europe and the Mideast, thanks to free-to-air satellite coverage and distribution agreements made in more than 90 countries.

The English-language version initially will be available in the U.S. through the Comcast digital cable network and on a terrestrial frequency in the Washington region and will be directly broadcast to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the State Department in addition to the United Nations, the European Parliament and the European Commission.
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