PARIS -- It was just another Saturday night on French television:
The bare-breasted girl on the screen was chained to an iron bar. Mad Max, girded in leather, slowly passed the business end of his riot gun over her captive body, then threw her down on a pile of used tires and simulated not-so-consensual intercourse.
"These things are going further and further," observed Beatrice Girault, a spokeswoman for M6, the private channel that telecast the scene into thousands of French homes. "And people are asking for more."
The M6 program, called "Sexy Clips," has joined a growing list of television sex shows that have taken France to a new frontier of what is acceptable over the airwaves. Private and newly privatized stations, eager for viewers and free from government bureaucracy, have brought this country increasingly daring programming that would make Irma la Douce blush.
Proud of its liberal heritage and open-mindedness about sex, France has long shrugged at torrid love scenes shown in the movies and later on prime-time television. Nude women have become ho-hum in advertising spots televised at any hour. But in a giant leap of fe~te, French television is now showing sex for the sake of sex -- and for the sake of ratings.
An American television correspondent who planned a story on the new programming said he had to abandon the idea for lack of suitable images. "There is no way we could show that on U.S. television," he remarked.
"The real novelty is that our television sets have begun showing eroticism as such," wrote commentator Philippe Aubert in a recent edition of the newsweekly Le Point.
Canal Plus, a subscription channel that operates with decoding devices, has been showing hard-core pornography films at midnight one Saturday a month for the last three years. A production assistant at Canal Plus who asked to remain anonymous said the monthly porno movie usually gets 20 percent of the station's regular viewing audience.
"There is a demand for this kind of movie," she added.
Now mainstream stations, broadcasting to anyone with a set, have started moving toward more and more explicit sex scenes. The most daring programs are on near midnight, but humorous striptease sequences and pinup-style nude poses have been programmed earlier, as have vivid promos for later attractions.
On M6, for example, "Sexy Clips" is preceded at 11 p.m. by "Charmes," on which women take off their clothes in a variety of skits. Just before midnight, a voice suggests in a bedroom whisper that it is time for "Sexy Clips," whereupon rock video frames are interspersed with sequences of a couple getting to know each other better at each appearance until by 1 in the morning they are nude and extremely well acquainted.
Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, a pioneer of advertising in France and founder of its largest agency, Publicis, remarked recently that the sex shows on television have begun "a real revolution" in the French countryside. Paris may have had a cancan reputation, but many French farmers and villagers had retained the more austere mores of their forebears, he said. Now, however, many are staying up late to watch the new wave on television.
For the last several years, French television producers have been experimenting with a mixture of humor, sex and nudity. Christophe de Chavanne, for example, originated a now defunct afternoon show aimed at housewives that displayed handsome male models in a parody of striptease.
The show, on the state-run Antenne 2 channel, was called "It's Better in the Afternoon."
Pascale Breugnot, another producer, became well known last year with her "Sexy Folies," a program of humorous sex skits, also on Antenne 2. Since then, she has moved, along with her program -- rebaptized "Super Sexy" -- to the privatized First Channel.
"Super Sexy," at 10:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month, has risen to 26 points on the French TV rating system, in which each point represents 194,000 households, according to production assistant Yvon Lemarquand. That constitutes 75 to 80 percent of the market at that hour, he added.
"It is a funny, humoristic program, and it approaches subjects that people consciously or unconsciously want to see," he said.
Although nudity, straightforward language and sexual situations are the program's mainstay, the show has set itself limits and is distinguished from other sex shows because it seeks to make people laugh, Lemarquand explained.
The National Commission on Liberty and Communication -- the country's official television oversight board -- can ask to see file copies of the sex shows, but so far the government has not sought to restrain them. One government attempt to tighten limits on distribution of sex-oriented magazines last spring inspired derision and was never put into effect.
Even with their expanding frontiers, however, producers on mainstream stations have drawn the line at male frontal nudity and hard-core scenes. "We do not want to fall into pornography," said Lemarquand. "The goal is to make people smile."