Created in 1987 based on an American concept, since its first edition the French Telethon has combined a televised program along with tens of thousands of events throughout France. A look at the origins of a unique event in terms of participation and fundraising.
1986: the birth of the Telethon, a bet between two fathers
Bernard Barataud, then chairman of AFM-Telethon, and Pierre Birambeau, Director of Development, both fathers of boys suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, were responsible for creating the Telethon in France.
At the request of Bernard Barataud, and with approval from AFM-Telethon’s Board of Trustees, Pierre Birambeau went to the USA with his family in 1986. Why? To study the American Telethon, a charity TV marathon presented by the comic Jerry Lewis since 1966.
Convinced that the Telethon was the solution to bring rare diseases out of obscurity and secure the means to fight them, the two fathers suggested that the Association bring the American concept to France and organize a French Telethon.
“When we know where we’re going we need to use resources to get there, and there are considerable resources available for genetic research, nothing like the small amounts previously allocated to researchers every year.” Pierre Birambeau
Together they managed to convince the leadership of the TV channel Antenne 2 (now named France 2) to adapt the program for French TV.
1987: the first Telethon, a great feat and the start of a unique adventure
On December 4, 1987, at 8:30 pm, the theme tune for the Telethon was heard for the first time on TV, on Antenne 2. Live from the studios of Radio France, Michel Drucker, Claude Sérillon, Gérard Holtz and Jacques Chancel took turns on set for 28 hours non-stop, with Jerry Lewis as sponsor. It was the longest program ever produced in France!
All the ingredients for the Telethon were there: exploits, testimony from families and researchers, and exceptional participation of the teams from Antenne 2, partners, volunteers, a sponsor, artists and celebrities to support the fight of the families, and the famous 3637, the pledge phone number.
The program was a resounding success. Over 175 million French francs (29.7 million euros) were raised, three times the amount expected. Since the counter had only eight figures, a ninth handwritten panel had to be added!
The Telethon, exploits of all kinds
Challenges on common themes, participation by ambassador towns, volunteer feats... the Telethon got French people involved, in all the towns and villages of France and elsewhere, in the fight alongside patients and their families. Slackline crossings, sports challenges, participation of 100 towns and villages, knitting of a 3km-long scarf, baking of the world’s longest tart and thousands of crepes, a climb up a 3,637 m peak and hot air balloon rides...
The Telethon sponsors
The American comic Jerry Lewis was the sponsor of the first Telethon, in 1987. Since then, each year a new personality lends their support to the Telethon by becoming its sponsor. Its aim is to bring the cause of rare diseases into the spotlight, and help raise the counter as high as possible.
Over the years a number of personalities have sponsored the Telethon: Soprano, Matt Pokora, Jean-Paul Rouve, Pascal Obispo, Zazie, Marc Lavoine, Garou, Patrick Bruel, Franck Dubosc, Gad Elmaleh, Anne Roumanoff, Daniel Auteuil, Gérard Jugnot, Thierry Lhermitte, Yannick Noah, Pierre Perret, Alain Delon…
The sums raised for the Telethon
Since the first Telethon in 1987, the generosity of French people has not wavered. Each year they bring their support to the fight against disease. From year to year, their generosity enables AFM-Telethon to further research, to improve the care pathway for patients and offer them support locally at all stages of the disease, through the healthcare pathway advisers. It also helps with recognition of rare diseases and the emergency of innovative therapies for these diseases long considered incurable.
The 2021 Telethon raised €85,933,166.
For more information on the use of donations, read: the Cure through innovation booklet
The Telethon today
The Telethon today:
• Almost 215,000 volunteers and 50,000 associations committed on the ground
• Over 10,000 municipalities involved
• 30 hours of TV programming on France Télévisions
• 90 national partners who renew their commitment each year
• Digital programming on social media with Telethon Gaming, the Telethon Challenge and a live program on YouTube.