>> Ben Smith, The New York Times
Published: 2020-11-16 12:08:28 BdST
So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” Macron said, recalling Nov 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.
“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimising this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”
Legitimising violence — that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the US president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Donald Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French elite and the English-language media.
More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the most in any Western country. Macron, a centrist modernizer who has been a bulwark against Europe’s Trumpian right-wing populism, said the English-language — and particularly, American — media were imposing their own values on a different society.
In particular, he argued that the foreign media failed to understand “laïcité,” which translates as “secularism” — an active separation of church and state dating back to the early 20th century, when the state wrested control of the school system from the Catholic Church. The subject has become an increasing focus this year, with the approach of the 2022 election in which Macron appears likely to face far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Macron didn’t initially campaign on changing the country’s approach to its Muslim minority, but in a major speech in early October denouncing “Islamist separatism,” he promised action against everything from the foreign training of imams to “imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias.” He also called for remaking the religion itself into “an Islam of the Enlightenment.” His tough-talking interior minister, meanwhile, is using the inflammatory language of the far right.
When Paty was murdered, Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticised Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.
Some French grievances with the US media are familiar from the US culture wars — complaints about short-lived headlines and glib tweets by journalists. But their larger claim is that, after the attacks, English and American outlets immediately focused on failures in France’s policy toward Muslims rather than on the global terror threat. Macron was particularly enraged by a Financial Times opinion article on Nov 3, “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further,” which argued that he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism. The article said he was attacking “Islamic separatism” when, in fact, he had used the word “Islamist.” Macron’s critics say he conflates religious observance and extremism, and the high-profile misquote — of his attempt to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism — infuriated him.
“I hate being pictured with words which are not mine,” Macron told me, and after a wave of complaints from readers and an angry call from Macron’s office, The Financial Times took the article off the internet — something a spokesperson, Kristina Eriksson, said she couldn’t recall the publication ever having done before. The next day, the newspaper published a letter from Macron attacking the deleted article.
In late October, Politico Europe also deleted an op-ed article, “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that it had solicited from a French sociologist. The piece set off a firestorm from critics who said the writer was blaming the victims of terrorism. But the hasty deletion prompted the author to complain of “outright censorship.” Politico Europe’s editor-in-chief, Stephen Brown, said that the article’s timing after the attack was inappropriate, but that he had apologized to the author for taking it down without explanation. He didn’t cite any specific errors. It was also the first time, he said, that Politico had ever taken down an opinion article.
But French complaints go beyond those opinion articles and to careful journalism that questions government policy. A sceptical Washington Post analysis from its Paris correspondent, James McAuley, “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” drew heated objections for its raised eyebrow at the idea that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” The New York Times drew a contrast between Macron’s ideological response and the Austrian chancellor’s more “conciliatory” address after a terror attack, and noted that the isolated young men carrying out attacks don’t neatly fit into the government’s focus on extremist networks. In the Times opinion pages, an op-ed asked bluntly, “Is France Fuelling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”
And then, of course, there are the tweets. The Associated Press deleted a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world, saying it was a poor word choice for an article explaining anger at France in the Muslim world. The New York Times was roasted on Twitter and in the pages of Le Monde for a headline — which appeared briefly amid the chaos of the beheading — “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The Times headline quickly changed as French police confirmed details, but the screenshot remained.
“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” Macron’s spokesperson, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, complained to Le Monde.
As any observer of US politics knows, it can be hard to untangle theatrical outrage and Twitter screaming matches from real differences in values. Macron argues that there are big questions at the heart of the matter.
“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” he said. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”
“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he said, outlining France’s long-standing insistence that its citizens not be categorised by identity. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”
Some of the coverage Macron complains about reflects a genuine difference of values. The French roll their eyes at America’s demonstrative Christianity. And Macron’s talk of headscarves and menus, along with the interior minister’s complaints about Halal food in supermarkets, clashes with the American emphasis on religious tolerance and the free expression protected by the First Amendment.
Such abstract ideological distinctions can seem distant from the everyday lives of France’s large ethnic minorities, who complain of police abuse, residential segregation and discrimination in the workplace. Macron’s October speech also acknowledged, unusually for a French leader, the role that the French government’s “ghettoisation” of Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities played in creating generations of alienated young Muslims. And some of the coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to.
Picking fights with American media is also an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities. And reactionary French commentators have gone further than Macron in attacking the US media, drawing energy from the American culture wars. A flame-throwing article in French magazine Marianne blasted US coverage and then appeared in English in Tablet with an added American flourish denouncing “simplistic woke morality plays.”
But the ideological gaps between French and American points of view can be deceptive. The French commentariat has also harped on the #MeToo movement as an example of runaway American ideology. Pascal Bruckner, the well-known public intellectual, called the sexual abuse case against Roman Polanski “neo-feminist McCarthyism.” But perhaps the most prominent American journalism in France this year came from the Times’ Norimitsu Onishi, who played a central role in forcing France to grapple with the well-known paedophilia of a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A recent profile in a French news site described Onishi and others as “kicking the anthill just by naming things” that had previously gone unspoken. Matzneff is now facing charges.
And Macron has his own political context: a desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right. He is also disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with Trump. He had spoken to President-elect Joe Biden the day before our conversation.
I asked him whether his vocal complaints about the American media weren’t themselves a little Trumpian — advancing his agenda through high-profile attacks on the press.
Macron said he simply wanted himself and his country to be clearly understood. “My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” he said. (He has, in fact, never granted the Times’ Paris bureau an interview, which would be a nice start.)
And he recoiled at the comparison to Trump.
“I read your newspapers, I’m one of your readers,” he said.
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