The Media Today

Emmanuel Macron’s press-freedom hypocrisy 

November 25, 2020

Ten days ago, with the coronavirus and the election continuing to dominate the media-industry conversation in the US, Ben Smith, media columnist at the New York Times, briefly steered attention overseas, publishing an interview with the French leader Emmanuel Macron under the bait-and-switch headline, “The President vs. the American Media.” Macron griped about English-language outlets’ coverage of a string of recent Islamist terrorist attacks in France, which, he said, “legitimized this violence” by deflecting blame away from the perpetrators and onto entrenched Islamophobia in French society. Macron and his allies had complained, specifically, about critical op-eds that appeared in the Financial Times and Politico Europe (both of which were removed from the internet following the backlash, the former amid claims of factual inaccuracy), as well as a range of news stories, analysis pieces, and tweets posted by outlets including the Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press.

Smith’s interview further fueled an existing debate about coverage of France, and also sparked irritation among reporters in that country from whom Macron has generally remained aloof. (“My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” Smith quoted Macron as saying, before pointing out that Macron has never granted an interview to his paper’s Paris bureau.) “Whaaat?!” Sonia Devillers, a media reporter on the radio station France Inter, said (in English). “Our head of state picks up his phone to talk to an American when we can never approach him?” In the end, Smith’s article, Devillers noted, was unflattering. “Perhaps Emmanuel Macron didn’t know who he was talking to,” she said, calling Smith “a superstar” and “an iconoclast.”

From the magazine: Apocalypse Then and Now

For context here, it’s necessary to go back at least as far as January 2015, when two jihadists stormed the then-offices of Charlie Hebdo—a satirical magazine that previously published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, a practice that Muslims consider to be idolatrous—and murdered twelve people, including Charlie’s top editor and seven other journalists. In early September of this year, alleged accomplices in the attack went on trial, and Charlie republished the cartoons, describing them as key “pieces of evidence”; a few weeks later, an assailant, who later told police that he’d been angered by the cartoons, stabbed two people outside Charlie’s former offices. (The victims, who survived and are recovering, work for Premières Lignes, an unrelated documentary company based in the same place; the location of Charlie’s current offices is a secret.) Since then, a terrorist killed three people at a church in Nice, and another beheaded Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher in the Paris suburbs, who had shown the Charlie cartoons to his students as part of a lesson about freedom of expression.

In the aftermath of Paty’s murder, the French government instituted a crackdown, detaining Muslim residents who had previously been flagged for signs of radicalization, but also raiding groups that received public funding for their work on integration; Macron, for his part, vigorously defended freedom of speech, and doubled down on pledges that were already on his agenda: to fight “Islamist separatism,” and to restructure his country’s relationship with Islam more broadly by forging an “Enlightenment Islam in France.” (In early October, before the Paty killing, Macron said in a speech that “Islam is a religion that is currently experiencing a crisis all over the world.”) The tenor of his remarks elicited a furious backlash in multiple Muslim-majority countries, not least Turkey, whose press-bashing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan advised Macron to get a “mental-health exam,” called for a boycott of French goods, and threatened “legal and diplomatic” action after Charlie published a front-page cartoon of Erdoğan leering at a Muslim woman’s nude backside. France, for its part, recalled its Turkish ambassador and pushed for European sanctions. (It should be noted that the two countries have recently clashed over a web of geopolitical issues, spanning from Libya to the Caucasus.)

In late October, Macron gave an interview to Al Jazeera Arabic and attempted to explain himself. “I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them,” he said, referring to outrage about his defense of the Mohammed cartoons. “But you must understand my role right now is to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights. I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw.” Then came the Smith interview, in which Macron accused foreign media of failing to understand the principle of laïcité, a distinctively-French notion of secularism that has long been an organizing principle of the country’s public life (and is hard to pithily translate). It’s not just Macron. Other observers, including French columnists and academics have leveled similar charges, and no little Twitter sniping—between French journalists and American foreign correspondents in France, and, sometimes, between the latter group and their opinion-side colleagues back home—has ensued. Some observers have expressed fears that American campus culture is encroaching on France. (Try as one might to avoid them, the woke wars come for us all eventually.)

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This isn’t the only speech debate rocking French media at the moment—another, arguably much more consequential, has sprung up around a security bill, put forward by Macron’s party, that would, among other provisions, criminalize the publication of images that identify police officers, including livestreams on social media. (Other provisions include authorizing the police to use drones to film citizens.) The bill contains language about motive—specifically, threats to officers’ “physical or mental integrity”—and officials insist that the bill isn’t intended to impede journalists, but reporters and press-freedom advocates nonetheless reacted with grave concern, calling the bill “liberticidal” and even taking to the streets to protest against it. On Monday, representatives of media unions walked out of talks with Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, accusing him of doing too little to address their concerns. Yesterday, lawmakers passed the bill, which will now be considered by the French Senate.

The two debates are linked. Journalists have accused Macron of a double standard; as Dov Alfon—the editor of Libération, a daily that, last week, protested the bill by running a front-page photo of Macron with his face blurred outtold James McAuley, of the Post, Macron “presents himself as the champion of press freedom in the Muslim world,” but at home, “allows his ministers to propose laws that resemble those of the countries he’s just criticized.” And the security bill comes wrapped up in language about the safety of public servants that cannot be divorced from the recent terrorist attacks; the father of a student in Paty’s class posted a video criticizing Paty prior to his murder, and his killer posted a photo of Paty’s corpse on Twitter.

The dance between free expression and security is an age-old one, of course, and journalists always get caught in the middle. In France, as in the US earlier this year, the consequences for reporters have already gone beyond the hypothetical. Last week, Tangi Kermarrec, a reporter with the TV station France 3, was arrested while covering protests against the security bill and spent the night in custody. (Afterward, Darmanin said he should have “approached the authorities” in advance, drawing further condemnation from press groups). And on Monday night, Rémy Buisine, of the website Brut, was roughed up three times by the same officer while covering a violent police operation to clear a migrant camp in Paris.

In his interview with Smith, Macron accused American news outlets of trying to impose their values on another country’s society. Good foreign correspondents and columnists (including some of the reporters Macron and his defenders have complained about) do, of course, understand cultural differences and try to communicate them in their copy—that’s fundamental to the work. They should, clearly, avoid factual errors and apologism for the obscene. But it’s a foreign correspondent’s job, too, to illustrate the blind spots in other countries’ myths of national exceptionalism. Some truths—racism, police brutality, the targeting of journalists for doing their job—are universal.

Below, more on France:

  • The work of foreign correspondents: For the Times, Constant Méheut and Norimitsu Onishi (whose excellent coverage, earlier this year, of child sex abuse by a well-known writer forced a national reckoning in France) report that French authorities have investigated at least fourteen children over comments about Paty’s killing, and detained four of them, all ten years old, on the grounds that they “defended terrorism.” Noting Macron’s message, to Smith, that foreign reporters should feel free to call him and his team, Méheut and Onishi asked Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French education minister, for an interview about the investigations. He declined, “saying that he had already talked publicly about laïcité and considered the Times’s coverage biased.”
  • Relecture: Last year, I reported for CJR on another media debate in France; it concerned la relecture, or the common practice of politicians and other public figures reviewing, and sometimes amending, their media interviews prior to publication. Ahead of elections to the European Parliament, two outlets, La Voix du Nord and Le Télégramme, refused a joint interview with Macron after his team attempted to impose such terms. Readers are “more and more distrustful of the press, exactly because of things like this,” Patrick Jankielewicz, the editor of La Voix du Nord, told me.
  • Sarko: This week, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, went on trial—the first former president to appear as a defendant in court. He stands accused of trying to bribe a judge for information about another legal case that he faces. According to Kim Willsher, of The Guardian, Sarkozy used a door away from the cameras to enter court, and police kept journalists away from him inside the building.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.