The French 'Other'

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Even in the middle of a Presidential election, France (and the Francophone world) barely exists in the eyes of the Australian media.

Fairfax has given the election little attention, drawing on London-based correspondent James Button, who has imbibed the attitudes and mentality of the London press. Murdoch generally recycles his own news empire copy, in this case from Paris correspondents for The Times but, at least, he’s published a flurry of articles since Easter.

Within these stories the candidates’ personalities dominate and even then the accounts are sloppy. The Rightist candidate Nicolas Sarkozy is curiously described as a ‘reform-minded conservative’ who wants to ‘streamline government and make France more competitive’. Bollocks.

Candidates are also inconsistently labelled — one minute as breaking with tradition, the next as having their heads in the sand.

Behind the clash of personalities, the common thread is that France is a strange beast deserving of pity. Both Fairfax and Murdoch have dutifully quoted French critics for whom La France needs comprehensive reform.  

In the book Orientalism, Edward Said wrote of the condescension towards the Orient by Western scholars in service to the Western imperium. An integral part of that appropriation was the mechanism of differentiation: ‘they’ are not like ‘us’, ergo, they are inferior. France, as a former great power that has never been a colony itself, does not suffer the prerogative of ownership attached to Orientalism, and there are also marginal concessions to aspects of French culture. But the ‘othering’ of and the condescension towards France are there in spades in the journalism we’re getting to read.

Britain and France have been at loggerheads for centuries, so the grounds for a war of words are well entrenched. In spite of this history, critical but sympathetic observers write from both sides of the Channel — on the British side including Julian Barnes, Jonathan Fenby, Robert Tombs and Theodore Zeldin. A vibrant cross-channel of literature exists in academic and serious publishing, for example, the recent That Sweet Enemy by the bi-national couple Robert and Isabelle Tombs.

It’s different in the media, and the media in large part reflects the politics. The most spectacular instance of Anglo media disdain was the legendary headline from the London tabloid The Sun in November 1990: ‘Up Yours Delors’.

Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission, and an admirable political figure, was the recipient of Little England bile for fostering the next step to European Monetary Union. The putdown headline, ‘Eurobore Delors’, at least captured the correct pronunciation.

But it is the ‘quality’ Anglo press that dominates the attack. Early February saw a trinity of dripping condescension for the consumption of enlightened readers. The context: Presidential contender Nicolas Sarkozy’s arrival in London to cajole the sizeable French expatriate community.

For Janet Street-Porter, columnist for The Independent and perennial tourist, expensive hotels, lousy food, homeless drunks, a dirty Metro and the clichéd dog merde summed up French decline. I was in the Marais only several months earlier, and can attest that she needs a new prescription.

Philip Stephens, in the Financial Times, gloated that the French political nobility is in fear because the two major Party candidates, the Gaullists’ Sarkozy and the Socialists’ Segolene Royal, have jettisoned the Party hierarchy and its conventions. According to Stephens, the outsider Sarkozy is borrowing American electioneering techniques, and Royal has combined traditional Right-wing authoritarianism with ‘preferring intuition to ideology, empathy to intellectual tracts’.

Mary Riddell in The Observer claimed that both candidates are ‘in thrall to the Anglo-Saxon success story’. Anglo hard work, rather than Gallic siestas, is the universal elixir.

To top it off, Angelique Chrisafis appeared in The Guardian earlier that same week claiming that French cinema had gone to les chiens.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Francophobia clearly has abundant raw material to draw on from history — the Terror, Dreyfus, Vichy, Suez, Algeria, atomic testing, the Rainbow Warrior. But the present?

The refusal of post-War France to surrender to US-dominated Atlanticism has always galled the British establishment. But one has to be oblique in sniffing at President Chirac for ‘failing’ to support the Coalition of the Killing. So the current remonstrations turn to economics. The Anglo-American financial press, for which Continental Europe has always been the enemy, provides a ready sourcebook.

Stephens was in the Financial Times again on 30 March, lamenting that France has ‘remained economically and culturally comfortable in relative decline,’ but that ‘the rest of the world has more or less made up its mind.’ Well, the rest of Stephens’s world, anyway which evidently doesn’t include the half a million plus British expatriates who have moved to share in French misery.

France’s unemployment rate is a convenient beating stick. In particular, the Anglo media keeps going on about a 23 per cent youth unemployment rate as the damning statistic.

Certainly, unemployment is bad, recently coming off 10 per cent to 9 per cent and the long-term unemployment rate is grim. But on youth unemployment, American economists David Howell and John Schmitt look behind the facts, noting that few French students undertake paid employment. The incidence of unemployment to the total youth population was, in 2004, only marginally higher in France than in the US — 8.6 per cent compared to 8.3 per cent. No matter; the 23 per cent figure keeps getting airtime.

Curiously, the critics have a glass-eyed view of their own turf. A striking embodiment of this affliction is the bilingual Canadian couple Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow. Their book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong laments France’s undemocratic centralism, compared to which a generic North American is said to reside in a state of perfect liberty. No wonder that the book jacket can trumpet the Wall Street Journal claiming, ‘You may still think the French are arrogant, aloof and high-handed, but you will know why.’

British academic David Drake has unearthed an apt quote from economic historian François Crouzet, who observed (roughly translated):

If the knowledge of one people by another is always biased and incomplete, if often it does not appropriate a great deal of the reality of the country as object, it is a test, a reflection of the mental structures of the people as subject, of the representation that they have of themselves, of their value system.

Touché.

Behind aggregate French unemployment rates, foreign-born unemployment at roughly 15 per cent is almost double that for native-born French. Not good. But then, in the US, Black unemployment at 10 per cent is double that for Whites. Then there is the prison population — 52,000 in Metropolitan France, 2.2 million in the US. Per capita, the US figure is eight and a half times that of France, and within that figure, the Black/White incarceration ratio is 5 to 1. Which facts are more relevant?

Similarly, we might tut-tut the corruption surrounding French oil giants Elf and Total, recently accused of bribery in securing a large contract in Iran. But comparable structures in the US (for example, the military-construction complexes Bechtel and Halliburton) or Britain (the military-industrial complexes British Aerospace and GEC-Marconi) are not perceived, or are met with shrugged shoulders. There is also the incongruity that France still has an auto industry, and a domestic rail system that the British commuter would die for.

Philip Stephens concludes his 30 March piece with the warning ‘this election matters well beyond France.’ And do elections in the US and the UK matter only to their populations? Tell it to the Iraqis.

France needs a clean up, root and branch, say the pundits. In short, they should be more like us.

But what is ‘us’? We would prefer not to know.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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