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Muslim vs. Christian in the Central African Republic?: Get Religion, February 11, 2014 February 17, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The pictures and reports out of Central African Republic are grim. The country is in the grips of a civil war that is pitting predominantly Muslim tribes against Christian and Animist tribes. The violence is especially fierce around the city of Bangui, the capital. The city is home to a Muslim minority of migrants from the East and North and neighboring Chad as well as soldiers of the Séléka militia of former President Michel Djotodia.

The carnage around Bangui has received great play in the French press — most likely because that is where the reporters are. Muslims have gathered at the city’s airport to seek protection from African Union and French troops, while in the city individual Muslims and Christians have been murdered by rival mobs. Le Monde and Le Figaro reported on one particularly gruesome incident, which both newspapers saw as emblematic of the country’s collapse into chaos.

The French newspapers have done a sterling job in reporting on this unfolding crisis. One of the ways their work has stood out is that they did not come to Bangui unencumbered with knowledge about the country’s past. A former French colony, the Central African Republic’s squalid history (remember Emperor Bokassa I?) is not new news. The French press has refrained from describing this as a religious civil war — but has treated the fighting as a tribal and political clash with religious overtones.

Yes, their is an al Qaeda angle, and the CAR is on the tenth parallel — the front line between Islam and Christianity in Africa. But the French press has not resorted to the easy answer of religious hatred driving this conflict.

So what’s been happening?

On Wednesday the country’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, attended a military parade in the capital. A man watching the review was seized by some of the soldiers and accused of being a spy for the Séléka militia. In full view of Western reporters and some government ministers the man was beaten to death.

Le Figaro wrote:

La scène a duré de longues minutes pendant lesquelles des soldats de l’armée régulière, certains en uniforme, ont lynché à coups de pieds, de briques, de barres de fer l’un des leurs, accusé d’être un ancien Séléka, la rébellion à majorité musulmane. L’assassinat, mercredi en plein jour et en public, a engendré une fureur et un plaisir effarant dans la troupe. La vue du corps démembré a fait l’effet d’une fête.

Ce massacre d’un homme mercredi à Bangui n’était pas un simple massacre de plus dans une ville qui en a déjà connu beaucoup. C’est le symbole d’un pays qui ne parvient pas à calmer ses esprits, à juguler les vengeances. «C’est un drame, un mauvais signal. Je ne comprends même pas comment on peut être aussi bête et aussi méchant», assure, affligé, un officier français.

The scene lasted several minutes. Soldiers of the regular army, some in uniform, lynched a man they accused of being a former member of the Muslim Séléka militia, kicking him and beating him with bricks and iron bars. The assassination on Wednesday in broad daylight and in public  created a furor as well as great pleasure for the the crowd. < The sight of dismembered body created a party atmosphere.

The massacre of a man Wednesday in Bangui was not a simple killing in a city that has already experienced many more deaths. It is the symbol of a country that fails to calm his mind, to curb revenge. “This is a tragedy, a bad signal. I do not even understand how people can be so stupid and so mean,” said a distressed French officer.

The Washington Post‘s reporter in Bangui has also written of the fear gripping the city. In a story entitled “Tens of thousands of Muslims flee Christian militias in Central African Republic” published the day after the lynching, the Post offered vignettes that illustrated the dire situation facing Muslims in Bangui. These human interest angles made this piece stand out — and demonstrated the value of having a reporter on the spot. Well done.

But the article also illustrated the dilemma of reporters and editors covering a story from the ground but neglecting to offer context and history. The article begins:

Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing to neighboring countries by plane and truck as Christian militias stage brutal attacks, shattering the social fabric of this war-ravaged nation.

In towns and villages as well as here in the capital, Christian vigilantes wielding machetes have killed scores of Muslims, who are a minority here, and burned and looted their houses and mosques in recent days, according to witnesses, aid agencies and peacekeepers. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled their homes.

The cycle of chaos is fast becoming one of the worst outbreaks of violence along Muslim-Christian fault lines in recent memory in sub-Saharan Africa, tensions that have also plagued countries such as Nigeria and Sudan.

The brutalities began to escalate when the country’s first Muslim leader, Michel Djotodia, stepped down and went into exile last month. Djotodia, who had seized power in a coup last March, had been under pressure from regional leaders to resign. His departure was meant to bring stability to this poor country, but humanitarian and human rights workers say there is more violence now than at any time since the coup.

The article does state the violence is not all on one side:

Christians have also been victims of violence, targeted by Muslims in this complex communal conflict that U.N. and humanitarian officials fear could implode into genocide. Several hundred thousand Christians remain in crowded, squalid camps, unable or too afraid to return home.

But attacks on Muslims in particular are intensifying, aid workers said.

To which I would write — “Yes, but … ” and point to the contrasting tone of the French stories.

The attacks on the Muslim minority are appalling, but there is no explanation from the Post as to why the attacks are taking place now — and why they are so vicious. The language used in this story — though understandable to American ears — does not paint a true picture of what is going on. It is tribe against tribe — tribes who happen to be predominantly Muslim or Christian or Animist — that is driving this.

The violence we are witnessing began not in the past few weeks but in December 2012 when a coalition of rebel groups from the eastern CAR called Séléka (primarily composed of Muslim ethnic Gula bolstered by Chadian and Sudanese volunteers) launched an assault on the government of President François Bozizé, an ethnic Gbaya.

This civil war has forced nearly one million people to flee their homes, a majority of them from the northwestern region of the CAR that borders Cameroon and Chad, with over 370,000 displaced persons now in Bangui Reuters reported last month. The U.N. reports approximately 2.2 million people, more than half of the country’s population, are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance

Following Séléka’s seizure of power in Bangui in April 2013, the organization’s leader, Michel Djotodia, was elected as interim president. Séléka, although officially disbanded by Djotodia, was accused by Human Rights Watch and several other NGOs of engaging in a regime of terror against their opponents, systematically killing, raping, torturing Gbayas (who are mostly Christian).

In response to Bozize’s ouster and the violence that followed, President Bozize organized an anti-Séléka village based militia called the anti-Balaka that are concentrated in Bangui and in the northwest, Liberation reports. Agenzia Fides reported on January 27 there were significant numbers of non-Christians, followers of animist and indigenous African religions, among the  anti-balaka militias.

… not all members of Séléka are Muslims and above all the majority of the anti Balaka militia are not Christians. These militias existed before the seizure of power of the coalition Seleka in March 2013. According to a survey published by the newspaper Ouest France, which interviewed a member of the anti Balaka, self-defense groups were created in the north of the Country at the instigation of former President Bozizé (overthrown in March 2013) to protect the people from bandits raging in the region.

“Before the anti Balaka fought street bandits because the police and the army were incapable of fighting them”, explains Fr. Jean Marius Toussaint Zoumalde, a Capuchin of the convent in Saint-Laurent in Bouar (north-west). According to the Capuchin most of the members of these militias “are animists, not Christians. Their marabouts give them amulets (gri -gris) to protect them from bullets. They are young people who for years have protected their villages and their territories”.

The anti Balaka are present in all communities whether they are animists, Christians or Muslims. But most of them are animists.

Why this excursion into CAR politics? Because the Post is not telling the full story about the war in the CAR. While American ears can hear Muslim v Christian and comprehend their meanings — I would expect most would tune out if presented with a story about the Séléka and the anti-Balaka militias.

The writers at Get Religion seek to raise omitted or distorted religion angles in news stories. That does not mean we see religion as the key issue in every story. Religion is one of many factors in human experience. The Post has, in my opinion, put too much emphasis on faith at the expense of other issues missing the nuance of the interplay between faith and politics.

First published at Get Religion.

Lost in translation – AFP and the Seventh-day Adventists: Get Religion, October 10, 2013 October 10, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Seventh-day Adventist.
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Reports on the exorcism trial currently underway in Paris suburb of Essonne cast an interesting light on the internal workings of the French wire service AFP (Agence France Presse). And these gleanings do not do it credit.

A 7 October 2013 story about four people accused of having tortured a woman while they were performing an exorcism, shows gaps between the English and French versions.  The four accused exorcists claim to be members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and were motivated by that church’s teachings when they performed their exorcism. The English-language version reports the four are ex-Adventists and that the French branch of the church states their beliefs do not support amateur exorcisms.

The French version states the four say they were motivated by their Seventh-day Adventist faith — butomits the disclaimers and distancing by the church.

What can we make of this discrepancy? The English language version of the story as published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline “French torture trial opens over ‘exorcism’” opens with:

Four former members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church have gone on trial for torture over a violent, crucifixion-style exorcism carried out on a 19-year-old woman. Three men and a woman are accused of tying up the Cameroonian teenager in the position of Christ on the cross and keeping her bound to a mattress for seven days in the belief that her body had been possessed by the devil.

The four, including the victim’s former boyfriend, were charged with kidnapping, acts of torture and barbarism.

Style note — the proper designation for the church is Seventh-day Adventist, to whit a dash between Seventh and day and a lower case “d” in day.

The French language version as published in Libération under the headline “Ouverture du procès des exorcistes de l’Essonne” has a very different lede.

Le procès de quatre personnes, soupçonnées d’avoir séquestré et torturé une jeune femme pour l’exorciser, s’est ouvert lundi devant la cour d’assises de l’Essonne. Les quatre accusés, qui se réclament d’un mouvement protestant évangélique, comparaissent pour «arrestation, enlèvement et séquestration avec actes de torture ou de barbarie». Ils encourent la prison à perpétuité.

The trial of four people suspected of having kidnapped and tortured a young woman in order to perform an exorcism opened Monday at the Assize Court of Essonne.The four defendants, who claim to be part of an evangelical Protestant movement, have been charged to “false imprisonment, kidnapping with torture or barbarism.”< They face life in prison.

In the English language version the four are identified as being immigrants from the French Caribbean who are “former” members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And AFP reports the French branch of the church states the four have nothing to do with them.

The church says the people involved in the case were all expelled a year before the alleged attack and has stressed that exorcism of this kind cannot be justified by any of its teachings.

We do not see this information in the French language version. On first mention the accused are described as Evangelical Protestants. On second mention the accused say they were motivated by the religious tenets of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Eric, l’initiateur présumé des sévices, était son compagnon à l’époque des faits, qui remontent à mai 2011. Un soir, voyant les symptômes d’une manifestation diabolique chez Antoinette, il avait voulu la «libérer du diable». Les quatre mis en cause, originaires des Antilles, et la victime, Camerounaise, avaient formé depuis plusieurs mois un groupe vivant en autarcie dans le même appartement, devenu une véritable salle de prière.

Le procès s’est ouvert lundi avec l’examen de la personnalité de Lionel, 29 ans, qui se réclame comme les autres accusés de l’Eglise adventiste du septième jour, un mouvement évangélique qui compte de nombreux adeptes aux Antilles. Les accusés ont toujours revendiqué la sincérité et le bien-fondé de cet exorcisme, affirmant que le démon devait être chassé du corps d’Antoinette. Ils nient toute forme de violence. Le procès doit s’achever vendredi.

Eric, the alleged originator of the abuse, was the companion of the victim in May 2011 when the incident occurred. Seeing the symptoms of demonic manifestation in Antoinette one evening, he said he wanted to “liberate the devil.” The four accused are from the Caribbean while the victim is from Cameroon. For several months they had been living together in an apartment as part of a self-sufficient commune, which also served as a a prayer group.

The trial began Monday with the examination of Lionel (29) who claims that with the other defendants he is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, an evangelical movement that has many followers in the West Indies.The defendants have maintained the sincerity and validity of their belief in exorcism, saying the devil should have been expelled from Antoinette’s body. They deny any form of violence. The trial is scheduled to end Friday.

Why does the French version differ significantly from the English? Newspapers add and subtract material to wire service stories for reason of space and to add local color, content or editorial view. Did Libération make an editorial decision to omit mention of the four being “former” members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Why is the statement missing from the church rejecting out of hand the claims Adventist doctrines support self-help exorcisms? Is Libération up to something? Making a statement of some sort about Evangelicals or the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

No, the same language appears in the AFP story published by France24 – the omissions cannot be laid at the door of the newspaper. What then? I have not seen a follow up or corrected story from the French-language wires indicating this story was subsequently updated with the details found in the English-version. My sense is that we had two reporters and two editors at work — the French and the English.

Perhaps we are seeing national stereotypes at work. The French-language team omitted a detail they believed their audience would not find of interest, while the English language team included information that the Anglosphere would want to know. Or is this simply a case of the French team did a poor job in comparison to the English?

What ever the reason, the omission of key details and context leaves readers of the French version ignorant. Not a good outing for AFP I’m afraid.

Read it all in Get Religion.

Gay marriage and golf: Get Religion, February 11, 2013 February 11, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Marriage, Multiculturalism.
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Little news of the gay marriage debate in the French National Assembly has made its way across the Atlantic into the American press. The lack of news coverage could be due to the perception that the outcome is not in doubt. The governing Socialist Party and their allies on the left hold a majority and have directed their members to vote in favor. Or France, being a very foreign country, the goings on way over there are of little concern to the American newspaper audience.

Whatever the reason, the lack of interest is a shame as the debate has been informative, lively and fun to watch. And, some of the arguments being proffered have not been laid before the American public. Let me digress for a moment and bring you up to speed as to where things stand as of this post’s publication.

The story so far — Following last year’s general election victory by the Socialist Party (PS) and its presidential candidate, François Hollande (I have shortened this from François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande), the party and its allies on the Left — the Radicals, Communists, etc., began the legislative implementation of their campaign promise to legalize gay marriage and permit gay couples to adopt children. The right has fought the move while social conservative groups — led by the Catholic Church — have mounted a vigorous public protest campaign, culminating in the largest public demonstrations last month in France in the last 30 years.

In the National Assembly, the right, led by the UMP party, proposed 4999 amendments to the bill. After 24 marathon sessions spread over ten days, with many sittings lasting until the small hours of the morning, the National Assembly concluded debate on Friday and a formal vote is scheduled for Tuesday, 12 Feb 2013.  The Senate will then take up the bill on 18 March.

Back to GetReligion — When I say the debate has been fun, I mean that it has been vigorous and pointed to a degree seldom seen in the U.S. Americans fed upon the pap of MSNBC or Fox commentators might find the French political debate indigestible — too spicy, too rich. Part of this lies in the stark polarization of French public life. In European eyes there is very little difference between the American Democrat and Republican Parties. While such an observation would baffle most Americans, from a French perspective the difference between the two American parties is miniscule compared to the spread of ideas between the Communists and the extreme Right in France.

And the place of religion in politics is very different in France — some right-wing French groups are ultra-montane Catholics while others are atheists — and there are Catholic Socialists on left (though no Catholic Communists I have found, though friends tell me a few of their seminary professors might qualify).

The right-wing news blog, 24 heures actu, which the Atlantico says

est un média impertinent de droite, radical (sans être extrême), et dans une France bâillonnée par le discours convenu de certaines élites, ça fait du bien !

is an impertinent radical right (though not extreme) publication, and with France gagged by the conventional chatter of its elites, its impertinence is a good thing.

has attacked gay marriage as racist.

Le mariage pour tous serait-il, à l’image du golf, un loisir réservé aux blancs et aux bourgeois ?

Will “marriage for all”, like golf, be a hobby reserved for whites and the bourgeoise?

N.b., “Marriage for all” or “mariage pour tous” is the French equivalent of America’s “marriage equality” — a slogan of the left that seeks to drive the direction of the debate through packaging. But again I digress. Calling “marriage for all” a liberal bourgeois preoccupation that is irrelevant to the lives of “les pauvres, les Noirs, les Arabes, les Asiatiques, les Juifs, les Latinos, les ouvriers et les chômeur”( it is more euphonious in French, but means, the poor, Blacks, Arabs, Asians, Jews, Latinos, and the unemployed), might be dismissed out of hand were it not for the revolt of the black (or should I say Franco-African) Socialist deputies from the Caribbean and Réunion who have broken with the PS and will vote no. The center-left Paris daily Libération reports that none of the black overseas members of the GDR (gauche démocrate et républicaine) of the Front de gauche (Left Front) will support the bill.

Libération cites a speech given to the National Assembly by Bruno-Nestor Azerot, a deputy from Martinique who said in overseas departments, almost all of our population is opposed to this project that “challenges all the customs, all the values” of French citizens. M. Azerot added that it was offensive to link the civil rights movement with the gay rights movement, noting in particular that black slaves could not marry or raise families recognized as legitimate by the state. Marriage for all, he argued would undermine the family and devalue the hard won social and legal rights of France’s former slave populations.

A white PS leader from Réunion (a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean) Jean-Claude Fruteau told Libération he had not received any “negative reaction” from his constituency but added that a demonstration in Saint-Denis-de-la-Réunion organized by the Catholic bishop of the island should not be taken as a sign of the strength of the opposition to the bill. Réunion was a “small department where the Catholic Church has a strong influence,” he said.

Libération explained to its readers why overseas Black deputies would opposed gay marriage by quoting the chairman of the Left Front Group in the National Assembly, Communist Deputy André Chassaigne. In overseas territories, i.e., in departments with a majority black population, the “cultural dimension of family values may be more pronounced, it has a more traditional look.” The overseas deputies were invoking a “family model that was more conservative than in France,” but were “imposing religious practices” and “local circumstances” onto the French national stage.

The Libération article is written from an advocacy perspective — it makes no pretense at being balanced or offering opposing commentary. It quotes the speeches of the black deputies, but offers explanation and interpretation only from the left. The article is framed in such a way to help the newspaper’s liberal readers understand the puzzling phenomena of why blacks, whose rights the Left has always championed, would not return this support on the issue of gay marriage.

Frankly, I would not have expected Libération to have addressed the issue any other way. French newspapers have different standards than American ones. Criticizing Libération for being something that it is not is a pointless exercise, though pointing out its biases to those unaware of the differences between American and European journalism is a necessary task.

My colleagues and I at GetReligion have written hundreds of articles detailing the creeping Europeanization of the American press — where the New York Times and other prominent media outlets engage in advocacy journalism. But unlike the French or British press, they do not admit to their biases. While I would not hold out the European model as the ideal, its unashamed partisanship does allow for a discussion of issues that would never be countenanced in the American press — gay marriage, race (and golf) is one such subject.

First published in GetReligion.

Religion as code words in the French press: Get Religion, January 8, 2013 January 8, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.

Alvy Singer, Annie Hall (1977)

When is a newspaper’s reference to religion not a reference to religion? When it is in a French newspaper, of course.

Reader Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz forwarded a story to the GetReligion website with a link to a news story from France 24, the English-language French state broadcaster.  The article reported that Esther Duflo, an economics professor at MIT and native of France, had been appointed by President Obama to a U.S. government post.

The lede to the France 24 story entitled “Renowned French economist to join Obama’s team” reported:

France’s Esther Duflo, a world renowned economist, has been nominated by US President Barack Obama to join a government body dedicated to advising the administration on global development policy.

Have you picked up the fact that Esther Duflo is French? France 24 did not want that titbit to slip by (though the side bar to the story does note she has lived in the US for18 years and has taken American citizenship.)

In his note, Mr. Szyszkiewicz wrote:

I find it interesting that religion is raised in the 4th paragraph. Not sure what to think of it.

GetReligion’s editor, TMatt, passed the query on to me for action. The pertinent passages noted by Mr. Szyszkiewicz read:

Duflo, who was raised in a “left-leaning Protestant” family, said she became aware of economic divides and social injustice at a very early age.

“I was always conscientious of the gap between my existence and that of the world’s poor,” she told weekly French magazine l’Express in a January, 2011 article. “As a child, I was extremely troubled by the complete randomness of chance that I was born in Paris to an intellectual, middle class family, when I could have just as easily been born in Chad. It’s a question of luck. It inspired in me a sense of responsibility.

Now, I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the mind of the author of this article, but I believe I can speak to how this passage could be interpreted from a French reader/writer perspective.

From an American perspective, the mention of a person’s religious background, or faith, can be an important component of the story — a way of helping the reader in a highly religious culture comprehending the actions, motivations and personality of the subject of a story. Many of GetReligion’s articles address touch upon this issue — critically when a story omits mention of the religious or faith-based component of a story, or in applause when a reporter gives flesh to a “religious ghost” in a story.

Is that the case here? Is France 24 telling us something about Esther Duflo’s religious upbringing that informs her economic theories? If so, no other news service has picked up on this angle. A number of articles have drawn upon France 24′s story, repeating the left-wing Protestant line — but no other original work has been done on this point.

I’m inclined to say the mention of Esther Duflo’s religious upbringing, her having come from “d’une famille protestante de gauche”, as she told the Paris daily Liberation in a January 2012 article, is French cultural code — not a religious ghost. In the France 24 article we are not dealing with religion, but with national stereotypes — the shorthand language that some cultures use internally to convey meaning.

The Economist a few years back published an article that helped explain France’s view of its Protestant minority.

In France, Protestantism, in the public mind, is almost synonymous with austerity and moral rigour; something to be respected, but not always liked. The Catholic who goes to confession “comes to terms without difficulty with his little sins and white lies,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, Le Figaro‘s literary editor, whereas “the Protestant brandishes frankness like a dagger, which he uses as implacably against himself as against others.”

Nobody in France gets a prize for guessing that Lionel Jospin, the country’s upright Socialist prime minister, is one of those dagger-wielders. In fact, he is a non-believer. But no matter. He was brought up in a Protestant family and impregnated with those Protestant values. That is what counts. For the French tend to think that a Protestant background spells honesty, respect for one’s word, hard work, a sense of responsibility, a modest way of life, tolerance, freedom of conscience—and a dour inflexibility. Protestants have been in the van of most of the great liberalising ideas and reforms in French history: the declaration of human rights, the abolition of slavery, the market economy, the devolution of power from the centre, the spread of state education, the separation of church and state, advocacy of contraception and divorce.

The dour philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (now out of favor among the French literary/academic elite but one of the most important intellectual voices of the last century in France) arose from the “culture of liberal Protestantism” his biographer Annie Cohen-Solal reported in an article published in Le Monde. Cohen-Solal argues Sartre’s liberal Protestant roots, as taught to him by his grandfather Charles Schweitzer (yes Dr Albert Schweitzer was a second cousin to Sartre) were the foundation for his moral and ethical views.

What then is France 24 telling us when it says Esther Duflo is a product of left-wing French Protestantism? Well, coupled with the  photo it used in the article, I would say the message is that of a dour, somewhat severe technocrat. As to what message the selection of a photo can tell about the editor’s view of the subject of his story, compare the France 24 photo with the Liberation photo of the same person. One is flattering, chic — the modern attractive intellectual French woman.  The other, well, is not.

Which takes me back to Mr. Szyszkiewicz’s question. Is there a religion ghost in the story of Esther Duflo? There is a good Episcopalian answer to this question — “it depends.” Yes, if this story came from an American pen the mention of her faith should open the door to the moral and ethical precepts that inform her thinking on international aid and economic development.

From a French pen — no. The mention of her Protestant up-bring (but not her faith) is a code to inform the reader that Dr. Duflo comes from a particular caste in French society. An American equivalent code might be that so and so is a product of Catholic schools, a Yale man, a San Francisco Democrat, a New Yorker. These phrases convey meaning in our culture that is not necessarily tied to facts, but stereotypes. I believe, this article’s reference to Dr. Duflo’s Protestant heritage is French shorthand — not reporting.

What say you GetReligion readers? Should we have our American or French glasses on when we read this France 24 report?

First published in GetRelgion.

Do morals matter? DSK affair and France: Get Religion, March 3, 2012 March 4, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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The French don’t do sex well. Political sex scandals that is.

But a sea change does appear in the offing for French journalism that may change all that. The widely known, but only lately reported, personal misconduct of Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) appears to have provoked a fit of conscience.

This has not always been so. When the President of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York last May, the French philosophes went bananas.

Writing in Le Monde, Pascal Bruckner said:

America obviously has a problem with sex that stems from its protestant heritage. … It’s not enough though to describe the country as puritanical because what governs here is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry. What we have here is lubricious Puritanism.

Libération sounded the same theme, though in a muted key. It complained the DSK affair had produced France’s

first “Anglo-Saxon” sex scandal and brutally forced France to enter a zone of public debate which, until now, because of cultural exception, “Latin” identity or democratic weakness, was hitherto confined to rumors and gossip amongst a select circle of insiders.”

Times have changed. Disdain for Anglo-Saxon ethical standards has moved on to an examination of French media morals. But the question of what will inform these morals does not appear to have been asked.

“Transparency, how far?” (La transparence, jusqu’où?) is the headline on the front page of the 28 February 2012 issue of Libération. An editorial and a report on the publication of the book Sexe, Mensonges et Médias (Sex, Lies and Media) by Jean Quatremer, the newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, follow on pages 2 and 3.

The article “Sexe et politique: la presse sur le divan” (Sex and politics: the press on the couch) recounts the press’s failure to investigate the private lives of the powerful — from François Mitterrand’s prostate cancer and second family to the antics of DSK.

Libération reports that its reporter

had been one of the few who dared to say publicly that DSK had a problem with women. His appointment to the closed world of Washington had been a high risk and had been a perfect illustration of the press’s bad habits. “The lies, the refusal to investigate … the taste for colluding with the powerful.”

Following DSK’s appointment to the IMF in 2007 the article stated that Quatremer wrote:

the only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship to women. Too pressing, he often comes close to harassment. This is known throughout the media, but nobody talks about (we are in France). But the IMF is an international institution where morals are Anglo-Saxon. An inappropriate gesture, an allusion too specific and the press will have a field day.

These words went unnoticed until the front-runner for the French Socialist Party’s candidacy for the 2012 presidential election was arrested in New York and charged with attempted rape.

Nicolas Demorand, the editor of Libération wrote that in the wake of the DSK affair a journalist must examine his conscience and ask

if he has done his job properly or, for reasons good or ill, totally missed a “subject” who obviously deserved scrutiny? Who has not thought about the uncertain border between privacy … and a potential political problem, about whether he must inform his readers?

The French press is entering a post-DSK era, Demorand said,

Our media’s all too timid modus operandi can now be seen with a new eye. It is true that journalists are friends with politicians. ‘Stay away from power!’ is the primary principal, an American journalist used to say. In France, we have dinner together, we go on holidays together, we have love affairs, we are graduates of the same schools, and so on. There is no tradition of investigation into the private world of politics. .. The public consequences of the president’s private life have remained in the shadows. This is because of a preference for commentary over cold facts. And also because of the lack of independence of public television stations. Let us point out that the President of the Republic appoints the station’s heads and chooses with his royal hand the journalists who will be allowed the privilege of interviewing the monarch.

France must find new ways of reporting on the powerful, the editorial concluded.

Not by moralizing or by voyeurism, but simply informing its readers when it is appropriate to do so. Investigate each story case by case and bear the burden of publishing. In short: become a working journalist.

All in all this is great stuff. Libération — a center left newspaper founded in 1972 under the aegis of Jean Paul Sartre — is seeking a revolution in the standards of French journalism. I hope it succeeds.

But in reading these reports, I was struck by a ghost, obliquely identified by Libération as an American ethic where “morals are Anglo-Saxon.” The tone of these stories is that virtue, at least as it is understood in the Anglosphere, is too religious too foreign for France. The French press’s failure to challenge the powerful was a failure of utility, not of virtue.

The religious, or moral element, is not completely absent. The French Catholic daily La Croix has argued the DSK affair “poses the question of the quest for coherence between public and private life,” and “virtue, a word that has gone out of fashion, could become the new prerequisite” for political life. Yet few other newspapers have pressed the issue.

La Croix has called for the return of morality to civil life — a virtue formed by a Catholic sensibilities of goodness and truth. This call should also be sounded to the press in France.

But I would hope that morals as understood in the Anglo-sphere, not the dreaded “moralizing” condemned by Libération, be brought to the table as well, for they inform our (English language) understanding of the truths of journalism.

In a 1943 study of the English novelist, E.M. Forester, Lionel Trilling coined the phrase “moral realism.” Trilling sought to overcome the Marxist binary view of the world in literary criticism, to overcome the “old intellectual game of antagonistic principles.”

Moral Realism [was] not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life. .. [not simply the knowledge of] “good and evil but the knowledge of good-and-evil.

This ethic applies to reporting as well. The absence of reporting on the sin and human failings of political leaders should not be replaced with a 24/7 inspection of their private lives. Rather a sensibility that paradox, complexity and ambiguity are part of the human condition.

Is this too much to expect? Is it possible to use nuance in an age whose critical faculties have been dulled by reality TV and people who are famous for being famous? Where should the line between public and private be drawn?

First printed in GetReligion.

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