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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.

Is it Race or Religion at Issue in Burma: Get Religion, September 5, 2012 September 6, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Islam, Persecution, Press criticism.
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What is driving the violence in Burma? Race or religion? And can the two be distinguished from one another. Reports from the South East Asian nation have framed the conflict in terms of sectarian violence — but is religion really the issue here?

The English-language service of France 24 reported that Buddhist monks had staged a mass political rally in the streets of Burma’s second largest city Mandalay. But unlike the 2007 anti-government protests that sparked the unsuccessful “Saffron Revolution”, France 24 reported this week’s rally was in support of the government and against Muslims.

Drawn from an AFP wire service report, France 24‘s headline read: “Buddhist monks stage anti-Rohingya rally”. The subtitle firmly anchored the story to the theme of sectarian Buddhist-Muslim clashes.

Hundreds of Buddhist monks marched in the Burmese city of Mandalay on Sunday to back President Thein Sein’s proposal to deport members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group. Fighting between the two sides has left almost 90 people dead since June.

The article stated:

“Protect Mother Myanmar by supporting the President,” read one banner, while others criticised United Nations human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, who has faced accusations that he is biased in favour of the Rohingya, following deadly unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state.

This article is the best I have seen so far on the disturbances. Written from Burma, it offered comments from a leader of the monks as well as concerns from international rights groups. But the title and subtitles given by France 24 do not quite match the story written by AFP.

The leader of the protest march did not use religion as a reason for his march, but race.

Wirathu, the 45-year-old monk who led the march, claimed that as many as 5,000 monks had joined the procession, with another several thousand people taking to the streets to watch.

He told AFP the protest was to “let the world know that Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s ethnic groups at all”.

The monk, who goes by one name, said the aim was also to condemn “terrorism of Rohingya Bengalis who cruelly killed ethnic Rakhines”.

Speaking a dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants and the violence has stoked a wave of anger across the Buddhist-majority country.

The video accompanying the France 24 story along with the text of the article quoted the leader of the monks as stressing a clash of peoples who happen to be of different faiths, than a clash of faiths. In the video Wirathu tells the camera that all Burmese “religions, sects and political parties” are united against the Rohingya.

A second AFP story from Burma suggested that race and religion may not be divisible. In an article entitled “Myanmar Christians forced to convert: rights group” a spokesman for the Chin, a predominantly Christian minority group in Burma, stated:

Rachel Fleming, another member of the [Chin] group, said Christianity does not fit with the national view that “to be Burmese, you should be Buddhist”.

Where then should the emphasis be in the phrase “Rohingya Muslim minority group”? On the ethnic — Rohingya — or religious — Muslim — descriptors for this minority group? It may well be argued that this is a meaningless distinction, that the reasons for the Rohinga’s suffering are of secondary consequence to the fact of their suffering. I have some sympathy for this argument, but it is a journalist’s duty to split these hairs and dig into a story. The bottom  line is that what AFP reported is not so straight forward as the France 24 title suggested.

To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, Burma is a far away country that we know little about — and hence care little about. Why would balancing race versus religion matter? One consequence of the Rohingya conflict is that it has become a political football in the Islamic world, with some extremist groups calling for jihad against Buddhists.

The anti-Buddhist rhetoric became so bad the Central Tibetan Administration — the Dhali Lama’s government in exile — issued a press statement denouncing the use of misleading photos to whip up anti-Buddhist sentiment in the Muslim world.

The Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala is deeply disturbed and concerned over the circulation of a misleading photograph in some section of the media showing Tibetan monks in their reports on the recent violence in Myanmar involving Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

A photograph of Tibetan monks standing in front of a pile of dead bodies appeared in  many websites in the Muslim countries, especially Pakistan. This photo of Tibetan monks was actually taken during their relief work in Kyegudo (Yushul), eastern Tibet, after a devastating earthquake hit the region on 14 April 2010. The Tibetan monks extended remarkable service in the rescue and relief operations at the time.

The relevant department of the Central Tibetan Administration wrote a letter to a website in Pakistan (ColumPk.com, Urdu Current Affairs Portal) on 30 July to remove the photo from its website, which it did so the next day. But the photo is still in circulation, as some Muslims carrying the photo during their recent protest in Mumbai on 11 August 2012, appeared in Zee News, a leading news channel in India.

We strongly appeal to the media across the world not to use this photo, which is being circulated by miscreants to provoke conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Pakistani pro-democracy bloggers have chronicled the use of the fake atrocity photo by Islamist extremist groups to inflame public sentiment, while retaliatory attacks on Buddhist temples in Indonesia by Muslim extremist groups in the wake of the Burmese conflict have been reported. Would these attacks have taken place if the Muslim angle were downplayed and the ethnic angle stressed? Does it make any difference? Should the press dig deeper into this story and find out what is really going on in Burma?

What say you GetReligion readers? How should this story be played out? Should reporters worry about the consequences of their stories if fanatics seize upon them for their own ends?

First printed in GetReligion.

The myth of the Catholic voter — in France: Get Religion, March 18, 2012 March 19, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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A recurring feature in our repertoire at GetReligion is the critique of articles that posit the existence of a monolithic Catholic vote. Mindful of the need to educate reporters, TMatt has written a four-part aria harmonizing these eternal verities.

Here is the refrain from his “Four basic ‘Catholic voter’ camps”:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (including some Latinos) may lean to GOP. (Tenor)

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats. (Soprano)

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after. (Alto)

* “Sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie. (Base)

Can this song be played elsewhere? It is a fair description of the American political scene, but will it work in Europe? It is all but impossible to transpose American political norms to a European setting, but there are echoes to be heard in a recent spate of French articles.

Paris Match looks at the religion outreach efforts of the candidates in its 16 March 2012 issue. The weekly magazine states that while the French census does not record religious affiliation, an April 2011 survey conducted for Le Journal du Dimanche found that 61% of French people define themselves as Catholic, but only 15% of the population are regular mass-going Catholics.

“Religion continues to be strongly related to voting behavior,” said Jerome Fourquet, [director of the Institut français d’opinion publique]. Catholics traditionally vote right, and this orientation is stronger among active Catholics. Muslims back the left by 90%. Since the second Intifada (early 2000s), Jews are turning more to the right. Protestants, long close to the radical socialist party, are moving slowly to the right.

A small shift of Muslims to the right or Catholics to the left would have a significant impact in the election, “Les politiques tentent de convertir les croyants” argues. While Paris Match notes the correlation between regular attendance at mass and conservative voting patterns, it does not develop this theme. The article focuses on the attempts by the different political parties to broaden their appeal, or in the case of President Sarkozy, win back alienated voters.

The international news channel France 24 has an interesting story entitled “In secular France, can faith carry the election?” that presents an interview with a sociologist who argues that religion, more than class, determines voting patterns. It offers some interesting statistics.

At 57.2%, Catholics make up the majority of voters in France. Muslims (5%) form the second biggest religious group, followed by Protestants (2%) and Jews (0.6%). Some 30% of French voters describe themselves as having “no religion”.

…French Muslims are largely left-leaning – 95% of them voted for [Socialist candidate] Ségolène Royal in the first round of the 2007 presidential election, while only 5% voted for [conservative, UMP party] Nicolas Sarkozy. Around 75% of French Muslims are working class, but the French working class as a whole does not vote in the same way. In fact, they span left, right and far-right circles. Because of this comparison, we can deduce that French Muslims tend to vote left-wing because of their membership of a religious group rather than their social class.

Practicing Catholics are five to six times more likely to vote right-wing than those who describe themselves as “without religion”. … Interestingly, Catholics have not been won over by the far right. In 2007, [former National Front leader] Jean-Marie Le Pen experienced his lowest score among French Catholics.

… We do know however that French Jews are more likely to vote left than right. … But it’s difficult to know why because their vote is clouded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Historically, Protestants have tended to side with the left. But this tendency has weakened in recent years …

The interview concludes with the question “Will religion play a part in the 2012 election?” It produces this answer:

The religious vote is grounded in values, which explains why it varies remarkably little. It is not new to France, the only difference now being that Islam has made it a focal issue.

There is more nuance in this story than the Paris Match article, as France 24 notes that subsections within the Catholic population display different voting patterns. The more active in their mass-going, the stronger their identification with the right (but not the far right.)

However, a 11 January 2012 article in Le Croix fleshes out the Catholic voter phenomena and gives a Continental version of TMatt’s four noble truths. There is no such thing as a typical Catholic voter, the French Catholic daily writes. Catholics are active in across the political spectrum and are bringing their faith to their parties, not their parties to Catholic Church. “In France no political party has been capable of uniting the Catholic world.”

Historian and sociologist Philippe Portier told Le Croix that a new “Christian identity is coming to the fore”.

“Under the influence of John Paul II’s pontificate, those Catholics who until then had kept a low profile, owing to social crises and their minority situation, decided to make themselves heard”, is Portier’s analysis. Not necessarily by joining a Christian party but by reaffirming their positions and opting for greater visibility.

The article notes the formation of the “Poissons roses” movement which seeks to form a “Christian current” within the socialist parties. “We don’t have to describe ourselves as Christians to defend our vision of the family or those who are about to die”, its leader Philippe de Rouxhe said. But “we have to be more visible within the public realm.”

While Catholics are seeking to colonize the socialist parties, the Civitas movement, which is closely allied to the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), seeks to strengthen the traditional royalist Catholic right and

intends to make a place in the political arena to restore “the social kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Across party lines Le Croix finds openly Catholic politicians. Senator Anne-Marie Escoffier, a member of the left-wing Radical Party, told the newspaper she was “never criticized” on the left for her faith, while conservative MP Jacques Remiller, author of a recent petition denouncing “Christianophobia”, describes himself as someone “who fully assumes his own faith.”

Only on the far right is there friction between the church and politics. La Stampa‘s Vatican Insider reports that a book published in January entitled Extrême-droite, pourquoi les Chrétiens ne peuvent pas se taire (The radical right: Why Christians cannot keep silent) by Etienne Pinte, a conservative MP, and Fr. Jacques Turck, former director of the French Episcopal Conference’s (CEF) National Council on the Family and Society, places an

emphasis on the incompatibility of the Gospel’s values and the Church’s social doctrine with the political plans of radical right parties. … “Our book – said Pinte in an interview with French magazine Témoignage Chrétien (Christian Testimony) – does not tell people not to vote for the National Front party but reminds Christians that they would be contradicting themselves if they adopted its ideology.”

This view of the FN has subsequently been endorsed by Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris and President of the CEF.

As an aside, the unasked question in the French articles I find intriguing is the Muslim vote. Is this a religious, class or an immigrant phenomena?

What then can we say about the Catholic vote in France? Is it monolithic or break along active/non-active lines? Is there no such thing as a Catholic vote? Does it follow the same sort of general patterns in France as in the U.S.? Where I am going with all of this is in saying that religious identity, practice and belief (and even the lack there of) is so deeply ingrained within the person, and so variegated across society, that short hand statements like the “Catholic vote” will always be false (inadequate?) in describing life — even in France.

What say you GetReligion readers? Should we retire the “Catholic voter” meme, or does it still have its journalistic uses?

First published in GetReligion.