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France: Still Largely One-Sided Media Now A Bit More Balanced About Iraq

  • Joel Blocker

French media, which backed the government's opposition to the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq with virtual unanimity, remains largely antiwar and especially hostile to the United States. But in recent days, some newspapers and periodicals, as well as radio and television stations, have striven for a more balanced posture.

Paris, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With few exceptions, the French press and electronic media -- both in their news coverage and editorial comment -- have been hostile to the U.S.-British military campaign in Iraq. The exceptions, however, have grown as overall French hostility has intensified.

From the outset of hostilities on 20 March, the predominant tone in French coverage of the war has been dismissive, negative, and, not infrequently, mocking and nasty. The one-sidedness has been particularly striking in the electronic media. TV coverage has led the way but radio -- much listened to and quite influential in France -- is not far behind.

One of France's most respected media critics, Daniel Schneidermann, said that from the start of the war, French television has emphasized the negative. In his most recent column for the daily "Le Monde" (28 March), Schneidermann himself mocked the posture of French TV -- which includes three public channels, two private channels, and two all-news cable stations -- in these terms: "Nothing has gone right [for the Americans]. Their forces are inadequate, fuel doesn't arrive on time, the sandstorms are terrible, and the first combat casualties have demoralized the American public."

Schneidermann concluded, "When you move from French channels to CNN, the contrast is striking: It's not the same war."

TV discussion programs, particularly on state channels France 2 and France 3, have been heavily loaded with analysts against the war -- usually 4-to-1 against. State channel France 5, with a smaller and more select audience, has been a bit more balanced, particularly in its Sunday evening show "Ripostes."

On an early "Ripostes" program about the war (23 March), Parisian political science professor Philippe Goloub attacked the United States full on. His diatribe is typical of current French America-baiting.

Goloub: For the first time since the end of the 19th century -- the moment when America began its first great period of expansion -- there has been a real resurgence of an imperialist ideology....

Moderator: Neo-imperialistic....

Goloub: ...neo-imperialistic, which has [sought to impose] American policy by force. The United States has been the [world's only super] power since 1991, and has had an effective monopoly on the use of force.

A week later (30 March), "Ripostes" discussed what it called "the shockwave in the Middle East" with somewhat more balance. Participants included the Paris-based Iraqi filmmaker Saad Salman, who spoke with passion. "One must first know that, whatever happens, it will not be worse than the regime of Saddam Hussein. That's the basis of any discussion [of Iraq today]. I went back to Iraq a little while ago to obtain film for my [new film, 'Baghdad On and Off'], and I saw to what extent Iraqi society was now totally in an abyss, at the bottom of an abyss. Men, women children -- Saddam Hussein has taken Iraq apart, there's no Iraq anymore. The proof [of this] is that when you speak of Saddam today, you [mean to suggest all of Iraq]. Today, we [are witnessing] a war against Saddam, but it is said to be 'against Iraq.' They confuse Saddam with Iraq," Salman said.

French radio -- especially state radio -- has been similarly antagonistic toward the United States. Of the three major state radios -- France Inter, France Info, and French International Radio (RFI) -- RFI has been the most extreme and vitriolic. Much of RFI's audience is in West Africa and the Middle East, and listeners in both areas have shown a strong anti-American bias on call-in programs.

But even RFI has begun to achieve more balance. On 30 March, it broadcast an editorial by Alain Genestar, the editor of the popular weekly "Paris-Match." A few days earlier, Genistar had warned his readers of what he called "unhealthy rejoicing" at U.S. military difficulties and of "mocking the American troops for their suffering."

On RFI, Genestar spoke of widespread "hatred" in France -- not so much for Saddam Hussein as for U.S. President George W. Bush. "Hatred has so taken over our minds that Saddam is spared in the bombardment of slogans that are aimed [primarily] at Bush. Saddam -- the tyrant who murders his own people and has gassed thousands of Kurdish women and children -- is therefore a better option than Bush," Genestar said.

Commentary in other French weeklies has also begun to reflect both sides of the controversy. With opinion polls consistently showing at least four out of five French against the war, "L'Express" Editor Denis Jeambar writes in the magazine's current issue of what he calls "the massive reprobation of French public opinion" and its "jubilation" at setbacks for Washington. Both phenomena, says Jeambar, demonstrate "the extent of anti-Americanism in France today."

The weekly "Le Point's" chief editorial writer, Claude Imbert, wrote in a recent issue (21 March) of the war's effect on Western unity -- which he calls "the first victim of this crisis."

Who's responsible for this "waste?" Imbert asks. "In the first instance," he answers, "the Bush administration -- but also France. Because in this matter," he says, quoting centrist French European Parliamentarian Jean-Louis Bourlanges, "'It's not because the Americans are wrong that the French are right.'"

French mass-circulation tabloids such as "Le Parisien" remain fervently anti-American. But treatment of the war in quality national dailies is now also moving toward greater balance. "Le Monde," in particular, has clearly made an effort to provide objective reporting and opinion on all sides of the political spectrum.

Some critics say that's because the paper's chief editors have come under recent attack for political bias in a book that has sold more than 250,000 copies. Whatever the reason, however, the effort by France's most influential newspaper to provide both sides of the story counts for a lot in a country that often appears blind to anything but the majority view.