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ANALYSIS: Why is France so often misrepresented abroad?

After a series of stories in foreign media that misunderstand or misrepresent events in France, Ingri Bergo looks at why is France having such a hard time making itself understood abroad.

ANALYSIS: Why is France so often misrepresented abroad?
Illustration photo: Arif ALI / AFP / various sources

When foreign media last week reported that France was about to ban the hijab, some forgot to clarify that the bill under scrutiny contained no mention of the Muslim headwear. The proposal was added by senators in amendments that were highly unlikely to become law.

Nevertheless, the incident sparked outrage abroad. Defendants of Muslim women’s rights in several countries denounced the senators’ move towards restricting their religious freedom under the hashtags #handsoffmyhijab and #pastoucheàmonhijab in French.

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It followed hard on the heels of reports that France was planning to introduce a ‘register of Muslim school children’ (it isn’t) – and that’s just from one piece of legislation, the loi relatif à la prévention d’actes de terrorisme et au renseignement (law on the prevention of terrorist acts and intelligence)

READ ALSO What’s in France’s new anti-terrorism law?

Emmanuel Macron is far from the first French president to have called out foreign media for misrepresenting France abroad.

So why is France, a country well known internationally through literature, movies and TV, struggling to make itself understood?

Reason 1: The French model is difficult to understand

“French public life today rests on historical foundations that can make it difficult for outsiders to understand,” Jim Shields, a professor of French Politics at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, told The Local.

The French model, which differs from countries like the UK and the United States, has long been the source of both confusion and conflict, especially on two particularly incendiary matters: race relations and religion.

The French state is founded on a principle of universal equality that requires the Republic to be colour-blind. In practice, that means no public collection of ethnic or religious data, including in the Census. It is the opposite of the multicultural model of countries such as the US, which strives to recognise minority groups. 

To foreigners, the French frowning upon so-called communautarisme – a pejorative term that can be loosely translated as ‘identity politics’ – can seem, in Shield’s words, “a stark paradox.”

“France is a multi-ethnic society but, with its rigid insistence on égalité, the French state maintains a public policy model that simply ignores ethnic diversity.”

ANALYSIS: Is France really ‘colour-blind’ or just blind to racism?

The second element that often puzzles foreigners is the French guarantor for religious freedom: Laïcité.

Laïcité can be translated as “secularism”, though scholars note that the English term lacks the nuances laïcité implies. Laïcité was enshrined by law in 1905, through a bedrock piece of legislation that formally separated Church and State. 

It remains a cornerstone, but a controversial one, of French identity today, which takes centre stage during visceral debates such as the recurrent topic of the Muslim headscarf.

EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Laïcité is poorly understood, but also poorly explained,” Patrick Weil, a historian who teaches at Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris and at Yale in the US, told The Local.

Weil’s latest book, De la laïcité en France (Laïcité in France), which came out this month, explores how such a core concept to French identity has been emptied of meaning to the people who live it – including when French politicians deliberately misunderstand it to score political points.

“How can you expect Americans to understand it when French people don’t?” he said. “When a government cannot properly explain it?”

Reason 2: Stereotypes and French-bashing

But some foreigners also enjoy having a go at the French. 

In a 2015 documentary titled “French bashing”, filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Péretié defined the concept as “a combat sport invented by Anglo Saxons to criticise the lazy, striking, effeminate, cowardly, unfaithful, seducing, impolite, unhygienic, arrogant, cheese-munching French”.

France has long been romanticised and ridiculed, sometimes at the same time. Some of the clichés reflect common misunderstandings about France. The blockbuster Netflix series Emily in Paris portrayed a groomed, spotless Paris (it’s not) and grumpy, snobbish, lazy Parisians (they’re not. Or at least not all of them).

READ ALSO: ‘Vile snobs’: Why are the French so annoyed about Emily in Paris?

But other misrepresentations are more serious. Pundits and media in both the UK and the US have a history of playing into stereotypes about the French.

“British and American media sometimes appear to deliberately want to smear France,” Vibeke Knoop-Rachline, a Norwegian author in Paris whose last book “Terror in the heart of Europe” (in Norwegian) traced the origins of the 2015 Paris terror attacks, told The Local.

“I think that’s different to misunderstandings you sometimes see in for example Norway,” she said.

Somali-Norwegian model Rawdah Mohamed sparked the protests against the senators’ proposed hijab-ban when she criticised the proposal in an Instagram post.

Back in 2005, Knoop-Rachline covered the riots that rocked Parisian suburbs. The violence, sparked by the death of two young boys as they fled the police, got widespread international attention. 

A CNN broadcast showed the Eiffel Tower burning, despite the fact that the events were happening outside the capital, far away from the tourist emblem. 

The president at the time, Jacques Chirac, deplored that foreign media reported the riots in a sensationalist manner, after broadcasters kept breaking news using terms such as “Paris is Burning”, “civil war” and “Muslim riots”.

READ ALSO: French bashing – Why the hatred towards France?

By then Chirac was familiar with the foreign coverage of France. When he refused to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he starred on the front of British newspaper The Sun as a worm.

While US media coverage often taps into the sensational (remember Fox News reporting about Paris’ “no-go zones”), British tabloids have leaned more towards blaming France for things that go wrong.

December 2020 was a bleak time for the UK as spiralling Covid rates forced the cancellation of a planned Christmas break in the lockdown. The response of several UK newspapers was to lash out at the French.

President Emmanuel Macron (suffering at the time from Covid) was castigated after he temporarily closed France’s borders in response to the then-new UK variant. Many other European leaders did exactly the same thing, but were left off the front pages.

In 2015 the Daily Mail splashed “Send in the army” to northern France, in response to migrant crossings. In a five-page article series, one titled “Why the French ARE to blame”, the tabloid found comfort in what an Economist article published earlier this year described as “Canning’s law: when in doubt, blame the French.”

George Canning was a British foreign minister who in 1825 told a ministerial colleague that the French “have but two rules of action: to thwart us whenever they know our object; and when they know it not, to imagine one, and to set about thwarting that.”

The centuries-old narrative has been particularly prominent in many UK headlines describing the Brexit talks.

3. Some want to undermine France

But the British are far from the only ones that have used France as a scapegoat.

“When you hear leaders like (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan striking back against France, it is completely opportunistic,” French scholar Benjamin Haddad, Director of the Europe Centre of the Atlantic Council in Washington, told The Local. 

Haddad was referring to the reaction in Turkey following the murder of history teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020 by an radicalised Islamist.

In a Foreign Policy article Haddad defended the French government’s crackdown against radicalism that followed the killing of Paty, which was widely criticised abroad and spurred fury in several parts of the Muslim world. Protesters in Pakistan burned the French flag

The situation further escalated with a false rumour claiming that France planned to equip its Muslim children with ID numbers. Pakistan’s human rights minister, in a tweet that was later deleted, compared the plan to the Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars. 

READ ALSO: Why does France want to appoint an ‘envoy’ to explain itself to Muslim countries?

“Some are using what is going on in France to attack the French state,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar of laïcité and civil liberties in France, told The Local. “This is extremely dangerous and problematic.” 

The situation in Pakistan has become so serious that the French embassy recently recommended all its citizens leave the country.

But sometimes France doesn’t want to be understood

However some of the criticism of France that comes from abroad is neither exaggerations nor untruths. 

“You do have people who understand the French model quite well,” Alouane said. “But France doesn’t like to have its image tarnished abroad.” 

When foreigners call France out on preaching equality but practising inequality, or that politicians – like the senators adding amendments to the separatism bill – weaponise laïcité to target Muslims, ‘you don’t understand us’, can be an efficient way to shrug off the criticism.

So, in a sense, the misrepresentation sometimes works both ways.

And some argue that France should take at least some of the French-bashing as a compliment.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” wrote British journalist Hanna Meltzer in an article published on the French website Télé

“We make fun of you because we think that you’e cool.”

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Awkward anniversary as French far-right marks 50 years

France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen said her anti-immigration party was "ready to govern" on Wednesday as it marked 50 years since its founding, an awkward anniversary that has highlighted her troubled relationship with her father.

Awkward anniversary as French far-right marks 50 years

The party’s financial difficulties and the continuing bitterness and rivalry inside the Le Pen family clan mean there are no major celebrations for the half-century landmark.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and the co-founder of the National Front in 1972, has not been invited to a conference on Thursday which is the only event planned for the occasion.

“From a protest party, we have become a party that is ready to govern,” Marine Le Pen told parliament on Wednesday, with the reference to her father heading a mere “protest party” likely to further displease him.

“Today I wish to pay tribute to all of the activists that for 50 years have worked for the national cause,” she added.

After replacing Jean-Marie as head of the party after his nearly 40-year stint at the helm, Le Pen ejected him in 2015 as part of her strategy of cleaning up the National Front’s image.

Three years later, she changed the party’s name from the National Front to National Rally (RN) as a re-branding exercise intended to further distance herself from the legacy of anti-Semitism and racism associated with her father.

The move has paid dividends at the ballot box, moving the party from the fringes to the political mainstream.

At her third tilt at the presidency, Le Pen scored her party’s highest ever result in April, winning 41 percent of votes against President Emmanuel Macron who was elected for a second term.

Concerns about crime, immigration and the rising cost of living then saw her party increase its representation in parliament 10 fold in June elections to a historic high of 89 seats, making it the biggest opposition group.

“From hope to power, we continue!” the interim president of the party, Jordan Bardella, who replaced Le Pen when she stood for  the presidency, wrote on Twitter.

Moderate image?

Many far-right MPs and senior party figures were reportedly reluctant to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Front (FN) at all, given the associations with Jean-Marie who is viewed as toxic by a majority of the French electorate.

The low-level event on Thursday was seen as a compromise and will focus on the party’s success in spotlighting themes such as immigration, Euroscepticism, job losses due to globalisation, and Islamism.

Jean-Marie is to host a garden party later this month at the family’s chateau outside Paris.

“Marine Le Pen says today that thanks to the FN of her father, questions such as the immigration and the dangers of globalisation have been debated, but at the end of the day for 10 years she has been wearing herself out trying to get rid of her father’s provocative image on every issue,” wrote political journalist Alba Ventura at RTL radio.

After the parliamentary elections in June, Le Pen ordered her new MPs to dress smartly for parliament and is determined to position her party as the most credible opposition party to Macron’s centrist alliance.

According to a major polling study published this week by Le Monde newspaper and the Cevipof political research group in Paris, the hard-left France Unbowed opposition group was seen as “too radical” by 53 percent of French people.

Only 34 percent thought the same of Le Pen’s party.

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far-right at the left-leaning Jean-Jaures Foundation, a think-tank, said Le Pen had partially succeeded in distancing herself from her father.

“It’s impossible to completely cut off one’s filiation and the RN can never escape history. But afterwards you’re not defined your whole life by your beginnings,” he told AFP.

If Le Pen become French president one day, it would mark a political earthquake for Europe.

“At some point, if you cultivate your ground for 50 years with a certain zeal, you could end up with the conjunction of a man or a woman and a moment,” Camus said.