Riots Highlight Lack of Diversity in French Media

French president Jacques Chirac has emphasized the importance of television being representative of the population as a whole. Three weeks of riots forced the French media to pay more attention to the country's minority communities, and have also highlighted how few minority faces there are on French TV.

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When French President Jacques Chirac spoke to the nation after three weeks of rioting, he said the media must better reflect the France of today. Chirac said it was vital that television should be representative of the population as a whole. The riots have forced the French media to pay more attention to the country's minority communities, and they've also highlighted how few minority faces there are on French TV. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Paris.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Members of France's non-European minority population often complain that they receive condescending coverage in the French media.

(Soundbite of French newscast)

POGGIOLI: This is a TV report on carjacking and burning vehicles in the French suburb of Vaneseur(ph).

(Soundbite of French newscast)

Unidentified Reporter: (Through Translator) It's always the same: teen-age rodeo criminals steal a powerful car; best, a BMW. Then they set it on fire. They attack the police while their kid brothers throw stones. You wonder whether the grown-ups imitate the young ones.

POGGIOLI: Even though that report dates from 1981, the tone of recent coverage hasn't changed much. To make things worse, last month Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters scum, and many minority youths took that as a blanket slur. Brahim el-Zurek(ph) is a French youth of Moroccan origin who lives in an outer-city suburb of Paris.

BRAHIM EL-ZUREK: (Through Translator) We are sick and tired of being described as immigrants, delinquents, thieves, Islamic radicals. They see us only as gang rapists, hash dealers or religious zealots.

Mr. OLIVIER ROIS(ph) (Scholar): There is a systematic demonization.

POGGIOLI: Olivier Rois is a scholar who has done extensive research on minorities in the French suburbs.

Mr. ROIS: Everything which is going on in the housing projects is negative and attributed to a culture, either a ...(unintelligible) culture or a youth culture, but it's always, always negative.

POGGIOLI: Rois acknowledges that violence exists in the suburbs but he says not everyone is jobless or a school dropout. Journalist Florence Bourget(ph) says the French media was not prepared to cover the riots. She says her newspaper, Le Monde, had some minority interns in the past but none of them were ever hired.

Ms. FLORENCE BOURGET (Journalist, Le Monde): (Through Translator) When the riots started, they panicked at the paper and immediately called back one of the interns, hired him and sent him over to cover the suburbs because they needed somebody with an Arab name and with an Arab look.

(Soundbite of French newscast)

Ms. AUDREY PULVAR (Anchor): (French spoken)

POGGIOLI: This is the evening news program on the third channel. The anchor since September is Audrey Pulvar. She's black, from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. She's one of the first non-European French to anchor on prime-time TV. The manager who hired her, Alese Goursay(ph), says it was sort of a revolution, but adds that French TV has far to go to ensure diversity.

Mr. ALESE GOURSAY (Television Manager): Today there is a necessity to really say it and prove it so that it has some effect on the young people in the suburbs.

POGGIOLI: A few years ago, state-run TV chose a journalist of North African origin, Rasheed Arhab(ph), as an anchorman. Negative audience reaction and protests from the extreme right cut short his on-air career. It's unclear how TV executives could comply with President Chirac's call for greater diversity. Under French legislation, all citizens are equals; statistics on race and ethnic origin are banned and affirmative action is taboo. Chirac has called for new legislation to fight discrimination in the media. In the meantime, TV networks are pursuing other paths.

(Soundbite of French soap opera)

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

POGGIOLI: "LuBelle LaViv" is a nightly soap opera with several actors of North African origin playing the main characters.

Ms. MARIE-CHRISTINE SARAGOSSE (General Director, TV5): I think that we need heroes.

POGGIOLI: Marie-Christine Saragosse is the general director of the TV5 network. She says today the only role models minority youth in the suburbs see on TV are car thieves, drug dealers and flashy pimps.

Ms. SARAGOSSE: We need a wonderful doctor coming from Algeria or the politician who looks like you to star in the fiction and after it's going to be real in the real life. Fiction could be quicker, go faster and help the society to change.

POGGIOLI: But Saragosse acknowledges that entertainment programs alone are not enough. She says mainstream French society must be more willing to share social and political participation with its non-European minorities.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Paris.

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