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October 12, 2021

It’s Fun to Be a Foreign Correspondent in France

Foreign journalists wield extraordinary influence in France. That’s partly because the foreign media is integral to President Macron’s economic and foreign policy strategy.

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Few countries have such a strong global brand as France—it is still by far the world’s most visited country. Few countries have the luck or misfortune to be the object of so much global attention.

France and its presidents, France and identity politics, France and sex—there are endless variations of these themes in The New York Times and the likes. Netflix series like “Emily in Paris” ensure that there is a steady stream of global nomads with romantic life designs flowing into the country. Books like “How to be a Parisian, wherever you are” become international bestsellers. Exhausted parents across the planet debate whether we’ve gone too far in deconstructing authority after reading French Children Don’t Throw Food.

And in literary terms France remains a superpower producing export-heavy writers at an astonishing rate. The New Yorker is in awe of Leïlla Slimani’s disturbing Lullaby novel about child murder. The London Review of Books tries to assess whether Michel Houllebecq Submission is reactionary or not. The Financial Times ponders whether Didier Eribon’s Return to Reims helps us to understand whether the far-right will keep going. The New York Times portrays Annie Ernaux, the chronicler of French society’s usually snail-paced and sometimes abrupt changes. The Guardian reads Laurent Binet’s Civilizations to imagine how our world would look like if the the Incas had colonized Europe in 16th century.

France’s presence in global media is at once remarkable and fortunate. The former because it is no small feat for a country that has a relatively small population to influence to such an extent via its writers the way in which we make sense of our world and to attract that much global attention. The latter because France is obsessed about how the rest of the world thinks about it.

Correspondent Power

For evidence of that, look no further than Courrier International. The weekly magazine and its popular website publish foreign press articles in French and derives much of its attraction from the “France seen from abroad” section that runs multiple pieces daily. While the rest of the media is struggling, Courrier International is holding up.

Similarly, the highbrow radio station France Culture has a weekly show where France-based correspondents discuss the country and its politics. Having coffee with a Paris politico you can be sure to be discuss the latest The Atlantic piece on Black Lives Matter in France or how POLITICO Europe judges President Emmanuel Macron’s pandemic response.

It is difficult to tell whether the French people’s interest in how their nation appears in the eyes of others is a symptom of a genuine will to engage with the world or the plain narcissism of a country that was once the center of the world and desperately tries to reassure itself that it still matters a bit.

In any case, France’s obsession with the opinions of others is ironic for at least one reason.

The French habit of permanently looking to see what others are saying about it gives foreign journalists a great deal of influence on the political life of the republic.

Not only do French newsmakers complain that their foreign colleagues have more access to Paris decision-makers than they do themselves, as well as fewer difficulties in getting interviews with President Macron. But foreign journalists also have an enormous agenda-setting power and even sometimes manage to steer the domestic debate.

When a Financial Times journalist based in Brussels, in an online opinion article later withdrawn, criticizes the French president’s policy on Islamism, French newspapers publish comment pieces and the 24-hour news stations organize debates on the article. Macron himself even reacts, publishing a letter in the FT the next day. Not bad—it’s hard to get more attention as a journalist!

Contrast this with Germany, where there is no equivalent of the Courrier International and where it’s hard to think of an article written by a foreign hack that has ever dominated the country’s media and politics for a week. Despite sometimes being subjected to attacks by the Anglosphere’s commentariat, there have been no counter op-eds by Chancellor Angela Merkel. And if Merkel has something to say to the world, she doesn’t need to give the FT a wide-ranging interview. It suffices for her to drop a half-sentence en passant in a beer tent to get on the globe’s front pages.

Gaullist Media Strategy

But if it has never been as fun to be a foreign correspondent in France, this is also because foreign media are instrumental to the president’s strategy to reboot France.

For one, there is the economy. Macron passed impressive reforms to boost France’s competitiveness at the beginning of his term in office. But to attract foreign investments, just as important as the reforms themselves was tackling the country’s bad reputation in the business world. To do this, Macron went on the offensive, giving interviews from Forbes to Bloomberg to send relay the “France is back” message. It worked remarkably well—France has overtaken Germany and the United Kingdom in terms of foreign investment.

But when it comes to foreign policy, the trick of using the global press to advance France’s interest doesn’t work nearly as well.

Like former President Charles de Gaulle during his reign, Macron is trying to get France to punch above its weight in world affairs and get the planet talking about its ideas through “courageous” statements spiced up by personal showmanship. At the time, the foreign press loved and widely reported on de Gaulle’s provocative and always entertaining press conferences that are still worth watching. Similarly, today, any interview with Macron is certain to include something juicy and generate clicks.

Still, for all the global attention de Gaulle got and Macron gets, their often interchangeable foreign policy visions—be it for a new European security architecture that includes Russia or building an alliance of non-aligned states able to tame the Cold War of the day—they suffered defeat after defeat. And of course, each time the global media recounts Macron’s failure to shape the world a bit more in France’s image, Paris complains about “French bashing” in the “Anglo-Saxon media.”

But then again, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you are out to get good press on a Monday you sign a subscription for bad press later in the week. And taken together, that might still be better than no press at all.

Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.

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