Television versions of French Islam
L'Islam imaginaire, la construction médiatique de l'islamophobie en France, 1975 -- 2005 (Imaginary Islam: the Media Construction of Islamophobia in France), Thomas Deltombe, Paris: La Découverte, 2005. pp382
In his L'Islam imaginaire, or imaginary Islam, independent journalist Thomas Deltombe examines the way in which the mainstream French media, chiefly television, has historically represented France's Muslim minority, most of the members of which hail from the former French colonial possessions of Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria.
During the three decades covered by Deltombe's book France has gone from being a country that welcomed immigration from the countries of the Arab Maghreb, if only temporarily and for work purposes, to being a stalwart supporter of "Fortress Europe" and a country discouraging immigration from its former Arab and African colonies. In addition, the international context has also seen radical change over the period considered, mainstream French attitudes to the country's Arab and Muslim minority, now permanently settled and in many cases holding French nationality, changing with international events bearing on the Western media representation of Muslims.
Within the period covered by Deltombe's book, these events have included the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Gulf War in 1991, the instability in Algeria in the 1990s, and the current round of conflict afflicting the Middle East, from the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the continuing instability in Iraq and Palestine, and many of them have been given near-saturation coverage on Western, including French, television.
Deltombe's procedure in researching his book has been to watch vast quantities of such television, rooting through the archives of the L'Inathèque de France, the official depository, in order to view, "as systematically as possible", the main evening news broadcasts of the main French channels from 1975 to 2004 in search of items on France's Arab and Muslim population. He has also gone through the many talk shows and magazine programmes that make up standard viewing on both the public and private-sector French channels in search of relevant reports and discussion, and he has read through 30 years' worth of newspapers and magazines, mostly of the weekly news magazine type in which the French media specialises.
The results indicate a three-part division, Deltombe detecting three periods in the media representation of French Arabs and Muslims. These periods run from the middle of the 1970s to the end of the 1980s, from the beginning to the end of the 1990s, and from 2001 onwards, and while each period has its own particular content and emphases, each also indicates a continuing distrust of France's Arab and Muslim population on the part of elements of the wider society, if for changing reasons, that might be dubbed "islamophobic".
During Deltombe's first period in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, French media representation of Muslims was conditioned by two main events, one external and one internal, both of which brought Islam from being "a peripheral subject of secondary and temporary interest" for television to being one that was seen as being "at the heart of French society".
The first of these events, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, presented French viewers with "a bearded figure wearing a black turban... who used to live in the suburbs of Paris" and who became a staple of French mealtime viewing for weeks on end in 1979 "surrounded by crowds of veiled women shouting out 'Khomeini, Khomeini,' in the streets of Tehran." The effect of this spectacle, according to Deltombe the first time that a revolution had been covered live on television, seems to have been to link Islam in viewers' minds with "fanaticism" and to make it seem "intrinsically hostile to Western modernity," a theme that the author finds debated in different contexts in the French media over the years to come.
The second event determining French media representations of Muslims in the 1970s and 80s was the "problem of immigration" in France itself. This, Deltombe thinks, only began to be seriously discussed at the end of the 1970s, following the end of the country's policy of work-related immigration in 1974, the beginnings of chronic economic problems and the linking of immigration with unemployment. Repatriation of families originally from the Maghreb was flagged at the time as a possible cure for what was becoming a chronic problem of French unemployment, the then prime minister, Jacques Chirac, explaining on the television channel TF1 in 1976 that "a country in which there are 900,000 unemployed but two million immigrants is not a country in which the problem of unemployment is insoluble," especially if, as he implied, the immigrants were "sent back" to their countries of origin.
While it was soon realised that repatriation of this sort could not be the answer, France's media insisted that there was still a problem and instead began to discuss the "integration" of the country's Arab and Muslim population into the wider society. Television, in particular, began to look around for indicators of French Muslim feeling, and it latched onto a series of spokesmen for what was beginning to be dubbed the country's "Muslim community." By the beginning of the 1980s, and following the victory of the socialist François Mitterand in the French presidential elections, media attention had begun to turn away from the problem of the integration of the older generation of immigrants into French society and towards that of the second and third generations, the sons and daughters of the originals.
These young people, dubbed "beurs" in French slang and born and educated in France, were, the media believed, "torn between two cultures," and there were questions about whether they were "really French," or whether their loyalties lay elsewhere, usually in the countries of the Arab Maghreb. Indeed, issues of where the "loyalty" of France's Muslim population really lay, of the compatibility of their views with the wider French culture, and of the alleged connections between members of this population and sometimes violent events abroad, became the leitmotifs of media representation of French Muslims in the second and third periods Deltombe describes and thus well into the last decade and beyond.
From the 1990s, for example, Deltombe picks out themes of the integration of the Muslim minority population into wider French society and of the alleged connections between members of that population and the violence in Algeria for special attention, emphasising how in both cases it was the "loyalty," or belonging, of France's Muslims that, for the media, was most at stake.
There were fears that the instability in Algeria, pitting government forces against radical Islamist groups and rapidly degenerating into a "dirty war", would "spill over" into France, particularly following a series of bomb attacks on the Paris metro in the mid 1990s. And there was concern, too, that radical clerics, preaching in unregulated mosques or spreading their ideas in France from abroad through the use of new technologies, would gain influence over young Arab and Muslim men disproportionately affected by discrimination, poor educational achievement and unemployment, and often living in areas suffering from high levels of poverty in the suburbs of the major French cities (the so-called banlieues ).
While Deltombe's view seems to be that some of these concerns at least might have been justified, he has sharp words about the conduct of the French media in reporting them. Among the practices the author notes from this period are the use of manipulated testimonies, such that people giving interviews to television journalists were later unable to recognise what they had said as a result of the way the material had been framed, the headlining on national news of petty acts of criminality that would ordinarily scarcely make the local newspapers, thereby demonising an entire population, and the manipulation of the news by ambitious politicians eager to gain votes from a French public told that Islam was "a threat" and that Muslims constituted an "inassimilable" population.
As a result, the book contains some depressing stories, taken from the last decade or so, of television programmes purporting to be "undercover accounts" of Islamist militant groups operating in "hidden mosques" in France with the aim of "manipulating" and "indoctrinating" young French Muslims, but containing information that was either inflated or simply false.
It usefully analyses a notorious story from 2004 of a young French women, allegedly brutalised by a group of youths of North African origin on a Paris train, that was carried on France's evening television news bulletins until it was realised that the woman concerned had invented the story in the hope of getting on television: when asked why she had claimed to be attacked by such men she replied, "because it is always they who are accused on television."
And it contains an extended account of the extraordinary activities of Charles Pasqua, French minister of the interior in the 1990s, whose electoral appeal seems to have relied upon his being perceived as being tough on French citizens of Muslim religion and upon his Machiavellian control of television.
Finally, on reaching the end of this lengthy and enormously detailed account of how Arabs and Muslims have been represented in the French media over the past 30 years one has the impression that while there has been evidence of low-level "islamophobia" in French society, as reflected in the media, this has only become really apparent at times of notable internal or external stress. Such stress has typically been felt in the wake of events abroad presented as bearing on Islam, or of domestic events used for electoral advantage or as lending themselves to dramatic media coverage, such as the possibility in 1994--1995 that violence in Algeria could spread to France, or the story of the young women who in 2004 invented an attack by youths of Arab origin in order to appear on television.
Much of the material that Deltombe reports is also of great comparative interest, notably in the light of the London bombings last July and the coverage given to these in the British media, which has tended to focus on issues of minority integration, indoctrination and threat in ways similar to this book's material from France.
By David Tresilian