There are many, many good things about living in France. I regret to say, the French press is not one of them.
From September onwards every year you can lay money on what subjects will be on the front pages of the news magazines in the coming weeks. Every year it is the same: wine, property prices, the Masons (as in funny handshakes and aprons, not trowels and mortar). Wine and property prices, OK, but what can there be to say that is new about Masonic brotherhoods that was not reported the year before, or the year before that? Unfortunately I cannot answer that because I gave up reading the articles several years ago. It is lazy journalism; boring and repetitive.
Equally irritating is the French media's habit of attacking the foreign, usually British, press. Instead of putting their own house in order and addressing pretty basic problems, such as why nobody reads them, French newspapers and magazines prefer to snipe at “les medias Anglo-Saxons”. It is not grown-up, properly thought out or even cleverly targeted against those tabloid publications that might be considered fair game even in Britain. It is more often than not a wild lashing out at the British press in general – ignoring that the British press includes among others the Financial Times and the Economist as well as The Sun and The Daily Mirror (both of which sell many times more copies every day than France's three main daily papers put together).
The most recent salvos came as the French media went into bi-polar spasms of self-doubt and self-congratulation over its coverage of the divorce of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cécilia. Of course it tiptoed around the story hiding, as usual, behind the country’s strict privacy laws. (Surely it could have challenged them in this case; Mr Sarkozy is hardly publicity shy?). French newspapers, on the whole timid, over-deferential and prone to self-censorship, printed the story but chickened out on hard statements taking refuge in “rumours” or “speculation”. Last Thursday, for example, the French daily Le Figaro spoke of continuing rumours of a “possible” divorce, while The Daily Telegraph declared confidently that Mrs Sarkozy had asked for a divorce. Later that day a presidential statement announced a divorce had been finalised, revealing the Telegraph, which has one full-time correspondent in Paris, to have been closer to the truth than the native Le Figaro with an entire newsroom of reporters.
British press coverage was criticised as inelegant and prurient. An extraordinary editorial in the current issue of Le Point, a respected news magazine, praised the discretion of the French media: “Voila, a French exception for which we have every reason to be proud when in other countries, notably Anglo-Saxon, the newspapers grub around in the gutters while outrageously hoodwinking their readers", it read. (For the pedants, after taking advice from French friends I have used "grub" for the French verb "se ventrouillent" used in the article but that I could not find in any French dictionary I own.) I am not sure even the most virulent critic of the British press would go as far as to suggest its journalists are, en masse, deliberately tricking and misinforming readers on a daily basis.
Attacks on the British press in the French media? True, it is hardly man bites dog. Newspaper references to Britain are frequently prefaced with the phrase 'Perfidious Albion’, like some involuntary editorial tic. It is true that British tabloids can do Frog-bashing as an Olympic sport, but here snide or sarky Anglophobe comments appear not in the Gallic equivalent of a British red-top because there is no equivalent, but in supposedly serious, respected publications.
The same serious, respected publications, by the way, that decided the French public did not need to know about their former president François Mitterrand's secret double life – ie. mistress and daughter – paid for at the taxpayers' expense. That was his ‘vie privée’ too. Journalists who, it was feared, might break the omertà were bugged and bullied by the secret services. Nothing was written about that either. Paris Match eventually published the first pictures of the president's daughter Mazarine in 1994 when she was nearly 20 years old, but did so only after asking Mitterrand for permission.
I am not especially interested in the minutiae of the private lives of politicians and presidents but I would rather have a press that is but whose excesses are tempered by some of the finest investigative reporting in the world, than a press that neither intrudes nor investigates. As Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s celebrated philosopher-in-chief and a fierce defender of the sanctity of 'la vie privée' nevertheless pointed out in a television debate tonight; it took three days for reports of the torture and abuse of prisoners as the Abu Ghraib Iraqi jail by American military personnel to go around the world. It took 40 years for French torture and abuse in Algeria to be reported in France. Touché.