From Paris, with edge: French 'CNN' beams new view
In 2003, France took an unforgettable beating.
As the leader of global opposition to the Iraq war, it became the late-night comedian's punching bag. Its citizens suffered the revival of a term popularized by "The Simpsons" – "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." In a pointed snub, the US Congress cafeterias dubbed their crisp, oily potato strips "freedom fries."
Stung by such Anglo-Saxon indignities, President Jacques Chirac ordered up a "French CNN." The 24-hour satellite news service debuts Wednesday.
But France 24 is not merely a Francophone rendition of round-the-clock news. Instead, it aims to plunge viewers into regions and perspectives that get little air time elsewhere. And despite its linguistic concession to broadcast in English as well, the network intends to be every bit as proud, quarrelsome, and contrarian as the French believe themselves to be.
"The real French 'touch' will be lots of debate and analysis of debate," says Caroline de Camaret, the European affairs editor. "If there is one thing the French value above all, it's putting all views up for debate and understanding why people take certain views."
France 24 will go out Wednesday via Internet streaming, then, a day later, by satellite, reaching Europe, Africa, the Middle East, New York, and Washington. Initially available in French and English, the station expects to add an Arabic-language channel early next year and eventually a fourth one in Spanish.
Although France 24 hits the ground running, with a $104 million start-up budget guaranteed by the government, it is entering an already crowded field.
There are the far richer pioneers like CNN International, the BBC, and the Arabic network Al Jazeera, which last month launched an English channel. But stations subsidized in part, or completely, by the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Morocco, China, and Germany, among others, have also launched international news operations.
The mission of France 24, according to the charter which its staffers must sign, is to spread French values, culture, and "art de vivre" throughout the world, as well as a sense of "debate, confrontation, and contradiction." It is also banking on the novelty of its "French regard" on the news, including deeper coverage of Europe, Africa, and the Arab world than its competitors provide.
"What people tend to get now are images and news that are almost too rapid," says Agnès Levallois, the editor of the station's Arabic service and Middle East coverage. "They are often caricatures and often very much the same from station to station."
That is especially true in the coverage of Iraq and the Arab world in general, where, she says, a degree of jingoism and self- censorship taints the otherwise professional journalism on other satellite stations.
"There are images you just won't see on CNN because Americans don't want to see certain images on their television screens, and that's understandable," says Ms. Levallois. "But we are in Paris and we have real freedom of expression to raise different questions. And we have diplomatic liberty. We don't have the same constraints as the Anglo-Saxon stations and CNN which are linked to American forces in the region."
France 24 has only a handful of foreign correspondents, compared with the dozens of bureaus operated by competitors like the BBC. It will rely on journalists in the field who work for more established French news organizations and especially its new managing partners, the private TF1 TV channel, and public French media outlets.
But much of its content will be produced in the sprawling newsroom on the western edge of Paris where the 170 journalists of France 24, most of them multilingual, have set up shop among state-of-the-art equipment. The average age of the staff is 33. Little signs of their insouciance are evident everywhere: A picture of Marilyn Monroe identifies the women's bathrooms and one of Albert Einstein marks the men's.
The European Union summit in mid-December, which is expected to focus on Turkey and its faltering bid for EU membership, will be a distinctive testing ground for the notion of a French look on events.
Ms. De Camaret, for example, says she wants to get beyond the rather sneering and often negative coverage of the EU found on the Anglo-Saxon media. Regarding Turkey, she adds, France 24 will examine the mood in specific European countries as well as Turkey's own internal conflicts.
"I think it's important to not only give the CNN point of view – that Turkey should be in Europe because it has a strong Army and it's a bridge between East and West – but also something more nuanced," says De Camaret. "I want to have debate and analysis on why there is this reversal of opinion in European countries."
In some ways, France 24 harkens back to the competitive philosophy of the cold war when the US and the Soviet Union, among others, created Radio Free Europe and Radio Moscow to promote their own ideological values and culture.
The French language itself is a beloved part of that culture. But the journalists at the station see no irony in expressing a French view on the world in languages other than French.
"The language is not the point," says De Camaret. "The point is the message."