PARIS — The U.S. presidential elections might be over but Barack Obama-mania is still having an effect in France, spurring the national debate over diversity in media.
On Nov. 27, the country’s National Assembly passed an affirmative action amendment forcing pubcaster France Televisions to reflect “the diversity of society” on its four TV channels and radio network.
The measure was presented by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and is expected to pass the Senate vote.
It was prompted by a report from media regulator the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, some three years in the making, that found that the representation of minorities on TV had only improved from 14% to 15% in fiction and from 8% to 9% in non-fiction programs since 1997. Overall, pay TV giant Canal Plus was found to be the most diverse net.
The plight of minorities, mostly second- and third- generation French citizens of North African and Caribbean ancestry, was exposed when riots spread across Paris’ under-privileged suburbs in 2005.
Ironically, it’s widely believed the riots were sparked by comments from Sarkozy, then the interior minister. He referred to local delinquents as “worse than scum” and claimed he would clean up the neighborhoods with a high-pressure hose.
In the wake of the uprising, then-President Jacques Chirac urged broadcasting professionals to pay more attention to diversity — to little effect.
The only major change occurred in June 2006, when leading commercial net TF1 tapped the first black TV anchor, Harry Roselmack, to host the evening newscast for four months, filling in for iconic anchor Patrick Poivre d’Arvor. The newcomer garnered 44.8% of the audience showing that viewers were ready for change.
Yet Gallic TV remained predominantly vanilla and a blonde, Laurence Ferrari replaced Poivre d’Arvor in that post earlier this year.
So is this Sarkozy making amends or part of a wider movement in France?
“The French pride themselves for being born in the country of liberty, equality and fraternity,” says Patrick Lozes, prexy of the Representative Council of Black Assns. “So they felt embarrassed to see that it only took 40 years for America to go from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, while in France, diversity remains a touchy subject even 160 years post-slavery.”
The very notion of diversity clashes with the French ideals of a color-blind society, per Amirouche Laidi, president of Club Averroes, a 10-year-old society that gathers 300 industryites to fight social and racial segregation in the media. “But this mentality has precluded positive change for too long and it’s now time to take legal action.”
But critics, including Lozes, feel the diversity amendment is largely toothless because it doesn’t set quotas.
France Televisions must submit a bi-annual report to the government to quantify the representation of ethnic minorities hired below- and above-the-line on fiction and non-fiction programs. And without a quota, measuring the pubcaster’s success will be a subjective exercise.
Even France Televisions does not expect the diversity amendment to significantly change how it works.
“We will keep doing what we’ve been doing and file reports,” says an exec at the pubcaster. “There are no reasons for pointing the finger at us. We have 11,000 employees and more than 2,000 of them can be considered minorities.”
These include France 3 news anchor Audrey Pulvar; Daniel Picouly, host of literary mag “Cafe Litteraire” on France 2; and Sofiane Belmouden who has a recurring role on France 3’s soap “Plus belle la vie.”
But Arnaud Figaret, producer of skeins “Bloody Mountains” and “Chante” airing on France 3 and France 2, says attitudes are changing.
“I know that 10 years ago, networks executives would ask producers to avoid casting Arabs and blacks for lead parts in TV series or films,” Figaret says. “But today, things are different. I don’t ever face any objection when I cast non-whites if the story line calls for it; I’m rather encouraged to do so.”
Olivier Zegna-Rata, director of public relations for Canal Plus nevertheless believes “even if it doesn’t cause a drastic change, (the amendment) will put more pressure on France Televisions.”
“Every French network has been asked to promote diversity but now it’s official. It’s in the law,” emphasizes Zegna-Rata, adding that he expected the requirement to be extended to private nets.
Back in 2006, Roselmack was reticent to consider his hiring as a symbol of hope for minorities in Gaul.
Roselmack, who now hosts a weekly infotainment show, “Sept a huit” on TF1, told newspaper Le Monde that equality would only be achieved “the day people no longer make such a fuss when a black, North African or Asian colleague is hired.”