Diversity still a dilemma in France

TV dramas short on minorities, study finds

PARIS — Four years after French President Jacques Chirac asked Gallic broadcasters to better reflect the country’s racial diversity in their programming, a report has found that little has changed on the smallscreen when it comes to drama.

Chirac’s plea followed riots that broke out in deprived ethnic neighborhoods all over the country. In the aftermath, Gauls were forced to accept that its growing migrant community was pretty much invisible in society, and especially on TV.

Now the Commission Images de la Diversite has found that most of the racial diversity on Gallic webs comes not from homegrown fare but from Hollywood series that air in primetime, including “CSI,” “Without a Trace,” “Cold Case,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Criminal Minds.” However, the report found there had been improvements in feature films, cartoons and docus.

“American fiction airing in France truly reflects the diversity of society,” says commission director Alexandre Michelin.

A recent study by the Audiovisual Promotion Assn. showed that 57 of the 100 most-watched shows in 2008 were U.S. imports while French fiction nabbed just 13 spots.

 Minorities had few dramatic roles in homegrown content. Notable exceptions were French Algerian helmer Yamina Benguigui’s TV film “Aicha,” about a young French-born Algerian woman from the projects moving to Paris hoping for a better life, which attracted more than 5 millions viewers on pubcaster channel France 2,  and pic “Skirt Day” on Arte, starring Isabelle Adjani as a teacher dealing with unruly teens from various backgrounds.

French Algerian helmer-producer Djamel Bensalah says selling a project with a colored cast for TV is a tedious process.

Back in 2005, in the aftermath of the riots, Bensalah pitched a cop comedy series to France 2.

The channel turned it down because it didn’t fit its slots for diversity programming and didn’t fall into the police procedural mould because it was a comedy.

Bensalah says webs want fiction with a colored cast to be highly formatted (“Aicha,” basically a Cinderella tale, is a good example) and modestly-budgeted. His project was neither. “We need more black, Arab and Asian folks becoming directors, producers and holding top positions at TV networks. Only then will we see more diversity on TV,” he says.

 Last November, the country’s National Assembly passed an affirmative action amendment, backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party, ordering pubcaster France Televisions to reflect “the diversity of society” on its four TV channels and radio network.

But as it didn’t set any quotas, the amendment has not brought about major change.

Laurent Storch, programming director at leading commercial channel TF1 isn’t in favor of quotas that would force networks to hire actors based on the color of their skin.

He believes that implies there are not enough talented minority actors in France who can work on their own merit.

Storch points out that “raising a new generation of stars can take up to 10 years, it’s not an overnight process.”

But Michelin says a young generation of French thesps with North-African origins already has mainstream appeal.

“Actors like Jamel Debouzze, Roschdy Zem and Gad Elmaleh have become significant box office-draws in France,” he says. 

TV networks have been proactive in setting up courses dedicated to promoting diversity. TF1 has created the Fondation TF1 that selects eight young people from minority groups for a two-year training and mentoring program. 

Perrine Fontaine, France 2’s head of fiction coordination, argues that the major challenge is to encourage writers, producers and casting agents to envision actors of different ethnic backgrounds playing a part that is not written specifically for such a character.

Fontaine said the pubcaster has added a clause to its contracts for producers requiring them to support its effort to promote diversity.

But for many working at France Televisions, “the notion of diversity seems to be more of a concept than a reality,” says Jean Marc Souami, who presides over France Teles Diversites, an industry grassroots body founded in June by below- and above-the-line employees to fight for equal opportunities.

 Souami said France Teles Diversites is pushing for the pubcaster to voluntarily adopt the criteria of the Diversity Label, an affirmative action program created by French minister of immigration and integration, Eric Besson, in September to encourage companies to use objective criteria in hiring minorities and combat discrimination.

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