France asks: why aren't there more women like Audrey?

President Chirac blames violent unrest on a lack of ethnic minority representation in the media
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The Independent Online

Like hundreds of young French journalists, and would-be journalists, Fatima Sadouki is looking for a job. Since the spring, she has written dozens of applications to newspapers and radio stations for full-time posts or temporary "piges" or "strings".

She has obtained a few offers of short-term work but nothing permanent. "Sincerely, I'm not prepared to say it's because of my name and my background," said Fatima, 27, whose parents are Algerian.

"I know dozens of other young journalists who are looking for work. If anything, the attitude at the newspaper or radio offices where I have worked is more often, 'great, you're from an Arab background. We need more people like you.' But that's a trap too. I don't want to be some kind of standard-bearer or token. France adores standard-bearers. They're usually an alibi for failing to solve the real problems. I want to be just accepted for what I am. A young, French journalist who wants to prove herself."

French people, of the right and the left, of good faith and bad faith, have been thrashing around looking for explanations, or excuses, for the 20 days of violent unrest in the country's deprived "banlieues" or suburbs. Unemployment? Large, polygamous African families? Radical Islam? Thirty years of hiding behind the ideal of a single, secular, colour-blind Republic and ignoring the unspoken discrimination against people - including many French citizens - of Arab or African backgrounds?

In his rambling, belated 13-minute speech to the nation last week, President Jacques Chirac offered another possible explanation. He singled out the failure of the French media, especially television, to hold up a mirror to the variety of races that now make up the French nation.

For foreign visitors or residents used to the recently acquired ethnic mixture on British or American TV, French screens are surprisingly monochromatic. Equally, French newspapers, both national and regional, have few reporters with Arab or African-sounding names.

Audrey Pulvar, a young black woman from Martinique, now reads the early-evening news on the France 3 public TV channel. There are some ethnically Arab or black reporters or presenters on cable channels. The mainstream news and current affairs programmes - and most French TV soaps and detective shows - are the almost exclusive preserve of white faces.

"It is also true of the advertising," said Fatima Sadouki. "On the rare occasions that I see a brown or a black face on a TV ad or on a poster, I am almost shocked myself. Television is important. Symbolism is important. For the young people in the suburbs, who feel severed from French society, it would make a big difference if they saw more people like themselves on TV."

In truth, this is a problem that has been recognised by both newspapers and mainstream television channels for several years. In this, and other parts of his speech, President Chirac seemed to be waking up from 10 years as a Rip Van Winkle president.

The French public TV channels, France 2 and France 3, already have a "Positive Action Integration Plan" to try to recruit more reporters and presenters from ethnic minorities. Other French stations are also offering sponsorship to would-be young journalists of Arab and African backgrounds to help them through costly journalism courses.

According to the heads of these schools, the poor education offered in most deprived suburbs makes it difficult to find sufficient young people from immigrant backgrounds with the language skills needed to thrive in journalism.

Eric Maitrot, director of studies at the highly respected Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme at Lille, said that he would like to have more ethnic variety but admits only two or three students each year (out of 50) who are not ethnically French. "The problem is that the education system of the republic has narrowed down the potential candidates long before they come to us," he said.

Radio France is now sponsoring a tutorial scheme to try to help aspiring journalists from African or Arab backgrounds before they take the entrance tests for Lille and other journalism schools. Fatima Sadouki welcomes such initiatives, even if they will take a long time to have much impact.

"The problem will be to avoid tokenism, the employment of one conforming, conscience-saving, brown or black face," she said. "In Britain now, I have the impression that it is becoming accepted that reporters and presenters can be from all kinds of races, bringing their own personalities and approaches. That's what we must aim at in France."