The French aren’t callous, just different

The British press reporting that the story of the Alps massacre was “buried” by French media only acts to reinforce the view of there being a chasm between Britain and France.

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The British press reporting that the story of the Alps massacre was “buried” by French media only acts to reinforce the view of there being a chasm between Britain and France.

Today’s Daily Mail headline offers a hint of the fairly widespread British indignation at the perceived disconnect between our two nations: “Story of the brutal murders of British family driving in the Alps buried by the French press.”

Having suggested that the French media are somehow trying to “bury” the story, the article goes on to infer widespread callousness in the face of mass murder: “The shocking Alps massacre was dismissed as nothing more than a trivial news item by the French media.”

The evidence offered for this is two-fold: (i) in the aftermath of the crime, no French papers chose to lead with the story but “relegated” it to the later pages and (ii) that the murders have been widely described as a fait divers, which the Mail obligingly translates as “a trivial news item”. Later there is actually a suggestion that one reason for the “relegation” might be that the murder victims were foreigners. But no. It goes on to observe: “Even when one of the victims was on Friday named as French local Sylvain Mollier, a father of three, only local papers and national tabloid, Aujord’hui put the story on the front page.”

So it is that in the space of a few lines we get the heady whiff of French dishonesty, heartlessness, and xenophobia. One would be forgiven for assuming that this is just the Daily Mail succumbing to the delights of French-bashing but today’s Guardian carries an almost identical headline: “How French press buried the story”.

It would be useful to start by explaining the term, fait divers. It does not actually mean “trivial news story” but refers to the section of a newspaper traditionally devoted to anything that cannot be put into the other sections that comprise French newspapers: National, International, Politics, Economics, Sport. In Fait Divers, you will find mostly “tragic” news stories such as crime, accidents and robberies. More than French callousness, the Fait Divers section points to France’s entrenched preference for ideas over reality and its slowness to modify its traditions.

British coverage of the story has once again shown the French how deeply they are disliked and misunderstood. Surely no one seriously believes that French people are any less shocked and appalled by this crime than their British neighbours? France may have much to learn from Britain when it comes to investigative reporting and media independence, but let’s not use this as an excuse for yet another moral campaign.

Lucy Wadham is the author of “The Secret Life of France”

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