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“Now that’s your political heroism”: the strange case of Macron and the deferential media

The French president’s media strategy keeps changing. It’s puzzling for journalists and experts alike, and may come back to harm him.

Picture this: A BBC journalist interviews Theresa May as they stroll down the corridors of No 10. They walk by her office, stop at her desk, and the journalist asks friendly questions like: “It’s not a legend, you sleep very little?” or “Now that’s your political heroism coming back”. If you think that would be deferential at best, you’re not alone: when it happened in France over the Christmas break, French viewers thought so too.

The interview, aired on 17 December 2017, showed the French president wandering (walking… “En Marche”… get it?) in the Elysée Palace, followed by TV journalist Laurent Delahousse. Questions included: “We have discovered a President Macron who runs. Have you run a lot in the past seven months?” and “You have created a new leadership, and at the same time forged the will for a new ecologist capitalism”.

It was a weird and unprecedented political interview, which commentators – including other journalists – called “French deferential journalism at its worst” and mocked for its “boot-licker” tone. “It was more to compliments than actual questions that Macron had to answer” was left-wing newspaper Liberation’s take on it; “Journalism on military attention,” was public radio France Culture’s take. An MP for La France Insoumise, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon’s party, dubbed it “advertisement-reporting”; the far-right National Front called it a “shame”. Macron’s party, La Republique en Marche, seemed to like it, though: it used part of the interview in a promoted ad.

Although unique in terms of its audience (the interview was watched by 5 million people) and its medium (a state-owned channel), the France 2 show seemed to set a trend. After that, the “deferential” interviews continued. On 20 December, Macron answered a call live on TV in the Christmas special show and the full audience sang “Happy Birthday” to him. On 24 December, online media Konbini filmed Macron on selfie mode, answering questions such as “What was your biggest moment in 2017” (I don’t know, probably some time in early May?) or “What’s your resolution for 2018?” Once again, critics complained about the overly friendly attitude of the journalist (she was then revealed to be the site’s head of communications and to have worked in the past for François Hollande’s communications team). When Macron appeared on the cover of gossip magazine VSD, the feature’s focus was his “private” life and his dog, Nemo.

Since he rose to power last May, Macron’s media strategy has blurred the lines traditionally drawn between political journalism and business PR. These interviews, new in format and in (lack of) content, mark a stark contrast with his predecessors. Is this the new normal for the media under Macron?

Obsessing over the president is a very French thing, and journalists don’t escape it. “There is a French tradition of relative deference toward the head of state: the president isn’t seen as a normal politician”, Arnaud Mercier, a professor of political communication at Paris II Assas University, told the New Statesman. This is explained by the “very strong legitimacy” coming from the universal suffrage, he says, and makes journalists feel like they cannot criticise him too much.

Yet France 2’s interview, on a publicly owned channel, remains shocking: “It was very complaisant, because it allowed for something promotional, like the owner’s tour of the Elysée.” Thierry Vedel, an expert in political communication and researcher at Sciences Po, agrees: “The tone was conversational, not questioning.”

It was revealed that the filming of the France 2 interview was complicated by rescheduled hours and a lack of details provided by the Elysée, which, for Mercier, is also a serious matter: “That is not how you prepare for an interview [as a media]. It shows that they controlled nothing.” Such is the risk of accepting a format free from the usual TV codes. “Anything can happen”, says Vedel, who notes that, as they walked, it was Macron, not the journalist, who led the way. “The journalist was in a subaltern position,” he declares.

Mercier links the recent interviews to broader French history and especially to the times of the Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (ORTF), the state-owned media organisation which held a monopoly from 1964 to 1974. Already with the ORTF, “public TV channels were not there to bother the president”, he says. At the time, journalists were “almost civil servants”, agrees Vedel. With the end of the ORTF came “a time of emancipation”, and now, “competition puts journalists back in a status of reverence to get exclusives”.

From the beginning, Macron did not trust journalists. “He considers that François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy burnt their wings with the media,” Mercier says. Macron’s “original trauma” of seeing his old boss Hollande being crucified by the press led to his tendency to put distance between the media and himself. Macron himself recently tweeted: “Neither confidence nor connivance: the proximity we were used to weren’t good neither for political powers nor for the practice of journalism.”

So after his election, he avoided journalists, following the mantra of the “rarified speech”, a strategy first used by François Mitterrand (who was president from 1981 to 1995). He has since alternated between periods of silence and others when he multiplies media interventions. “There has been a withdrawal, and it created a strong tension with journalists”, explains Pierre-Emmanuel Guigo, the author of an essay on the media and politics, “PR and politics: Dangerous liaisons”. If an interview with the president becomes the holy grail, the journalist who grabs it will be cautious with questions – or they may never be granted another one again.

The presidency kicked off with a very business-like media strategy, but the recent interviews show a change in direction. “Macron’s PR is like Macron’s ideology: we don’t really know what it is yet,” Vedel says. “He goes from rarity and extreme simplicity to saturation”. Vedel takes the example of Macron’s presidential photo: very simple at the top, loaded with symbols at the bottom: “With Macron, it’s always dialectic”.

Macron is often compared to Tony Blair, but Blair had really developed a media strategy. “Blair had worked scientifically, [he] sociologically studied his audience," Vedel says. “He used PR like a political tool and was convinced that he could change people’s minds if his arguments were strong enough.” Macron, on the other hand, rose to power very quickly and without the need of such a strategy.

By refusing to talk and then giving deferential interviews, “he antagonised the media twice”, says Mercier. Now French journalists are left with whatever the mood of the day at the Elysée is.

At his New Year’s address to the press, Macron told journalists what they wanted to hear: he called for a UN envoy for the protection of journalists and, at home, for a law on “fake news”. He also hoped for a “sane distance” between media and politics and wished to “go back to basics, one of which is respect”. Another one, surely, is to treat the media as the counter power it is, and not as the subordinate receptacle of one’s “rarified” speech.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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In independent Kosovo, families still search for their missing children

A decade after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence, questions remain unanswered. 

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1999, Albion Kumnova was rounded up with five other men by policemen and put in the back of a van. From the four policemen kicking in the door to the vehicle speeding away, everything happened so quickly that Albion didn’t have time to put his shoes on.

Albion’s portrait sits above the television in his parents’ sitting room in Gjakova, Kosovo. He has thick, dark hair and a handsome face. Whenever she gets a message or phonecall, his mother’s phone lights up with a picture of him on holiday by the sea in Montenegro. Nesrete Kumanova has waged an intense war to find out what happened to her son, who was 21 when he was disappeared.

This weekend marks 10 years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A decade before that, brutal fighting erupted between Serbs and Albanians. The subsequent war claimed thousands of lives and further entrenched the split between the two ethnic groups. Between 1998 and 2000, 13,535 people were killed or went missing.

Gjakova was particularly badly affected by fighting. Now, Albanian flags are displayed prominently throughout the town, and there’s a strong anti-Serb sentiment. As Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s, Serbia was determined that the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo should remain just that - a province, not a country. From late February 1998, Serbs and Albanians were at war for control over the country, which today has a population of just 1.8 million, and is a mixture of Albanians and Serbs, although the latter in the minority.  

“Every family has at least one person who went missing,” Nesrete says. Some families have as many as 10 missing. They feel unable to mourn them as dead, just in case something miraculous happens.

In 2002, after the war had ended, Nesrete got together with other parents to lobby for information about what happened to their loved ones. They staged hunger strikes, one lasting as long as 16 days, and protested in Gjakova and Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The experience of hunger was overwhelming. “Being sad and when you have your pain with you, it’s very hard to handle it. But it’s the only choice I had,” says Nesrete. Their action had some impact, as some captives held in Niš, Serbia, were liberated. But her son was not in that group. She founded an organisation, Mothers’ Appeal, which is still going today. How many captives there were, and what has happened to them, remains unclear and a source of intense pain. 

“Without doing what we’ve done, nothing would move,” she says. “We thought we should be more active. Unfortunately, dead bodies are brought back to Kosovo – or their remains at least – and there are 1,600 others still missing from Gjakova.” 

Pristina city centre is decorated with banners and swags in preparation for the 10 year anniversary of independence. In Nesrete’s home, though, there’s nothing to celebrate.

“The independence of Kosovo has no meaning to families missing their loved ones,” she says. “The most important part of our life is still missing.”

The Kosovo government set up a commission for missing persons and gives monthly pensions to families of missing people. However, Nesrete criticises the government for inactivity and giving her false hope. “Everyone says: ‘this is going to happen’ but the result is almost nil. Every time there’s a knock on our doors, there’s another lie. I still don’t know what happened to my son.”

Many Serbs also lost family members in the fighting, but dialogue is impossible for Albanians, says Nesrete. “Serbs are all the same, they have always been like that,” she says. “Almost all of them are criminals. We have no faith in them. Even in the past in our grandparents’ time, they hung out together. They would keep an axe under their pillow and think about how to murder an Albanian. When they are born, they’re born criminals.”

The interpreter who has been sitting on a sofa adjacent to hers pauses, and exhales. “I’m sorry for translating this, but this is exactly what she said.”

To puncture partisan sentiment and show the catastrophe on both sides, Bekim Blakaj, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a long-established human rights organisation, has been helping to compile a book of every single missing or murdered person across Kosovo from 1998-2000. The project, undertaken by the centre, has been gruelling but necessary. “Our aim is to have a narrative for each and every person and a factual history. It is to stop the manipulation of numbers of victims and denial,” he says. “Albanians use some incredible numbers, that Serbian forces have killed more than 20,000 Albanians, which is not entirely true.”

The NGO goes into schools to do workshops, and Bekim says the children routinely cannot believe that Serbs were killed by Albanian fighters. Ten years after independence, Serb and Albanian children who were born after the war are still often picking up biased narratives from friends and relatives.

Each person listed in HLC's book has an average of eight sources to verify what happened. The work has been emotional and exhausting and several researchers were so burned out that they had to resign.

“It’s very hard because you have to be clear to the families that you can’t help them and you are just documenting what happened,” says Bekim. “But despite that they keep phoning you and you feel very bad when you can’t really do anything, especially when it comes to the missing persons. That’s the worst. But they keep calling you back.” Bringing victims together has helped some of them soften slightly. "At first they looked at each other as though they were enemies," says Bekim. "But then they realised that both sides were suffering and that they were victims with the same needs. Nowadays the situation is different – they are trying to cooperate."

Likewise, Nesrete has compiled a book with Mothers’ Appeal – it’s a list of people in Gjakova who went missing, with exactly what happened to them. It won’t bring Albion back, or give a gravestone or a funeral or any real closure, but it’s something. It’s all she may ever have.