In 2004, the sociologist Eric Maurin's book, “The French Ghetto,” described the processes responsible for the social and geographical segregation that characterize French society.
Does French television repeat these processes? French television has been accused many times of segregating minorities, especially blacks, and it has not been corrected. Coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic is a good example.
On March 12, 35 million people, an unprecedented number, saw President Emmanuel Macron explain that he had decided to impose nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Almost immediately, the main television stations began to organize extensive discussions with doctors, researchers and public health specialists from the most reputable hospitals, schools or laboratories in France, Switzerland and the United States.Millions of citizens were left expectant when these experts transmitted information every day key that would allay our fears and possibly save life.
Although informative, these daily debates revealed a sad and painful truth: In today's ethnically diverse France, people who appear on television because they were considered qualified to explain global crises and suggest solutions to world problems were the same color. They were all white.
Coincidentally, in its annual report on the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, the French National Consultative Commission for Human Rights (CNDH), recommended:
The CNCDH calls on the Higher council for the audiovisual sector (CSA) to encourage representation of black men and women, including in advisory roles.
The Advisory Commission calls on the Superior Council of the audiovisual sector to encourage the representation of black men and women, also in advisory positions.
The recommendation only confirms what dozens of articles, essays and websites have been denouncing for several years: that all too often, French broadcasters fail to present minority personalities in positive leadership positions. This is significant because television has the power to create role models and empower young people of all backgrounds.
Attempts to correct longstanding indifference to minorities
As a former colonial power, France is aware that it needs to do better to promote and integrate minorities.
A 2013 study by Catherine Ghosn compared minority representation on American, Belgian, British, Canadian and French television. Ghosn pointed out that French policies in this area were much less effective and efficient than for all the other countries in the study.
In 2007, academic Catherine Humblot observed that although France has shown progress in portraying minorities, there is much to be done. For example, he explains that it was not until 2006 that a major French channel made the bold decision to have a black journalist, Harry Roselmack, a primetime news anchor, and only on an interim basis. By way of comparison, according to the Dutch journalist Stefan de Vries, also in 2006 the first black female newscaster on Dutch television retired.
'Seeing is believing'
In late 2019, Judy Woodruff, host of the American program PBS Newshour, introduced the young African-American biomedical engineer Elizabeth Wayne in these terms:
More than half the children in American schools are students of color, but their teachers are overwhelmingly white. (Tonight) we hear from an African-American biomedical engineer on why it is so important to see ourselves in front of the classroom.
More than half of the children in America's schools are students of color, but their teachers are overwhelmingly white. (Today) an African-American biomedical engineer tells us why it is so important to see ourselves in front of the classroom.
Dr. Elizabeth Wayne had a strong undergraduate experience when she attended a conference featuring a black speaker. Wayne explained:
I had never realized that I had never had someone who looked like me, teaching me. … I have always thought that seeing is believing…
I had never realized that there had never been anyone who was like me, teaching me. I have always believed that you have to see to believe …
Wayne's discovery was published and later analyzed in more than 700 articles. He says that some messages he received were from people who told him: “I have never seen a black woman in a lab coat described as a contributor to a great discovery.”
Perhaps the problem in France is of another nature? Does France have so few minority specialists who are doctors? Probably not. In 2007, the French daily Libération quoted United Nations official Habib Ouane as saying: “There are more Beninese doctors in Paris than in all of Benin!”
And journalist Majed Nehme wrote in April:
French health care system is increasingly benefiting from the massive influx of sub-Saharan African health professionals coming especially from Senegal, Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo and all French-speaking countries.
The French health system benefits more and more from the massive influx of health professionals from Sub-Saharan Africa, who come mainly from Senegal, Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo and all French-speaking countries.
There may also be a sinister reason why minorities, especially blacks, are included in specific stereotypical roles on French television. Of course, great minority role models are essential in shows, and minority youth look up to them, knowing that one day they may win an Oscar or be an Olympic legend. But what about promising young minority scientists who can help discover the next cure?
The media, especially television, have a significant role in how people see themselves. Television can help create positive minority role models for children, and help them reach beyond what they think is possible.
We all know the story of the “eagle that lived like a chicken”: after falling from its nest, an eagle arrives at a chicken farm where it is quickly adopted. He grows up thinking he is a chicken. One day she meets an old eagle who teaches her to fly and helps her develop her potential.
The continuous and systematic segregation policy of French television will not only prevent positive minority role models from emerging, but could exacerbate social tensions with the consolidation of old ghettos.