How is French media changing the conversation about minorities and working-class neighbourhoods?

By Angelo Boccato

The murder of 17-year-old Nahel M. at the hands of the French police in Nanterre on June 27 shocked the country and led to protests, some of them violent.

Paris Saint Germain star and France national football team captain Kylian Mbappé called for calm and an end to violent protests from his Twitter profile, highlighting that while he did not endorse popular anger in this form, “With many of us coming from working-class neighbourhoods, these feelings of pain and sadness, we also share them”. He was referring to this own experience, as he was born in Bondy to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother. Mbappé is a symbol of success, but this has never shielded him from racist abuse.

In addition to racism and  social class elements, there is also the element of assimilation, when it comes to the French multicultural model.  The   where the one and only identity is the French one.

When South African comedian Trevor Noah jokingly said that Africa had won the World Cup in 2018 during The Daily Show, the French Ambassador to the US Gérard Araud addressed a critical letter to the host. Noah was referring to the French national team’s victory, noting that a large number of players were of African descent.   Noah responded to the ambassador’s letter, which said France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin and by calling them African, ‘it seems you are denying their Frenchness,’  by pointing out that the African and French identities of the players could exist together in a public way.

Another crucial element is the rise of the far-right,  which has gained support with strong leading figures like Marine Le Pen and Eric Zémmour. The pact rèpublicain (the consensus among different political forces in France to block the far-right from reaching power, despite political differences, like a cordon sanitaire) is now in shambles,  partly due to the fact that Emmanuel Macron has pursued unpopular and neoliberal policies.

The shift to the right is not only affecting the political spectrum but also the French mediasphere, which is mainly dominated by conservative media. T the appointment of far-right Geoffroy Lejeune as the new editor of the Journal De Dimanche this June was a shock to  the newspaper’s history and staff.

In general, when it comes to media narratives, a significant part of the problem is that working-class neighbourhoods are narrated in French mainstream media mainly through an emergency lens. However, there are exceptions like the Bondy Blog.

Narrating working-class neighbourhoods since 2005

On Thursday October 27, 2005, Zyed Benna, Bouna Traoré, and Muhittin Altun were returning to their neighbourhood of Clichy-sur-Bois in order to be home for Iftar after playing football on a pitch in Livry-Gargan, another suburb of Paris.

A man who saw them called the police, thinking  they  were thieves. When police officers arrived,  Zyed, Bouna, and Muittin ran  away, scaling the enclosure of a power plant without realising the danger.  17 year old Zyed and 15 year old Bouna were killed instantly, while Muittin managed to call for help while being badly burned.

That night, Clichy-sur-Bois experienced its first night of protests  and the then Minister of Interior and future French President Nicolas Sarkozy blasted the youths as “racaille” which would translate as the derogatory and pejorative terms “rabble” or “riff-raff” in English, adding fuel to the social tensions and  inequality in French society.

That same year, the Bondy Blog was launched and since then its newsroom, composed  of people  from working-class neighbourhoods, has narrated what happens in those neighbourhoods beyond the emergencies and protests.

“When French and Swiss journalists came to Bondy to cover the protests, this generated a form of emulation and in that context, Le Bondy Blog was born. It has been a media led by people from working-class neighbourhoods since, so there is a Parisian outlook, but an outlook from those who have been raised in these neighbourhoods” Héléna Berkaoui, editor in chief at Le Bondy Blog tells MDI.

“It is also an associative media, so anyone can come to Bondy with ideas. People living in working-class neighbourhoods, students, and young people, especially non-white young people can present their ideas and this is a very different approach from mainstream newsrooms” continues Berkaoui.

Over the years, as Berkaoui explains Le Bondy Blog has developed and diversified, providing journalism training, media education, and working with schools.  Former members of the newsroom have gone to work with national media.

“What happened in Nanterre has not surprised us, as violent policing which leads to deaths of youths in working-class neighbourhoods is not the exception, but something that happens too often. In this case, we started to do what we are used to doing, by giving voice to those who live here, the young people who take the streets, the elected local officials, everyone. We have also worked on several reportages on the ground, and we could see that the way in which national media reported on this front has been quite deplorable.”

On this front, Berkaoui points out that things are worse than they were in 2005, as there was not the constant media cycle that is present today.  There is also a bigger space for right-wing and far-right media compared to the past, with the influence of conservative businessman and media owner Vincent Bolloré rising in the French mediasphere, and  media like Valeurs Actuelles, CNEWS and Europe1.   There is also a  with ;large  numbers of police and gendarmerie among its supporters.

However, Berkaoui also highlights good practices that can  change the narrative.

“I think that in human resources departments, in recruitment policies, there should be a much greater concern to recruit people who are not white, people who come from working-class neighbourhoods.” Berkaoui says   that also applies to a newsrooms. “It is not enough to recruit, it is also necessary that, after recruitment, people do not remain at the bottom of the ladder career-wise.

“So, there must be audits in the newsrooms to see how these questions are dealt with, because racism is in  society and it does not stop at the doors of the French newsrooms. We must also see what is the situation inside newsrooms.”

There is still a long way to go for French media to change the conversation about minorities and working-class neighbourhoods, but the work of Le Bondy Blog and others  outside the mainstream is an encouraging sign.