How British and French press see politicians differently

By Agnes Poirier
BBC Radio 4's Home Thoughts From Abroad

Image caption,
Politicians are often judged by different rules on different sides of the channel

In a new series for BBC Radio 4 looking at cultural differences in politics and public life in France, Germany and Sweden, three UK-based correspondents draw lessons on what we could learn from each other. The first programme examines the Anglo-French divide.

Britain could learn from the Republican model of integration based on laïcité - the separation of church and state - and from the clear distinction between privacy and public life in politics.

In turn, French journalists could learn from their British counterparts, their tenacity and irreverence.

Speaking to French journalists working in London and British academics working in Paris, it becomes clearer how and why France differs from Britain over the place of religion in society and what is deemed public or private in politics.

"We are very strict on separation of Church and state," says veteran French hack Olivier Todd.

'British puritanism'

"The idea that the sovereign, nominally head of the state, could also be head of Church is very distasteful in France. We have a much more legal approach, and we don't tackle problems case by case as you seem to do in Britain.

"In France, we want a law first then we get into details. It really boils down to the fact that in Britain you have an empiricist philosophical tradition, whereas in France we have a rational tradition."

Andrew Hussey, Dean of the University of London in Paris, believes politics in France is a "public action".

"To be a citizen, to vote for a politician, is to only demand that you function in a social domain and the social domain is very different from the domain of the individual. Like in Islam, that which is inside and outside - that which is public and private - and I think that's a very mature and intelligent way to run a democracy."

One French observer says former British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith - who quit over her parliamentary expenses - would never have had to resign had she been Interior minister in France.

Aggressive press

"There is an active will on the part of the British public, and the French would describe it as a kind of puritanism, to find fault and make judgement for personal crimes and transgressions, sexual or other," says Marc Roche, London correspondent for Le Monde.

"When the British public bring judgement on Jacqui Smith's husband for watching a porno video it's not so much to do with the fact that he paid £5.99 for a video but the fact that it's a porn video and it's squalid and depressing but it's nothing to do with politics. It's everything to do with the puritan will towards self-flagellation."

However, for all the prurience that is exploited ruthlessly by the aggressive British press, there is much to admire in British journalism. In many ways, French journalists are feeble in comparison.

According to François Sergent, deputy editor of the French daily newspaper Libération, the French press does not have the same "mindset" when it comes to political stories.

"It is true the British press is very good to keep the story going, to find new ways, new angles. There are very good newspapers in the UK. We're more serious, we think we have to be a bit ponderous, to do a lot of thinking, to show erudition and how smart we are. The British press can be more aggressive, ironic, and that's good."

People think of the British press as strikingly partisan but some French journalists think they may be more so, or at least not as good at distinguishing between opinion and fact.

Of course, in Britain, the media plays an active role in democracy - it is the fourth estate.

French journalism has never aspired to such ambitions. If there is a counter power in France it would be the people.

Home Thoughts From Abroad was broadcast on 9 June at 8.45pm on BBC Radio 4.

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