Religion as code language in the French press

Religion as code language in the French press January 8, 2013

Time for a round of the “name that famous film quote” game.

Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.

Alvy Singer, Annie Hall (1977)

When is a newspaper’s reference to religion not a reference to religion? When it is in a French newspaper, of course.

Reader Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz forwarded a story to the GetReligion website with a link to a news story from France 24, the English-language French state broadcaster.  The article reported that Esther Duflo, an economics professor at MIT and native of France, had been appointed by President Obama to a U.S. government post.

The lede to the France 24 story entitled “Renowned French economist to join Obama’s team” reported:

France’s Esther Duflo, a world renowned economist, has been nominated by US President Barack Obama to join a government body dedicated to advising the administration on global development policy.

Have you picked up the fact that Esther Duflo is French? France 24 did not want that titbit to slip by (though the side bar to the story does note she has lived in the US for18 years and has taken American citizenship.)

In his note, Mr. Szyszkiewicz wrote:

I find it interesting that religion is raised in the 4th paragraph. Not sure what to think of it.

GetReligion’s editor, tmatt, passed the query on to me for action. The pertinent passages noted by Mr. Szyszkiewicz read:

Duflo, who was raised in a “left-leaning Protestant” family, said she became aware of economic divides and social injustice at a very early age.

“I was always conscientious of the gap between my existence and that of the world’s poor,” she told weekly French magazine l’Express in a January, 2011 article. “As a child, I was extremely troubled by the complete randomness of chance that I was born in Paris to an intellectual, middle class family, when I could have just as easily been born in Chad. It’s a question of luck. It inspired in me a sense of responsibility.

Now, I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the mind of the author of this article, but I believe I can speak to how this passage could be interpreted from a French reader/writer perspective.

From an American perspective, the mention of a person’s religious background, or faith, can be an important component of the story — a way of helping the reader in a highly religious culture comprehending the actions, motivations and personality of the subject of a story. Many of GetReligion’s articles address touch upon this issue — critically when a story omits mention of the religious or faith-based component of a story, or in applause when a reporter gives flesh to a “religious ghost” in a story.

Is that the case here? Is France 24 telling us something about Esther Duflo’s religious upbringing that informs her economic theories?

If so, no other news service has picked up on this angle. A number of articles have drawn upon France 24’s story, repeating the left-wing Protestant line — but no other original work has been done on this point.

I’m inclined to say the mention of Esther Duflo’s religious upbringing, her having come from “d’une famille protestante de gauche”, as she told the Paris daily Liberation in a January 2012 article, is French cultural code — not a religious ghost. In the France 24 article we are not dealing with religion, but with national stereotypes — the shorthand language that some cultures use internally to convey meaning.

The Economist a few years back published an article that helped explain France’s view of its Protestant minority.

In France, Protestantism, in the public mind, is almost synonymous with austerity and moral rigour; something to be respected, but not always liked. The Catholic who goes to confession “comes to terms without difficulty with his little sins and white lies,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, Le Figaro‘s literary editor, whereas “the Protestant brandishes frankness like a dagger, which he uses as implacably against himself as against others.”

Nobody in France gets a prize for guessing that Lionel Jospin, the country’s upright Socialist prime minister, is one of those dagger-wielders. In fact, he is a non-believer.

But no matter. He was brought up in a Protestant family and impregnated with those Protestant values. That is what counts. For the French tend to think that a Protestant background spells honesty, respect for one’s word, hard work, a sense of responsibility, a modest way of life, tolerance, freedom of conscience—and a dour inflexibility. Protestants have been in the van of most of the great liberalising ideas and reforms in French history: the declaration of human rights, the abolition of slavery, the market economy, the devolution of power from the centre, the spread of state education, the separation of church and state, advocacy of contraception and divorce.

The dour philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (now out of favor among the French literary/academic elite but one of the most important intellectual voices of the last century in France) arose from the “culture of liberal Protestantism” his biographer Annie Cohen-Solal reported in an article published in Le Monde. Cohen-Solal argues Sartre’s liberal Protestant roots, as taught to him by his grandfather Charles Schweitzer (yes Dr Albert Schweitzer was a second cousin to Sartre) were the foundation for his moral and ethical views.

What then is France 24 telling us when it says Esther Duflo is a product of left-wing French Protestantism?

Well, coupled with the  photo it used in the article, I would say the message is that of a dour, somewhat severe technocrat. As to what message the selection of a photo can tell about the editor’s view of the subject of his story, compare the France 24 photo with the Liberation photo of the same person. One is flattering, chic — the modern attractive intellectual French woman.  The other, well, is not.

Which takes me back to Mr. Szyszkiewicz’s question. Is there a religion ghost in the story of Esther Duflo? There is a good Episcopalian answer to this question — “it depends.” Yes, if this story came from an American pen the mention of her faith should open the door to the moral and ethical precepts that inform her thinking on international aid and economic development.

From a French pen — no. The mention of her Protestant up-bring (but not her faith) is a code to inform the reader that Dr. Duflo comes from a particular caste in French society. An American equivalent code might be that so and so is a product of Catholic schools, a Yale man, a San Francisco Democrat, a New Yorker. These phrases convey meaning in our culture that is not necessarily tied to facts, but stereotypes. I believe, this article’s reference to Dr. Duflo’s Protestant heritage is French shorthand — not reporting.

What say you GetReligion readers? Should we have our American or French glasses on when we read this France 24 report?

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7 responses to “Religion as code language in the French press”

  1. Neat, this is almost the opposite of a ghost. Religion is indeed mentioned, but the content is not itself religious. Use/mention and all that.

    I suspect that given the source and intended audience, it probably behooves to read the piece with French glasses. But I admit I know next to nothing about French viewpoints, so will take your word as to what things mean.

  2. Thanks, George. That does help to explain things. I have to admit that I when I saw that paragraph, I was initially looking for some kind of “gotcha” moment. Knowing that this was secular France, I was waiting for something like, “What kind of idiot is Obama for hiring a religious believer?” statement.

    When that never came, I was then left scratching my head. I’m not sure I was looking for a ghost. Without the “gotcha,” I actually couldn’t quite see why her religious background was important to the story. Why, in the fourth paragraph and — to me — totally out of the blue, state her Protestant background when she’s being considered as an economic adviser? What have the two to do with one another? Why not say, “The graduate of the London School of Economics…” (or whatever school she went to) or “The MIT economics professor….”? Perhaps it’s American pragmatism shaping my viewpoint, but your explanation does help me understand.

  3. So, would “left-leaning Protestant” ever be used when it is contrary to fact? We might say, for example, “Despite being born in Anoka, Minnesota, Garrison Keillor is a New Yorker’s New Yorker.” Would the French say something like, “Although XYZ was baptized as a Catholic, she is better described as a left-leaning Protestant” – even if XYZ currently practiced no religion, or still went to mass? I understand cultural jargon; I’m just trying to parse the limits of it.

  4. Creating a narrative in 600 words or less:
    By definition that requires code and code only works if you know your audience. Therein lies my continued frustration with journalism. I’d rather read the facts and then work on the narrative myself.

  5. Interesting point about knowing your audience.

    The French culture is alot more unified than ours, setting aside the recent flood of Muslim immigrants who probably would not care about this story anyway. On the other hand, our country is huge and diverse and we don’t all share the same code words. Witness this Catholic who had no idea what a praise service was [until I found out how to conduct one on-line] and the blogger here who thought I was joking.

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