|Everybody wants to speak to the Arab world|
|President Nicholas Sarkozy wants to pull the plug on the Arabic service of France24, France's answer to CNN. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Agnes Levallois, deputy editorial director of France24's Arabic service, about the station's future amid a whole range of mostly Western TV stations wishing to address the Arabic-speaking world.
Since French President Nicholas Sarkozy declared in a press conference earlier this year his desire to pull the plug on France 24's foreign languages broadcast, the workers in the Arabic section of the barely one-year old satellite channel are still waiting to find out what the future holds for them.
The President apparently sees no reason why France 24, a pet project of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, should broadcast in English and Arabic, even though the Arabic service is only on the air four hours a day at the moment. Sarkozy also wishes to change the name of the channel into "France Monde," despite the confusion this would create for the viewers, and to merge it with Radio France International (RFI) and TV5Monde, which was launched by President François Mitterand.
The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat sat down with Agnes Levallois, deputy editorial director for Arabic content, in Paris.
ASHARQ AL-AWSAT: How many employees work in the Arabic section?
AGNES LEVALLOIS: France 24 has 450 employees as a whole, 205 of which are fluent in more than one language, with 34 different nationalities. In the Arabic section, in both the audiovisual and electronic sections, we have thirty journalists, in addition to a number of freelancers from nine different countries, including one Saudi female journalist.
What did you think when you were offered the position of deputy editorial director for Arabic content?
A.L.: I didn't hesitate for a second. The plan was good, requiring organizing from scratch with all that implies in terms of creativity and challenges. In addition to that, it is my first experience in the audio-visual field. I was one of the founders of the Arabic section of Radio France International (RFI) twenty years ago. I learned Arabic at the Institut des Langues Orientales in Paris, and I spent two years at the Institut Francais des Etudes Arabes in Damascus. I even hosted the news about France in Arabic for three minutes daily. I also worked in translation for several years, before becoming the managing editor of Radio Monte Carlo.
What is the point of a channel that only broadcast four hours per day?
A.L.: The is only the first step before broadcasting 12 hours and then 24 hours a day. We shouldn't forget then the viewer can also follow all our news continuously online.
Do you think your channel is capable of competing with the existing strong Arabic news channels?
A.L.: We knew about the stature of these channels, of course, but our channel is special because it is one and the same channel broadcasting in three different languages: French, English and Arabic. The design of the set and the news process are the same in all three broadcasts.
This is very different from Al-Jazeera, for instance, which broadcasts in Arabic for the Arab audience, and in English for the English-speaking audience [but with different content.] At France 24, we don't necessarily start our Arabic journal with an event from the Arab world. However, this doesn't mean that the various editors-in-chiefs don't exchange their points of view when we think it's suitable to start the news with an explosion in Baghdad, for example.
How will you compete with the 24-hours Euronews channel, which aims to re-start its Arabic service?
A.L.: The difference between us and Euronews is that our Arabic news is not just translated from the French news, but answers the Arabic audience's needs. Our journalists work on the field and are not satisfied with translation alone. This is what I fight for everyday. At the same time, we benefit from the cooperation and consultation with the French and English sections, especially since we are all in the same place.
What about the BBC, which will also be re-launching its Arabic service soon?
A.L.: Yes, they will be broadcasting 12 hours a day and our current four-hours broadcast is not enough to compete with them. Despite that, I think our audience is different from theirs. Our channel has gained great popularity in the Maghreb. The situation is different in the Middle East where there is a historical relation with the English language and the BBC specifically.
In my opinion, competition is no longer important today, for the viewer watches all the channels and switches between them all the time. We are definitely not thinking of competing with other channels or stealing their audiences. We are entering a wide space which everyone shares.
I have to say, the West is really focusing on channels addressed to the Arab world. Even the Russians started their own Arabic broadcast from Moscow some three months ago.
How did you feel when Sarkozy declared his intention to pull the plug on France 24's foreign languages broadcast?
A.L.: That was a shock nobody excepted. I think he didn't really understand our plan or that his advisers, who are well aware of our project, didn't truly explain the reason for our existence. The issue today is not about "la francophonie" but about our message to the world. If we go back to our beginnings, we find that former President Jacques Chirac also didn't find any use for a non-French news channel until he was convinced that the world will not understand our politics and our stands if we don't address the audience in English, Arabic or Spanish. Perhaps Sarkozy is starting out with Chirac's old point of view.
Sarkozy has also threatened to deprive the state channels of ad revenue. How will you deal with the lack of resources?
A.L.: We are not concerned because we are not a public channel but an independent project funded by the government. We also have our own ad department and the ads are broadcast both on-screen and on the website.
In the past, France has always had its own policy towards the Arab world. Today, President Sarkozy is more in concordance with the Americans and the British. What is the use then of a channel explaining the French policy for the Arab world?
A.L.: It is true that France has changed its policy towards the Arab world after President Chirac. However, the new President gives special attention to the Arab world, and he has visited eight Arab countries since his election eight months ago. Sarkozy also has his own place for the Mediterranean countries, which enhances his attention to the region and in a channel that addresses the southern Mediterranean countries.
Is your channel free from the traditional 'diseases' that afflict the Arab media, such as nepotism, lack of initiative, of training and foreign language skills?
A.L.: The answer is tricky; actually, this question is a trap. I can say that we have a qualified team of young Arab journalists that are still receiving training. Some people have reproached us that our journalists lack experience, but the spirit of our channel is to attract young people and to train them. I can't criticize my team or betray them, except to say that every channel needs to have continuous training in order to follow up on new developments and new technologies.
How do you see the Arabic section in 5 years?
A.L.: I see it broadcasting non-stop, with more talk-shows, not only in the political field but also in the social, cultural and economic fields. I dream of a kind of magazine concerning all matters and problems in the Arab world, and that would give a wider space to the intellectuals and other important personalities.
How would you respond if a veiled woman journalist came to work in the Arabic section?
A.L.: We haven't had to face such a situation yet. But, no, I would not allow a veiled woman on the screen.
A.L.: Because France is a secular state.
Marseille,02 18 2008