Le Monde's Iraq Coverage

We continue our 60th anniversary special on Le Monde with a special devoted to the independent newspaper's coverage of the war in Iraq.

The 60th Anniversary Celebration of Le Monde

The United States Are Losing Control Over Iraq, bellows a headline on the front page. Bush expoits the fear of terrorist attacks against Kerry tch-tch's another. An editorial chimes in with a spiral of failures, political and military, while Mouna Naïm echoes, The spiral of violence is intensifying in Iraq.

Eric Leser explains that the war is sinking into barbarism, while Michel Bole-Richard and Claire Tréan subtly put the blame for the hostage situation on America (Hostage-Taking, a Weapon in the New Iraqi War). As for acts of terrorism in "this infernal spiral", they are all about the "resistance", the "insurrection", and "the powerful Sunni guerilla forces".

A headline speaks eloquently of Moqtada Al-Sadr as the "Mahdi" he claims to be, with the AFP article lionizing his noble fighters and repeating his claims that the members of his army are fighting for Islam, for Ali, and for his son Hussein, who was decapitated in 680. Needless to say, AFP special envoy Sammy Ketz's article opened with a sentence stating that Najaf's "mausoleum … represents the heart and the soul of the rebellion". Rémy Ourdan shows how Moqtada Al-Sadr's militia is confronted by the choice between "the political path" and the armed fight against the American occupier while Patrice Claude explains how The Battle of Najaf Turns Moqtada Al-Sadr into the 'Resistant Iman'. (That's more good press than Dubya ever received here.) As for Fallujah, notice the tendency to generalize — emphatically: the entire city mobilises [all] its warriors before the assault.

And as far as a Fallujah family is concerned, the mother says "This time, the Americans will destroy everything". Only by reading through to the end are we made to understand that the article includes interviews with members of one family only and that Souham is far more critical of the "Arab fighters who are tough and listen to nobody." (I like what she says afterwards: "They frighten everybody. Even our men dare say nothing to them. Only an old woman, one day, went to an Arab chieftain to protest: 'Why don't you bring your families here, why don't you make them sleep under the bombs with us, then we'll see if you're still as proud and courageous!'")

Never mind. Cécile Hennion et Rémy Ourdan's interview with a "spiritual leader" (where have we heard that one before?) is called "Refusing the occupation, by words and by war". Among other things, Sheikh Mahdi Al-Soumeïdaï defends Bin Laden and France's policy of asking the resistants to join in the talks. And two Sunni guerilla leaders (who prefer to remain anonymous) chime in: "Only France can help us"! Considering Fallujah a worse "genocide" than Darfur, they want France to "go protest at the UN", in addition to… providing weapons and money.

When Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld seemed (according to Le Monde) to be asking whether the war hasn't gone wrong, the newspaper of reference lectured: "Two moments of sincerity, two instants of lucidité, which give rise to doubt and to distress and provide contrast with the fashion in which the White House seems to cultivate blindness before a situation which, far from improving, as George W. Bush says, seems to be worsening."

An editorial calls the Iraqi operation a dubious adventure by "the ideologues flanking the American president", while another asks whether it shouldn't be likened to ideological blindness or cynical manipulation, and a third mentions "the presidential propaganda" and "the dead ends of George Bush's policies", adding "A frank left for an America open to the world against a frank and unilateralist right, rarely has the choice offered to Americans been so clear and so important". "French diplomacy can praise itself for having anticipated the difficulties that the Americans and their allies would meet in Iraq after a briskly-led campaign", continues the first, although it adds that one should engage neither in triumphalism nor in the pleasure of having been right too soon. Needless to say, the 2003 edition of Perpignan's photo festival put into doubt the reliability of embedded journalists.

It will be noticed how the French government, the French media, and French citizens involved in the Visa pour l'Image festival all conveniently forgot that what they had warned of was a bloody war that would last forever, thousands of Iraqi refugees lining the roads and creating a "disaster of massive proportions", and a final battle to defend Baghdad that they likened to Stalingrad.

A trip through my files shows that barely two months after the end of the war and far from making any type of mea culpa about its wrong predictions, Le Monde was picking up on new controversies to castigate the Bush government: already on June 17, 2003, Daniel Vernet was using the word "lied" about Washington and London, under a title dripping with sarcasm — Saddam was a baddie, therefore he had prohited weapons.

When Saddam Hussein was captured five months later, Le Monde said, effectively, big deal, although of course, before Saddam's capture, it made a point of wagging its finger and pointing out that under "the American occupation", Saddam Hussein was still on the loose.

In its media pages, Le Monde regularly chooses a foreign newspaper to quote. Strangely, it mostly seems to quote periodicals which agree with the official French positions. Thus South Africa's Mail & Guardian, which condemns Uncle Sam's checkbook diplomacy and castigates Uganda and Botswana as "the good pupils of America-style market economy", (I guess neither it nor Le Monde's own Fabienne Pompey ever heard of France's lucrative business with such thugs as Saddam Hussein), or the summary of an article from Québec's Le Devoir that ridiculed the Patriot Act.

When the independent newspaper must interview somebody, of course it must be a someone from a government-financed agency who can be counted on to spew anti-American messages ("the United States have shown to what extent they intend to remain masters of the political process", "the situation gives the impression of a deplorable waste", "the acting government being perceived as the vassal of its American godfather", "the courage" of Moqtada Al-Sadr), messages that the Le Monde interviewers (in this case, Mouna Naïm), as usual, can be counted on to repeat — and elicit — in their questions ("Isn't the 'new Iraq' being built in the image of the fallen régime: nepotism, corruption, authoritarianism?").

The funny thing (so to speak) is that David Baran says many correct things, but because these truths are considered pro-American ("the parallel [in your question] would appear troubling unless one considers the arbitrariness and the brutality — which are incomparable — of the former régime", "the American intervention [although] perceived as cynical and self-serving, appeared as the only possible solution to an unending status quo; the contest was thus favorable to [Bush's military] intervention"), the (short) sentences in which they appear are inevitable minimized in the following (much longer) groups of sentences to bring about a general anti-American note.

(This is what can be called "token sentences", sentences that, like certain articles, viewpoints, and letters to the editor are added only to a periodical's print edition so that the owners and editors able to say "Oh, well, of course we are objective and allow all viewpoints to be expressed, see the evidence for yourself", although such viewpoints appear only, roughly, 5% of the time.)

For instance, after evoking the disorganization of Iraqi institutions, the humiliated and disappointed population, the resentment of the Iraqis, all the American faux pas, and "the heavy responsability of the United States in the current situation", the whole article (and the interview) ends with a paragraph on the "country where the instability promises to be enduring. The [basic question, therefore, is the following]: For want of a pacified Iraq, how does one manage the instability while preserving the appearances of a certain progress?"

Of course, under Saddam Hussein, you realize, Iraq was stable. And there weren't any journalists to poke their noses around and sniff out the various problems, big or small, real or imagined, that Le Monde is now making such a huge fuss about. Stability in a country where policemen could come into your home, remove your husband, son, or father, you wife, daughter, or mother, and take them away to be "taken care of" in the city jails (or in the killing fields), now that was something.

Compare this to descriptions of the new government and its leader. An editorial states that "By forcefully throwing out journalists from Najaf on Sunday August 15th, the acting Iraqi government has shown that it is no better than so many others, the same government that, shortly before, had closed the Iraqi office of the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera. And that, while Baghdad is the scene of the work of the national conference in charge of putting the first stones for a new 'democracy'. … One might have hoped that the new masters of Baghdad had radically changed methods. Alas! But be not fooled. Nothing that is decided in Baghdad can be so without a nod from the American protector." This is followed by more on the treachery of the Bush administration and the incapability of the American people to see through its deceitful practices.

The editorial ends with an RSF statement full of implications: "the worst atrocities are always committed in the absence of witnesses." Oui, that is exactly what happened under Saddam Hussein, and before him, under Brezhnev, Stalin, and Mao, people, who during their lifetimes, were, if not defended, than equivocated upon by newspapers such as Le Monde. How many editorials did the newspaper of reference write on those autocrats and mass murderers?

Meanwhile, the tragedy of Rwanda — notably on the tenth anniversary of its genocide — is conveniently forgotten. Where China is concerned, the tone is entirely differentLe Monde puts on its kid's gloves (using questions, uncertainty, wiggling, and the passive voice), and all that Jean-Michel Bezat can write abouth the human rights situation there is, blandly, that Chirac is an inconsistent lawyer. As for Russia (which Jacques Chirac placed "at the highest rank among the democracies" for "its respect of outsiders"), at about the time that the Abu Ghraib scandal was still going strong, Le Monde printed a letter sent to Russia's prosecutor by an whistleblower inside the secret service:

Personally, I crippled more than 50 people and I buried 35. [Local FSB head Serguei] Koriakov also said he wanted to get rid of a man who possessed compromising documents. I myself broke the extremities (feet, hands) of the man…
Somewhat worse than what happened to the prisoners inside Abu Ghraib, eh? But how many articles and Plantu cartoons did we see about that? No, instead, Le Monde sent Eric Leser to Maryland to check out on the hometown of the 372nd company of the military police:

"Patriotism is omnipresent in Cresaptown, in the form of flags in front of nearly every house and yellow ribbons as signs of solidarity with the soldiers", he says disapprovingly. (Click here for some thoughts on American patriotism.) Meanwhile, psychoanalyst Jacques Inrep asks, rhetorically, when can we expect an American gulag to appear, implying that the two systems, communism and capitalism, are equally bad (and always were so).

Very few articles on the mass graves, as we know, and as I have said before, the October discovery of one in Kurdistan with skeletons of women, babies, and unborn foetuses was conveniently — I should say "infamously" — ignored.

As for the publication of a detailed list of people paid by Saddam Hussein in crude oil to serve as his lobbyists, "it has had the effect of a damp squib", writes Véronique Maurus in an article entitled (tongue-in-cheek-ly) Saddam Hussein, France, and the Bad Boys. While investigations have been opened in Switzerland, Britain, Jordan, Bulgaria, and most of the concerned countries, either by the courts or the political powers, nothing has happened in Paris (or in Moscow, for that matter).

"Who, in Paris, feels the need to go digging into the old connections linking France to the Ba'athist régime? Even those who used to denounce the weaknesses of the 'military industrial complex' in opposing the ousted dictator prefer obscurity to an unwrapping which might risk to fragilize the country's international position." Well, Véro, I suppose so. But since Le Monde obviously feels the same way, shouldn't it put an end to the farce and stop pretending that it is an independent newspaper?

I guess I could say that as media (or as the fourth power, as your colleague so glibly lectured Americans about), maybe you should do your duty as journalists and maybe you should not let politicians (error-prone individuals, all of them, and everyone a theoretical autocrat, no matter what his or her nationality) ask you to invoke the raison d'état, but, that, I guess, would be forgetting that you are France's newspaper of reference, with all that that means…


Le Monde rend hommage aux blogs

Sylvie Kauffmann :
Et puis, il y a … le dernier sous-produit du Web, les blogs, puissant moyen de dissémination. …

Mais hormis quelques têtes de l'élite au bout de leurs piques, les blogs ne sont guère fournisseurs de scoops. … Le reportage et l'information restent l'apanage du quatrième pouvoir, sous l'étroite et double surveillance du pouvoir exécutif et d'un cinquième pouvoir émergent.

Les "sous-produits" vous remercient et vous prient de bien vouloir croire qu'ils feront de leur mieux pour arriver à vos hauteurs inégalables