THE BLOG
02/11/2008 12:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sarkozy Stuck on La Cigale et La Fourmi

It's a new twist on La Fontaine's fable "La Cigale et La Fourmi" (the cicada and the ant), as told by Anglo-Saxon and French media.

Anglo-Saxon version: Focuses on one-paragraph account of an ant that labors all summer in its colony, builds its house and stores winter supplies while a cicada -- male winged insect living in trees or tall grass and making shrill sounds -- thinks the ant is stupid for its far-sightedness and planning abilities.

The cicada -- referred to in the female gender in French, despite being male in English -- laughs, dances and plays all summer. Once winter sets in, the ant is warmly ensconced and supplied in its shelter, while the cicada freezes, is famished without shelter, and dies of the cold.

French version: A long-winded eight-paragraph account of the same events uses flowery language drawing on socialist rhetoric about injustices in a rich country like France. The injustices are anathema to left wing media that air footage of the freezing cicada and of journalists interviewing officials to ask about the country's lop-sided economic equation.

The upshot: the French pass retroactive tax legislation driving the ant to seek financial shelter in Switzerland; the cicada gorges itself on the ant's food stores; and, an investigative commission probes the matter at a whopping 10 million Euros.

The result: The cicada dies of an overdose, which leftist papers L'Humanité and Libération attribute to government failure to correct social inequalities. Meanwhile, the ant's house is overrun by arrogant immigrant spiders, as the story goes, which the government attributes to multiculturalism in France.

The spiders become marijuana pushers in the neighborhood and terrorize the community. The End.

The spoof report isn't so far-fetched. French media have been trying to adapt to globalization and snappier coverage of events like their "Anglo-Saxon" competitors.

But President Nicolas Sarkozy has been sending mixed signals through and about French media.

On the one hand, his outreach efforts are meant to complement those of his newfound ally, President George W. Bush.

In short: go the whole nine yards with public diplomacy, marketing France's image as a player on the world scene in a very commercial way, and project an appearance of 21st Century globalization.

It's something Sarkozy's predecessors failed to do, given the country's traditional kowtowing to powerful French-centric trade unions, its short workweek (compared to the U.S.') and its slow acceptance of English as the lingua franca of business, trade and communications, albeit in a world increasingly recognizing the importance of online multilingualism.

On the other hand, Sarkozy nixed advertising on public television, which is the vehicle of choice for the sought-after outreach, at an expected revenue loss of a billion Euros that is said to be heading to private channels run by some of his friends.

French media were stunned by the move.

More astonishing was his decision to pull the plug on "France 24's" foreign language broadcasts.

The all-news satellite channel was launched with much fanfare in December 2006 by President Jacques Chirac, in a bid to compete with CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera and with a footprint reaching viewers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

According to news reports at the time, Chirac said the publicly funded channel broadcasting in French and English at first, then in Arabic in 2007, would help France compete in the "global battle of images."

"The president's statement was a shock none of us expected," said Agnes Levallois, deputy editorial director for Arabic content, of Sarkozy's decision to turn the network into a monolingual channel.

She told the pan-Arab daily "Asharq Al-Awsat" that her station wasn't limited to Francophone viewers but aimed at reaching the world, and that Sarkozy either did not understand "France 24's" mission or was misinformed by his advisers.

The French station's main competitors are "Al Jazeera" (Arabic and International, i.e. English), the "BBC," which is relaunching its Arabic TV broadcasts -- halted in the 1990s following a flap with partner Saudi Arabia, after which its main anchors jumped ship to the then newly founded "Al Jazeera" -- "Euronews," U.S. government-funded "Al Hurra" and Moscow-supported "Russia Today," a new kid on the block.

CNN does not broadcast in Arabic but has an Arabic-language website. Germany's "Deutsche Welle" airs programs in Arabic but media experts say it does not have as many viewers as the other international channels.

In December 2006 "Business Week" quoted "France 24's" managing editor as saying he would rely on stringers and associates for two-thirds of the station's footage, to help out his 36 full-time correspondents worldwide.

That minor army is threatened with extinction if Sarkozy decides on a parochial approach to news dissemination.

The president would be contradicting a recently released report from the "Commission to Discharge French Growth" -- a blueprint for development -- that calls for spreading the word about France's attributes and urges French decision makers to keep up with the times.

Commission chairman Jacques Attali, a respected analyst, said "France Redux" meant examining what needs to be changed, including a sclerotic educational system, emphasizing the learning of languages to be competitive, and narrowing the media gap, where it exists.

Which brings us full circle to "La Cigale et La Fourmi."

If the French version of that spoof news story is adopted, it'll be back to square one, and neither "France 24" nor any of the other government-financed media will be able to meet the challenge of competing in a crowded field targeting a growing and increasingly sophisticated and discerning Arab market.

So, in plain English: The early multilingual, multicultural bird gets the worm.