France-Amérique: Many French people nostalgically remember the New York Herald Tribune, which later became the international edition of the New York Times, and Jean Seberg selling copies on the Champs-Elysées in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Breathless. As the head of the Paris bureau, do you feel like you have inherited this history?
Roger Cohen: Your question suggests there is something romantic behind the bland words “Paris bureau chief of the New York Times.” I think you are right. At least, for me there is. It’s not just the beautiful Jean Seberg hawking the Herald Tribune
on the Champs. It’s not just the heritage of the great journalists who have held this position, from Flora Lewis to Alan Riding, that must be safeguarded. It’s not just the idea of the American writer in Paris free to probe the France that lives in the American imagination. It’s something ineffable. Try “Brussels bureau chief” to feel the difference. I love it when Belmondo buys the Herald Trib from Seberg as part of his seduction attempt, only to hand it back to her when he discovers there is no horoscope. So much for the news. Paris, even without the Trib and Seberg, remains an invitation to dream. Godard said that movies should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. I like to think of my life that way.
You are the most Francophone and Francophile of all American journalists. Since you have South-African heritage, were raised in Britain, and then became American, what inspired your relationship with France and how does it influence your worldview?
Generation after generation, my Jewish family wandered. From Lithuania to South Africa, South Africa to Britain, Britain to the United States. Being the outsider-observer came naturally to me. I loved French literature in high school, Le Grand Meaulnes and L’Etranger particularly. This led me to study French history and literature at Oxford. Part of the course involved a year as an assistant d’anglais in a lycée. Mine was in the southern suburb of Fresnes, near the prison. Paris was pure discovery and delight: its beauty, food, sensuality, endless invitations to wander. I felt free. I felt happier than I had ever been. The drought of 1976, when all the Paris fountains dried up, resembled a war in the sense that barriers fell and strangers talked to one another, about the heat, of course, but really about everything. I thought perhaps I could make a life out of listening to people. That idea proved fertile. Over the decades since, France has been a reference, in its quest to reconcile liberty and fraternity, in its lived culture, and in its endless pursuit of the refinement of pleasure. Being a Francophile is a life sentence.
Does the term “journalist” describe the same profession in France and the United States? It is said that the French press is driven by opinion and the American press by investigation. Is this a cliché or a reality?
I think American journalism is tougher in holding power to account. French journalism, as a reflection of French life, is much taken up with the debate of ideas. The very term “intellectual” has a slight pejorative edge in the U.S.; not here in Paris. It was striking to me how some of the best investigative pieces about what lay behind the Notre-Dame fire came from the New York Times, not the French press. That said, the term “journalist” designates the same profession in both countries. These are differences of emphasis, not of nature. Exceptions to the generalizations I have just made abound on both sides of the Atlantic.
The American press, particularly the New York Times, distinguishes between supposedly objective information and opinion pages that only concern their writers. Isn’t it somewhat artificial given that the New York Times is liberal, just as the Wall Street Journal is conservative?
As somebody who, after 12 years as a columnist, has just moved back to the news side from the Opinion section, I don’t think the distinction is artificial. There are things you can say in a direct opinionated form as a columnist that you cannot say as a correspondent. This is as it should be. Our Opinion pages are liberal but spiced with conservative commentary. The Wall Street Journal Opinion pages are conservative with occasional more liberal pieces. It is critical, in our polarized societies, to maintain spaces for ideological argument. When it comes to news, those distinctions between the two papers are less clear. Both try to be fair and factual. That said, Donald Trump, through his outrageous behavior and repeated lies, pushed the New York Times news pages to become more opinionated. We will see if that is a permanent shift. I like sober journalism. You don’t need too many adverbs. So, I hope we try to keep telling the stories without freighting them with what we think of the stories. If the story is well told, the feelings behind it should come through anyway. When I covered the war in Bosnia, I don’t think anyone doubted where I stood.
For many Americans, Paris is a legendary city filled with butter croissants and slim, elegant women. How did this myth come about and what is the major difference between the fantasized and real versions of France? When observing the influence of Black Lives Matter in France, are Paris and New York actually more alike?
The myth traces its origin to reality: The croissants au beurre are very good and many French women very elegant. France invites reverie through its beauty, its superb wines, and its association with love. It’s not for nothing that Bogart’s “We’ll always have Paris” to Ingrid Bergman is the most famous line in cinema. Then, of course, there is the France of the bleak suburban projects filled with mainly Muslim immigrants living often bleak lives. The France of the periphery where hospitals and train stations close and work is scarce and anger of the kind that gave rise to the Gilets Jaunes movement is widespread. The France of high unemployment, bureaucratic ossification and, yes, racism. Black Lives Matter protests converged because some of the American and French issues converge, even if their precise expression and nature may be different. As I have suggested, the pursuit of fraternity in France is genuine and particular. But there are fractures and failings in its society that must be addressed, as they must in the United States. If they are not, political extremism will grow. American democracy survived Trump but it was a close-run thing.
French newspapers are overflowing with columns from so-called philosophers and an assortment of experts in everything and nothing. Is this a final attempt by the French intelligentsia to preserve an influence that it has actually lost, both in France and across the world?
As I mentioned above, the engaged public intellectual occupies a special place in French life. Ideas are part of the lifeblood of French society, provoking passionate debate. France, like the United States, sees itself as representing universal ideas. What other nation could engage in such ferocious discussion around the precise meaning of laïcité, often inadequately translated as “secularism”? Because secularism implies the absence of, or hostility to, religion, it is misleading. Laïcité leaves religion to the individual; it does not suppress it. It also guarantees the strict neutrality of the state, at least in theory. I find the debate around it, and the transatlantic misunderstandings around it, fascinating. This is one example of the sort of philosophical engagement that persuades me the French thinkers to whom you allude have not lost their influence.
Interview published in the March 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.