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Tired, Testy, Even Rumpled: French Reporters on the Big Story
By Sarah Maslin Nir
Originally Published on Nytimes.com on May 22, 2011
Published on Bunchofmadmen.com on May 23, 2011

They’re weary and disheveled, overworked, underrested and above all cranky — some say they haven’t had a drop of red wine for days.

Legions of French journalists were imported at great haste last week to cover news the French public cannot get enough of: the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, who is accused of sexual assaulting a Manhattan hotel housekeeper.

The assignment has brought them a ringside view of the United States legal system and a sense of anti-French sentiment found mainly in American tabloids.

And, as they dash from sidewalk scrum to their hotel rooms, their watches still set to Paris time, they grapple with competing feelings: the headiness that comes with covering what many of them call the story of a lifetime, the astonishment that a member of France’s elite is given so little deference by the American news media, and some unease over their failure to report Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s treatment of women in the past.

“All journalists knew he had a special behavior with women,” said Marion Van Renterghem, a reporter for Le Monde. “I was not so much surprised because I knew that he had this vice, but it was flabbergasting because why did all we journalists, considering what we knew about him — why did we never write a line about this?”

She added: “There is this very strong tradition in France that you don’t have here, in Anglo-Saxon countries, is not to speak about private life. This is very, very sacred, so we are all embarrassed to talk about and to write about these things.”

The French journalists spoke about the biting tone of some American coverage, citing terms they had seen in headlines like “frog” and “Frenchie.” And they wondered at the treatment of Mr. Strauss-Kahn: a cellphone photograph of him on Rikers Island ended up on front pages.

Still, they faced their own pressures, familiar to any member of the American news media, tabloid or not. They have been instructed to continually feed, or, in the term the French journalists used, “nourish,” their Web sites and 24-hour news programs.

Anne Lamotte, a reporter for Radio France, left her country so quickly that she barely packed. “I only brought these jeans,” she said, adding that she had recently learned she was to stay in New York well into June.

“It’s difficult when you don’t eat, when you don’t sleep,” said Anne-Claire Coudray, a reporter for the French television station TF1, who has been waking before dawn to film segments from a makeshift studio in a room at the DoubleTree Hotel in Chelsea. “But when the story is very exciting, it doesn’t matter.”

And even as they worked crushing schedules, they sought occasional moments of relaxation. Ms. Lamotte and her radio colleagues took tiny breaks between taping segments to dash down to the hotel’s bar and have a cocktail before heading back to work. “So it feels like we are living,” she said.

It was easy to spot the French men and women among the media hordes. Despite their fatigued condition, they were, well, better looking than many of their American counterparts, and many of them smoked cigarettes as they stood, corralled together, waiting for something to happen. They greeted one another with double kisses, one on each cheek.

There were some local customs that puzzled the French. Franck Georgel, a television reporter for the station M6, was mystified by how respectful American journalists were of police barricades set up around a Lower Manhattan building where Mr. Strauss-Kahn was staying. “In France maybe the barrier would have been dropped on the ground,” he said. “Here, you’re more, how do you say it? Civilisé.”

As he spoke, a non-French journalist outside the building, at 71 Broadway, helped a woman with a baby carriage make her way down the steps. “That’s American,” he declared. “That’s not really French.”

Ms. Van Renterghem said she had seldom seen a story that so riveted French readers. “It was an earthquake,” when it broke, she said. “We have one of our most famous politicians being trapped in the American legal system.”

Still, there are exceptions back home. When Ms. Van Renterghem learned she would be staying yet another week, she called her 9-year-old daughter, Noemie, in Paris, and explained the situation.

“For D.S.K.?” said Noemie. “What’s the importance?”