La Fin D'un Reve: French Newspaper Coverage of 9/11

By Joshua C. Feblowitz
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, the reaction of the French media was one of passionate empathy. The September 12th headline of Le Monde reads simply “Nous sommes tous Américains” (We are all Americans).1 Yet as early as September 13th, Le Monde began broaching criticism of American policy and scrutinizing the American response. Close readings of this rapidly changing stance reveal French resistance to a dominant US narrative of rigid moral dichotomy. On the whole, the opinions that appeared in Le Monde in the week following 9/11 trace a trajectory from cautious optimism to outright disapproval.

Initially, they convey an implicit trust in America’s potential to rise to the challenge of global terrorism, casting the terrorist attacks as a watershed moment and opportunity for American introspection. Yet this sentiment is rapidly supplanted by intense concern regarding the direction of the American response and its corresponding dependence on dualistic rhetoric. On the whole, French newspaper coverage of 9/11 tells a narrative of American unilateralism, a story of the United States retreating from reality, shunning nuance and re-embracing the kind of worldview that initially promoted its vulnerability. Le Monde offers a counter-narrative of international solidarity and reflection and expresses increasing anxiety and disapproval as the US rejects this worldview.

One of the earliest Le Monde articles on the subject of September 11th was entitled “La fin d’un rêve” (The end of a dream) and appeared on September 13th, 2001. In this short piece, the author offers sympathy to the United States and recognizes the terrible nature of the attacks, calling them “a festival of barbarism.” Yet in contrast with the newspaper’s September 12th statement of unequivocal sympathy, this piece, published only a day later, already contains implicit and explicit criticism of US policy. The article begins with the simple statement “It was the end of a utopian dream.” This plain expression conveys not only the terror and trauma associated with 9/11 but also puts forth a bold critique of the American worldview.

The notion of a dream coming to an end implies that prior to 9/11, Americans lived in a utopian non-reality and were “woken up” by the attacks. Thus, the United States is cast as an unrealistically isolated nation, divorced and distant from political reality. In addition, it implies the existence of dangerous isolationist tendencies even before the attacks occurred.

The author goes on to argue that United States must recognize its new role in the world, not as a “lone actor” but as part of a complex and tumultuous international scene. This criticism is constructive in nature and suggests that the French perceive potential for dramatic change. The reference to the United States as a “lone actor” reveals the germination of a French counter-narrative that is based on international cooperation. According to Le Monde, if the United States recognizes and repudiates this false role of unilateral actor, then the nation can contribute to a new era of cooperation.

The author places the blame for this erroneous view firmly on the shoulders of President Bush, arguing that it was his aim to “protect the United States from the international scene.” The author’s ultimate conclusion is that “isolationism is never an option for America.”2 This further reinforces a counter-narrative of cooperation by suggesting that isolationism is not a viable political policy but a deliberate and reckless spurning of reality. This critical stance only two days after the attacks demonstrates a presupposition of US policy failure but also offers a hopeful tone with respect to the potential for positive change.

Combined with this narrative of sleeping and waking is a French counter-narrative of national and world unity that contrasts sharply with the US reaction. A second article appears on September 13 in Le Monde that effectively catalogues the worldwide outpouring of sympathy and expression of solidarity. The headline claims boldly that “the condemnations are officially unanimous” and then describes the seemingly universal compassion expressed by Japan, China, Canada, Algeria and other nations.3

Another piece, published on September 14, 2001, and written by Bacque Raphaelle and Robert Diard Pascale, recognizes the profound sympathetic reaction within the US, citing the day of mourning and the ubiquitous presence of American flags. This initial emphasis on world and national unity implies faith in its potential to be channeled into constructive change. In the counter-narrative of world unity, international support is unanimous and the events of 9/11 have the capacity to spark coalition and collaboration. Early in the week, this viewpoint is offered with the hope that it will help the United States and the world move in a new direction of multilateralism.

The French counter-narrative is also founded on faith in introspection; unity, the writers of Le Monde suggest, provides the opportunity for a profound reevaluation of the United States worldview. On September 15th, an article entitled “Refuser le manichèisme” warns gravely that “The natural and spontaneous solidarity manifested, notably in Europe, with the American people and its leaders does not justify simplistic conclusions.”4 This talk of “simplistic conclusions” is a direct attack on American unilateralism and dualism, the “us versus them,” “Good versus Evil” rhetoric that is intertwined with a unilateralist worldview. The author warns against the dangers of racial and religious stigma of Arabs and Muslims respectively, cautioning the world and the United States not to “diabolize” the Muslim population.

The use of this word “diabolize” is a telling reference to what the author views as problematic American rhetoric. “The necessary fight against international terrorism” the author states emphatically, “is not a monumental battle between Good and Evil, contrary to what George W. Bush has declared.”5 The construction of terrorism as a moral and religious war is seen to be a dangerous dilution of global conflict. In the context of world affairs, Bush’s brand of moral dualism is viewed by the French press as a toxic oversimplification that has the potential poison international relations. In the eyes of the French, it is the introduction of careful contemplation and introspection that fuels global change and succumbing to moral dualism and categorization is an unproductive fantasy; the counter-narrative thus rejects dichotomy in favor of nuance, recognizing the inherent complexity of international political relations.

By singling out George W. Bush, the author of the September 15th article implies that Bush himself is misusing reactions of unity by channeling them into a religious framework, effectively succumbing to a social script of “us versus them” unilateralism. Patrick Jarreau echoes this critical opinion of Bush later in the week in an article published September 17th. “American patriotism is expressed readily in religious terms,” he notes “and Mr. Bush likes this language. Prayer and the flag were associated Friday throughout the country.”6 This deliberate pairing of prayer and the flag represents a veiled criticism of the US reaction and implies a failure to adequately separate Church and State in reacting to the attacks.

This apparent misuse and misdirection of unity is a sentiment shared by the author of “Refuser le Manichèisme” who concludes that the international community can achieve victory through solidarity and “interdependence” rather then by casting the conflict as a dialectical conflict between God and the Devil.7 Though Jarreau and others recognize Bush’s “concern over national unity” and his role as an image of hope, they are wary of the unanimity of Bush’s support and the rapid military mobilization occurring in the United States. The use of “dialectical” language represents a reassertion of the isolationist US narrative and a repudiation of the French counter-narrative of international solidarity and nuanced reflection.

By the end of the week, discussion within the French media had turned to the rapidly materializing specter of military conflict and the French counter-narrative was increasingly frustrated by the jingoism that dominated American moral rhetoric. Jarreau places emphasis on the intensification of military preparation and a September 18th article by Patrice De Beer echoes this concern by explicitly engaging the subject of Iraq. The first line of the De Beer piece reveals the dissention that is beginning to bloom within the international community. “There is no actual proof that the Iraqi regime is implicated in the recent suicide attacks,” De Beer states plainly, citing Vice President Cheney as the source of this information.

It would seem, by the tone of her piece, that international unity is of paramount concern to the French; this is confirmed by the headline, which reads “Iraq remains the primary target for the Bush Team; An Attack Against Bagdad could break the solidarity of European and Arab Countries.” This piece thus places these two narratives in direct conflict, suggesting that the US is on the verge of shunning international unity in favor of a familiar narrative of unilateralism. De Beer later offers analysis of the potential conflict with Iraq that is hauntingly prescient:

One cannot underestimate the influence of the Anti-Iraq lobby within the new administration which counts so much on the veterans of the Gulf War. What’s more, a strike against the Iraqi military apparatus could have the benefit of being far more spectacular and profitable in the short run than launching some missiles to be lost in the stone dessert of Afghanistan.8

This opinion reveals the striking and rapid shift from unequivocal support to incisive critique that occurred throughout the week of news coverage. Bush’s policy and political aims come under attack; De Beer questions the administration’s intentions, accusing them of ulterior motives and of misdirecting nationalist fervor. Moreover, she describes a potential conflict with Iraq as a spectacle, motivated by greed and a desire for a more tangible and engaging form of warfare. In effect, a conflict in Iraq would represent a final repudiation of the French counter-narrative and reassertion of the American unilateralism. In the eyes of De Beer, the desire for a tangible and visible conflict is the result of misplaced dialectical rhetoric of Good and Evil. Coming only one week after these attacks, these opinions represent a sharp departure from the explicit expressions of solidarity (We are all Americans) that began the week of news coverage and herald the defeat of the counter-narrative of world unity and international cooperation.

From September 12th to 18th, the tone of Le Monde transforms rapidly from one of passionate sympathy into one of intense anxiety and disapproval with respect to the US reaction. The French view the catastrophe of 9/11 as a moment of historical rupture that possesses the potential to shatter the American unilateralist worldview. The pointed criticism expressed represents an attack on this dominant US narrative and an attempt to establish a counter-narrative of international cooperation and nuanced reflection. The perspective of Le Monde is one that is borne out of a blend of empathy, fear, and eventual frustration.  Across the week, disappointment grows as the French narrative is effectively silenced by dominant American rhetoric. La Fin D’une Rêve is a sentiment full of both hope and concern that challenges the United States to reevaluate its role in the world. In an effort to encourage such an ideological shift, the editors and writers of Le Monde offer clear and well-intentioned criticism in the form of a counter-narrative based on optimism, cooperation and reflection. Yet these efforts to construct a competing narrative, one that had the best interest of the international community at heart, were largely thwarted by a reactionary reassertion of American unilateralism, isolationism and moral dualism.

"Les Algériens Condamnent l'Empressement Des Français à Désigner Les Arabes, Et Les Chinois Évoquent Belgrade Et l'Irak; De l'Asie à La Suisse, Les Condamnations Sont Officiellement Unanimes." Le Monde 13 septembre 2001.

De, Beer P. "L'Irak Reste Une Cible Tentante Pour l'Équipe Bush; Une Attaque Contre Bagdad Pourrait Briser La Solidarité Des Européens Et Des Pays Arabes." Le Monde 18 septembre 2001.

"La Fin d'Un Rêve." Le Monde 13 septembre 2001. 

Pascale, Bacque R.,Robert Diard. "Le Drame Américain s'Impose Dans La Vie Politique Française; Jacques Chirac Et Lionel Jospin Se Sont Mobilisés, Mercredi 12 Septembre, Pour Faire Face Aux Répercussions Des Attentats Qui Ont Frappé Les Etats-Unis. L'Ensemble Des Responsables Politiques Ont Momentanément Fait Taire Leurs Débats Électoraux." Le Monde 14 septembre 2001.

Patrick, Jarreau. "Les Préparatifs De Guerre s'Intensifient Aux Etats-Unis; Deuil, Prières Et Drapeaux Ont Marqué La Journée De Vendredi. En Même Temps, Les Réservistes Ont Été Rappelés. Washington a Le Soutien De Moscou Pour Une Intervention Anti -Talibans En Asie Centrale. Dans Les Prochains Jours, c'Est l'Avenir Du Pakistan, Tout Autant Que De l'Afghanistan, Qui Pourrait Se Jouer." Le Monde 17 septembre 2001.

"Refuser Le Manichéisme." Le Monde 15 septembre 2001., “French See Bush as the Ugly American.”, October 19, 2008.

* Note on Research Methods: The list of articles discussed in this paper was derived from a Lexus Nexus search of sources containing the phrase “World Trade Center” in Le Monde from September 12th, 2001 to September 18th, 2001. With the goal of specifically analyzing French opinion of American policy, I limited the search to those articles on the subject of “Foreign Politics” that also contained reference to “George W. Bush” and came up with a final list of six articles. All quotations are translated by the author.

1.), “French See Bush as the Ugly American.”, October 19, 2008.

2.) "La Fin d'Un Rêve." Le Monde 13 septembre 2001.  

3.) "Les Algériens Condamnent l'Empressement Des Français à Désigner Les Arabes, Et Les Chinois Évoquent Belgrade Et l'Irak; De l'Asie à La Suisse, Les Condamnations Sont Officiellement Unanimes." Le Monde 13 septembre 2001.

4.) "Refuser Le Manichéisme." Le Monde 15 septembre 2001. 

5.) Ibid. 

6.) Patrick, Jarreau. "Les Préparatifs De Guerre s'Intensifient Aux Etats-Unis…” Le Monde 17 septembre 2001.

7.) "Refuser Le Manichéisme." Le Monde 15 septembre 2001. 

8.) De, Beer P. "L'Irak Reste Une Cible Tentante Pour l'Équipe Bush; Une Attaque Contre Bagdad Pourrait Briser La Solidarité Des Européens Et Des Pays Arabes." Le Monde 18 septembre 2001.

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