Mary Dejevsky is a British writer and broadcaster. She is a former foreign correspondent in Paris and regularly contributes to The Independent and The Guardian.
Could you briefly go through your education?
I went to very academic schools. If you were in the top streams, you would study either sciences and maths or languages. I did languages. I studied classics – Latin and Greek – and German and Russian. Then, I went to Oxford and studied German and Russian. I had a year out, in the 1960s. I went to a British council exchange scheme to provincial Russia. Very few people were doing that so it was quite difficult when I was there.
Can you tell us about your time in Paris as a foreign correspondent?
I had never expected to go to Paris because I did not speak French. But because I spoke all these other languages, there was an assumption that I spoke French. When I was offered to go to Paris, I had been a correspondent in Moscow for The Times for 3 years. I then came back to Britain and I was a comment editor at The Independent in London for another 3 years. All of this happened by pure chance really.
At the time, there was a crisis with the correspondent in Paris. It was the beginning of the election campaign of 1995 with Edouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac. I was interested in French politics and I had commissioned articles about French politics. One day, the editor called me and said: “Would you fancy going to Paris?”. I said “When can I go?”. He did not ask me if I spoke French. I talked to my husband and he was also happy to go. Two months later, I was in Paris. I taught myself French with tapes I had in my car, I was listening to France Inter. When I arrived, I began to read the papers in French. My knowledge of Latin and of other languages helped me. After 1 month, there was an important announcement on the radio and I was terrified to not understand. I finally managed to understand the announcement and it was a big triumph for me. During the summer, I joined the Alliance Française courses in Paris. It was very intensive: five mornings per week. We had to take a test at the beginning to decide of our placement in different levels. I was placed in a rather high level, for people who could manage to speak French but did not understand the subjunctive. The dividing line was always the subjunctive. I only stayed 2 years in Paris, which was quite a tragedy. Normally, people manage to stay longer or even forever but there was a crisis in Washington and I was needed there.
The most memorable event you covered in Paris?
There were two major events I can remember. The first one was the transport strikes. Many people were demonstrating in the streets, but what was striking was the emergence of a complete alternative society. People were volunteering to take others to work, there were unofficial taxis… I had a very formal dinner at the British embassy one day during the strikes. Guests were still arriving at 9 o’clock and people were clapping because they were so happy they had managed to arrive.
I also recall the first Islamist terrorist attacks by the Algerian GIA [Armed Islamic Group] and the attacks in the Parisian underground. It was the first time that such events were happening in European capital cities. It was also the first time that emergency hospitals appeared in the streets.
I remember that the French authorities were trying to extradite a suspect who had fled to Britain [Rachid Ramda, convicted of the 1995 terror bombings in public transportations in France and was granted asylum by the United Kingdom]. There was an ongoing battle for years between French and British authorities, which ended when I was back in Britain, in 2005. The French were accusing the British of giving asylum to Islamic dissidents and the British were refusing the extradition because they thought the suspect would not be granted a fair trial in France. Appeal after appeal, a decision was finally taken and he was extradited.
Did you also travel in other parts of France as a journalist?
Yes, I travelled all over France. During the election campaign of 1995, I followed the candidates to traditional villages and farms with the campaign rallies. It was a good introduction to the country.
The first place I went to deliberately with my husband was Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. I think every journalist who comes to France needs to go, in order to understand the country and to see the basis. At the time, the family grave of De Gaulle was opened and unprotected, in a very small cemetery. We went to the church and also visited the house, which has a fantastic view. That was before the gigantic monument and the illuminated cross were built. I know it was very controversial, people said De Gaulle would not have liked it.
How do you see the future of Franco-British relations?
I think Franco-British relations have always had a kind of dual contradictory aspect. At the level of the people who travel or live in the other country, there is mutual understanding. But politically, the relations have been very variable. Both our countries are nuclear and military powers at the forefront of the European defence. There is a history of rivalry and resistance to cooperation in this field and the main problem of the European defence coordination was always the British. Soon after the Brexit vote, it was interesting to see how European countries started to get together on the military side. I think it makes perfect sense for the EU to have a military capacity.
You define yourself as a European fundamentalist. How did you become one?
Well partly because I think there should be a European security policy and I think that joining the common currency should be required to enter the European Union. You cannot be part of the EU if you refuse to join the currency and Schengen. I believe there also ought to be a single border force and common criteria for asylum-seekers from outside the EU. When the borders broke down two years ago, it seemed ridiculous that some people could not qualify in a specific country but could qualify in another. Deciding who can be welcomed is a hard task.
I think there is also a problem with the East of Europe. They have joined because they wanted the protection. But their independence is so recent that they are reluctant to accept the sharing of sovereignty. The countries from the East of Europe had more sympathy with the British. From Thatcher onwards, the British were the most enthusiastic to expand the EU to the East but it is at the same time the main reason they have left.
You travelled the world as a foreign correspondent for many years. Did it open new perspectives on your own country? Do you see things differently?
I have not been to the middle of Africa and Latin America. I think I see British domestic and foreign policies with a more international perspective than most people. There is a lot of ignorance in Britain regarding how the rest of the world works. People sometimes say that the National Health Service is fantastic and should be kept as it is because it is the best in the world, but it is not true. On the other side, there is also a minority realising that the French Health Service is very good. People should see how other systems work first. It is very tough to persuade the majority of British people that there should be changes. There is a huge lack of awareness. It is the same to a certain extent with the migration policy. The British people do not understand that one of the reasons why so many migrants come to Britain is because our controls are very lax. It is quite easy to stay and work illegally. Nobody thinks that we could do something if we really wanted to, but we could introduce ID, proper border checks, make employers more responsible towards their employees…
You recently wrote in an article that discretion was the great French quality. What is the great English quality according to you?
Resilience. I think British people are very resilient. There is a lot of practicality and common sense, and this capacity to not panic and exaggerate when things go wrong. British people responded very well to the terrorist attacks. It probably has to do with the Irish terrorism experience. They respond to crises in an inventive way. During the London attacks, people set up ambulance points and medical centres in shops and cafés. During the Grenfell tower fire, the authorities were quite useless. They would be much better organized for similar situations in France. The British government is very fortunate that the population is generally slow to panic. During the terrorist attacks in Paris, arrangements were put in place by the authorities. Major hospitals were involved, emergency numbers were created and the authorities were giving instructions to the population. The efforts were incredible and it was very effective. In Britain, the system is not very streamlined. People were furious after the Grenfell tower fire because the state failed and did not act.
Do you feel there is a French and a British way to do journalism?
I am not sure I would say that there is a French and a British way of doing it. But I would say that there is certainly a British way. The American view and perhaps the German view is that the best way of doing journalism is to report events in an objective and neutral way. It is not the British view. British journalism has always been very opinionated. We are encouraged as foreign correspondents to give personal insight and to make opinion comments. Our press is very politicized and everyone knows who stands for which party. It is much less true elsewhere. The key to opinionated press is that different voices have to compete. If we only had the The Daily Telegraph, it would be hard to argue.
What about the tabloids?
I am less worried about them because of the spread of opinions. When I go to think tanks conferences or European events and discussions, some academics always blame the tabloids and think that everything has to do with The Daily Mail. I disagree. I do not believe that tabloids tell people what to think. Tabloids are playing back to people with what they know they think and reflect the British political opinions rather than they shape it. The result of the last general elections is a brilliant example of how the tabloids did not influence the vote at all. It is too easy for the politicians and the academics to blame the irresponsibility of the tabloids. With Brexit, the opinions were also there before. Tabloids did not tell people to vote “Leave”. It might have reinforced the opinions but the issue could be found much deeper in the British psyche. There was a frustration growing among the Brexit voters, because they had never been asked about the European project since 1975.
What do you think is the cause of “French-bashing” in Anglo-Saxon countries?
I was a diplomatic correspondent in London when the worst French-bashing happened. It was before the beginning of the Iraq war. The Sun had a campaign after the Villepin speech at the United Nations. I think that the British followed the American campaign. They were accusing the French of being disloyal, of betraying the values of the western world. The Sun created a form and invited people to write to the French embassy. The poor French ambassador, Gérard Errera, was receiving lots of forms every day. It was a difficult time, there was a real anti-French sentiment in the Foreign Office and in Parliament. I thought it was outrageous. I believe an indication was given to The Sun and other newspapers by British politicians, they were encouraged to bash the French. It was orchestrated at the very top level of British politics; the press was not acting by itself.
The only good thing about it was that the French had the last laugh, because the war seemed to be such a disaster. The French and the Russian were right. I travelled several times to Israel, soon after the Iraq war. I told the officials that I could not remember Israel’s position about the Iraq war and the chemical weapons. They smiled and said they were very pleased I could not remember because it was their position. Their interpretation of the events was probably quite similar to the French, which means it was contradictory to the American and British positions.
However, in Britain, the French-bashing was not as horrendous as in America. In the United States, people were emptying and smashing bottles of Burgundy on the streets, they were refusing to buy French cheese. But I think the French-bashing was a pretext to denounce the differences of views during the Iraq war. I do not believe that there was a latent and persistent anti-French feeling. It was a very anti-French campaign, not an anti-European campaign. During the Brexit, the campaign was not against the Europeans, it was mainly directed towards the authorities.
Do you remember your first encounter with the French culture?
Yes. My father was the director of a college for training teachers. They had teaching assistants from France and from Germany. One day, I took long holidays in Europe with my family. Elisabeth, the French assistant, had told me she would show me Paris if I came. So, I stayed in Paris for 3 days. She gave us a touristic tour and we had a French luncheon. It was all spectacular. It was around 1965 and I have been going back ever since. The Eurostar made traveling very easy.
Do you think Paris changed a lot since 1965?
It changed recently in a more London direction. Paris is becoming more visibly multi-ethnic. Before, you had the périphérique and some arrondissements like the 19th or the 20th where you could see ethnic minorities but Paris was otherwise not multi-ethnic.
On the cultural scene, France was ahead with the street markets, the outdoor exhibitions. I remember a fantastic exhibition of sculpture all down the Champs Elysées, it was spectacular. I was going to say that Paris had been more conservative in terms of architecture, but it is not quite true. Some buildings are very pioneering, like the Centre Pompidou. I would say that Paris has been much more careful about its standards whereas London was quite irresponsible. In Paris, the aesthetics have been kept. London could be described as too conservative and unadventurous in terms of development but on the other side, it has been hugely mistaken with the outrageous constructions that have been built during the last 10 years.
The biggest issue is that in London, nobody oversees the urban development. The current mayor has organized a committee but planning authorities are still operating at the scale of boroughs.
Interviewed by Lise Péron
Franco-British Portrait Gallery