As in the United States, journalists and independent media play a critical role in French society. Dating back to the establishment of “fourth estate” the French have protected their right to investigate, critique, and lampoon those who hold positions of power. During a recent dinner with French journalists in Washington on the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), I was reminded of our shared values and challenges.
My discussion with French journalists Vincent Jarnigon and Violette Lazard underscored a fundamental challenge binds us together. Both nations have nurtured the notion of freedom of expression and tolerance. In America’s case, it was the result of being a nation of immigrants and the bill of rights; in the French case, it is not only the legal code, but also a profound sense of national identity and culture. The Charlie Hebdo tragedy, the rise of European recruits to ISIS, and an outbreak of anti-Semitism makes the protection of our journalistic freedoms even more critical as a weapon against extremism. In America, we are in danger of reducing the challenge of radical Islamic terrorism into a series of sound bites that either dance around the issue, obscure the problem, or paint the religion that billions of people adhere to with a very broad brush. Our French colleagues are here to witness the connection between the American judicial and law enforcement system and the media firsthand in places like Boston, St. Louis, and Montgomery – all places that have dealt with cathartic events where violent action has tested the limits of our institutions to respond. Meridian’s U.S-France Leadership Dialogue frames current issues such as trade, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the context of shared economic growth. This was intended to be a departure from the traditional security forum, which continually focused on French NATO military membership and the desire by France for an independent nuclear deterrent or “Force de Frappe.” Additional exchange of journalists and opinion leaders between the United States and France will benefit both countries as we navigate a dangerous world and seek to uphold the values on which our countries were built.