Since the murder of a Frenchman working at an oil and gas company in Yemen on October 6,
Yemen is trendy in France. We hear about it, we talk about it, we read about it, but do we really know it?
Neglecting to cover it would mean standing out, and when it comes to news coverage, media outlets don’t aim to be the black sheep of the family. So, they all cover it- the radio stations, the television programs, and the newspapers. The headlines all sing the same refrain: “Yemen is al-Qaeda’s new headquarters,” “Yemen: a haven for terrorists,” and “Yemen, the next Afghanistan?”. Sensationalism is everywhere. “I’ve been eating Yemen for breakfast, lunch and dinner ever since last October when the Frenchman working at an oil company was murdered,” says Marie, a real estate agent in Paris’s ritzy 6th arrondissement.
Not only does the media intensively report about the country, but the French authorities have also shown a marked interest in Yemen. They have been closely following what is occurring in the country, and are getting increasingly involved in its affairs. On November 4, Brice Hortefeux, the French Interior Minister, announced that one of the two mail bombs sent from Yemen in October was defused just seventeen minutes before it was set to explode. He broke the news during an interview on France’s state-run France-2 television station.
Like several other countries in the EU, Paris decided to stop cargo flights to Yemen and issued a travel warning about Yemen. The authorities went so far as to urge French expats living in Yemen to leave the country. Bernard Valero, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman, noted, “This is a temporary precautionary measure taken in coordination with the main French companies present on the site.” Paule, one of the hundred French expats living in Saan’a, does not understand this decision. “I have been living in the Old City for almost ten years and I have never felt unsafe. Neither in the past, nor now. When I walk around in the streets I am still in awe of the warmth of local people; I have never, ever had any problems here. I continue to take the bus everyday, as I always have!” she said.
One of the most dangerous places on earth
Most French citizens would consider Paule’s sentiments to be madness. On Paris’ streets, the latest media campaigns about Yemen have had a massive impact. The country is seen as one of the most dangerous place on earth. “We feel like it is boiling there. I would visit Lebanon, Iran but certainly not Yemen, I would be too scared to get kidnapped with my guide in the middle of a no man’s land,” admits Agathe, popping by Marie’s real estate agency, which has turned into a meeting room in which the agenda is Yemen.
“When we read about it, it’s all about terrorism, al-Qaeda and kidnappings, how could we not think that this place is teeming with Islamic radicals?” asks Marie. “I believe media when they say that there are more and more terrorists in the country even if I’m aware that they are not at the corner of every street! ” adds Laetitia, who jumps into the discussion.
Hearing these descriptions, I suddenly wonder which images come to mind when people in France think about Yemen. As I know the country pretty well because of numerous travels throughout its territory, the most recent of which was in August, I dare to ask my audience. For Agathe, this place is “a desert stuck between Africa and Asia with some shepherds here and there.” “I believe it’s a country stuck in the ages where people drink tea and move on camels’ backs,” specifies her husband Severin, while Marie sees it as “a backward nation with dangerous ancestral customs.”
The suddenness and the intensity of the recent media campaigns have certainly played a large role in creating this distorted image. A few months ago, most French people had barely ever heard about this land in the Arabian Peninsula. If they did, they could only picture the fearsome image created by the press last January, following the aborted bombing attempt on a plane between Amsterdam and Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutalleb, a Nigerian who studied Arabic in Sana’a.
In the span of a few days, teams of French journalists, alongside the rest of the international media, poured into the Yemeni capital to write about the event before disappearing as soon as al-Qaeda was not sexy enough for the headlines. Both the January and the October coverage focused almost exclusively on the political and security issues, writing over-dramatized stories about the crisis and not daring to dive into the ocean of stories behind it. Thus, people on the streets get very little background information and tend to get an inaccurate image.
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