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French Media Coverage of

Syrian refugees and asylum


seekers

​Laura Bartley 2016


Introduction

Background
International migration and issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers can be
seen as one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century in an era of international
mobility and globalisation. In 2015, European news reports and political debate were
dominated by the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore according to the
UNHCR and the EU Commission, the number of displaced people in 2015 reached 60
million which surpassed the amount of those fleeing conflict for the first time since the
Second World War (UNHCR 2015; EU Commission 2015).
My research study aims to investigate the French print media coverage of refugees
and asylum seekers in the European Union in late 2015, in particular focusing on the period
before and after the November Paris attacks to see if any change occurred in how the issue of
refugees and asylum seeking was reported in the French media. This period was chosen
because in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the affiliation of one of
the attackers as a ‘fake Syrian refugee’, some research has found that the attitude of Western
Europe towards Syrian refugees has changed as a result of this. For instance the Table One
(see appendix) from YouGov shows how there was a drop of 5% in the number of French
people who believed that political refugees from Syria should be allowed into France,
following the Paris attacks.
The aim is to establish general patterns in the representations and framing of Syrian
refugees over two distinct time phases by analysing news articles on the issue of Syrian
refugees in two major French newspapers; ​Le Figaro and ​Le Parisien . Furthermore, the aim
is also to understand the influential role media has on shaping political decisions in periods of
state emergency and also to analyse the consequences of media portrayal of refugees in the
broader context. Moreover, the research paper will examine whether the expected change in
framing of refugees and asylum seekers in the news media was then repeated in the
following government framing of the issue and hence the policy outcomes.
Therefore my research question is: “How did the French news media discourse
regarding refugees and their integration in Europe change following the November 13th Paris
attacks in 2015?” Additionally this question will be answered by looking at the following
subquestions:

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○ How were refugees in Europe and internationally, represented in the French
media and parliament before the November 13th attacks?
○ How did this representation change following the coverage of the Paris
attacks?
Finally, the expected outcomes are that following the Paris attacks, the French newspapers
and parliament will present immigrants as threats to national identity and also associate
refugees and asylum seekers to criminal/terrorist groups such as Daesh.

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical background I will be applying and using in my research paper relies heavily
on social constructivist theory with a specific focus on the securitisation of migration and also
the politics of fear and exclusion. This choice was made as social constructivism can be seen
as a suitable approach for this specific research paper because there is a heavy emphasis
placed on language and speech as forms of action and of discourse being a form of power
(Waever 1993). Additionally it will be important to draw on securitisation theory as this
focuses on how specific issues (such as refugees and migration) come to be politicised and
then categorised as threats to the survival of the population and the state.

The power of media framing


Moreover, recent literature has highlighted the continued importance of the press in
shaping European political discourse surrounding immigration (Boswell 2012; Caviedes
2011). The concept of ‘framing’ provides another useful entry point to identifying the
political preferences (or biases) present within news media articles and also political speeches
(Robinson 2012, p. 145). Although the exact definition of ‘framing’ is itself contested and
debated, the heavily cited work of Entman (1993, p. 52) refers to a way of ascribing
importance to certain aspects of a narrative which “promote a particular problem definition,
causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.” Notably however
Gitlin (1980, p.7) widens this definition to include visual images by stating that frames are
“persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and
exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organise discourse, whether verbal or visual.”

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The Securitisation of refugees and migration in France and the EU

“We will accept refugees only if we have security guarantees”


- Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s European Affairs
Minister 14th November 20151

“The days of uncontrolled immigration and illegal entry can’t continue just like that.
Paris changes everything”
- Markus Soeder, Finance Minister of Bavaria.2

Securitisation theory concerns the social construction of security threats through discursive
practices (for example newspaper articles) as in securitisation theory the concept of ‘security’
is not viewed as objective or given, but rather it is the result of a social process (Williams
2003, p 513). Following from the work of this school of thought in order for an issue to
become ‘successfully securitised’ the audience (or wider public) must accept and believe that
it is an existential threat as only then can it be shifted from the boundaries of normal politics
to a more urgent and exceptional form of high-politics:
“A discourse that takes the form of presenting something as an
existential threat to a referent object does not by itself create
securitization - this is a securitizing move, but the issue is securitized
only if and when the audience accepts it as such” (Buzan et al 1998,
p.25).

Therefore when an issue (such as migration) is securitised we treat it with the same urgency
and political reaction as we would traditionally treat a military threat. Buzan et al. (1998,
p.21) argue that the social construction of threats by securitising actors (for instance
politicians) “justifies the use of extraordinary measures to handle them” and moves them
along the spectrum of securitisation as outlined below:

Nonpoliticised → Politicised → Securitised


(not a political issue) (part of public policy debate) (existential threat, justifies
exceptional measures)

1
​http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-france-shooting-poland-reaction-idUKKCN0T30P920151114
2
https://www.rt.com/news/322208-paris-attacks-german-policy/
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Figure Two - The process of securitisation
Source: adapted from Buzan et al. 1998, p.23

Furthermore we must look at how the issue of migration (and specifically refugees and
asylum seekers) have become securitised in recent discussions of refugees as described
above. Huysmans work (2006, p.x) also discusses the political ramifications of the
securitisation of migration by describing how the securitising actor reaffirms the community
as a sovereign entity through the invocation of that very concept of an endangered
community: “the securitisation of migration reproduces a myth that a homogeneous national
community or Western civilisation existed in the past and can be reestablished today through
the exclusion of those migrants who are identified as cultural aliens” (cited in Peoples and
Vaughan-Williams 2015, p. 173).
Additionally the French emergency laws enacted following the Friday 13th attacks are
reminiscent of Buzan’s writings on securitisation as justification for exceptional measures:
“Securitization on the international level… means to present an issue as
urgent and existential, as so important that it should not be exposed to the
normal haggling of politics” (Buzan ​et al​ 1998, p.29).

Currently in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the audience (the general public) are willing to
believe that some migrants pose an existential threat not only to their society but more
fundamentally to the survival of their sovereign state. Thus we see a return to a more
traditional referent object of security, that of national security.

Methodology

The research method I will use in this paper will be a mixed-method methodology making
use of both quantitative and qualitative analysis. The paper will analyse the French
newspaper coverage of refugees in Europe focussing on two publications (Le Parisien and Le
Figaro) during a two week period before and after the November 13th Paris attacks. As put
by Graber (2003, p.140) “many broad and definitive judgments about the substantive content
of mass media are still made without actual content analyses of these media.” Therefore this
research paper will perform a mixed method form of analysis of the migration coverage in

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two French broadsheets - Le Parisien as a centre-left paper and Le Figaro as a centre-right
paper - over two different phases before and after the Paris attacks of 13th November.
Similarly, an analysis of political speeches from the French parliament in the same two
periods will be carried out in order to assess whether a relationship exists between the French
media and political discourse.

Newspaper Type Political Bias Monthly Number of Total Word


Print Articles Count
readership3

Le Parisien Broadsheet Centre/Neutral 208,986 98 ~ 39,587

Le Figaro Broadsheet Centre-right 305,387 75 ~ 57,294

Total 173 ~ 96,881

Analysis/Results

This section analyses each newspaper separately, this is done in order to appreciate the subtle
differences in how events were represented in each different medium. In all cases, the same
keywords are compared in both Phase One and Phase Two, so to see what changes occurred
within the discourse and if this indicates a wider trend. Articles from both papers were
gathered using the online database LexisNexis and searching within two distinct timeframes -
Phase One, 29th October - 12th November 2015 and Phase Two, 13th - 27th November 2015
- using the search terms “réfugié*” with more than 3 mentions and also “asile*.”
Significantly, Table Two. illustrates clearly the slight decrease in articles published
during Phase Two despite there being an increase in the coverage of refugees in Le Figaro.
Therefore in order to account for this decrease in the data, the percentage difference relative
to the percentage of coverage is employed so as to ascertain whether terms increased or
decreased in Phase Two of the study (noting that Phase Two contained only 43% of the
overall media coverage).

3
http://www.acpm.fr/Chiffres/Diffusion/La-Presse-Payante/Presse-Quotidienne-Regionale
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Table Three - Newspaper Analysis

Le Figaro

The results of the content analysis on the articles which appeared in Le Figaro
newspaper during Phase One and Two of this study, show that whilst there was an increase in
the use of typically more sympathetic, positive migration terminology (for instance increase
in use of ‘réfugié’ and ‘demandeur d’asile’), there was also simultaneously a shift to looking
at the issue of refugees as being threatening to the security of the nation. The use of the
security terms border and threat increased dramatically in the period following the attack, by
10% and 29% respectively. Moreover, there was also a striking increase in the use of
identity/religious terminology in relation to the reporting of the issue of refugees, for instance
the use of the word ‘musulman’ increasing during Phase two by a dramatic 51% and the term
islamique also appearing for the first time only in phase two.

% of total Percentage of
mentions in difference relative
Phase Two Total phase two to coverage % (43)

Migrant 69 174 40% -3

Réfugié (​refugee)​ 180 261 69% +26

Demandeur d'asile
(​asylum seeker)​ 35 59 59% +16

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Crise (​crisis)​ 42 80 53% +10

Frontières
(​borders)​ 57 108 53% +10

Menace (​threat)​ 18 25 72% +29

Islamique (​islamic)​ 26 26 100% +57

Musulmans
(​muslims)​ 15 16 94% +51

Le Parisien

Through the analysis of the articles selected from ​Le Parisien,​ we can see that there
was some differences in the coverage in comparison to ​Le Figaro.​ For example there was a
striking decrease in the use of the word “réfugié” following the Paris attacks, but an increase
of 33% in the use of the term “demandeur d’asile”, perhaps indicating a distancing from the
previous more positive portrayal of refugees found in this paper. Moreover in a similar
fashion to the ​Le Figaro there was an increase in the use of religious terminology following
the attacks, with the terms ‘Islamique’ increasing slightly by 7% and ‘musulmans’ increasing
dramatically by 32%. From this we can argue that following the killings at the Bataclan on
November 13th in Paris that the coverage in the media shifted to securitising the issue of
refugees and asylum seekers.

Percentage of
% of total mentions difference relative
Phase Two Total in phase two to coverage % (43)

Migrant 41 139 29% -14

Réfugié (​refugee)​ 71 223 32% -11

Demandeur d'asile
(​asylum seeker)​ 26 34 76% 33

Crise (​crisis)​ 0 7 0% -43

Frontières
(​borders)​ 15 26 58% 15

Menace (​threat)​ 3 14 21% -22

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Islamique (​islamic)​ 2 4 50% 7

Musulmans
(​muslims)​ 3 4 75% 32

Conclusion

The aim of this research paper was to evaluate whether there was a shift in discourse
in relation to French media coverage on refugees and asylum seekers following the Paris
attacks in the end of 2015. The data confirms the hypothesis of the study that there was
indeed a shift in the media discourse following the events of November 13th with an
increased securitisation of the issue of refugees. In phase two there is an evident
securitisation of migrants and refugees and this is unsurprising as according to Huysmans
(2006, p. 46) migrants and refugees can often be depicted and viewed as threats to the culture
of the host state as in the news media they are “portrayed as endangering a collective way of
life that defines a community of people.” The connection of one of the terrorists having
arrived to Europe under the “guise of a refugee” heightened the media coverage of refugees
as being more and more connected with national security threats and Islamic State.
Furthermore in relation to the limitations of this paper and the results it found, as it was
limited to a specific timeframe and a specific European country, its generalisability
limitations could be resolved by a larger comparative study and through investigating other
media forms (for example the impact of social media).

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The Independent, (2015). Britons twice as hostile as French to Syrian refugees following
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http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britons-twice-as-hostile-to-syrian-refugee
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Appendix

Table One

Source: YouGov 2015, cited in The Independent 2015.

Table Three Le Figaro - Phase One and Two Word Frequency Table

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Table Four Le Parisien - Phase One and Two Word Frequency Table

Front Pages of ​Le Figaro​ and ​Le Parisien​ on 14th November (the day following the terrorist attacks)

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