Young Leaders take talk to Arab world

Young Leaders take talk to Arab world

March 5, 2013

Young Leaders Estelle Youssouffa and Christine Poyer-Rufenacht are continuing the sort of global dialogue they began during their Young Leaders annual meetings together in 2011 and 2012. The two are organizing The Young Leaders High-Level Panel on the Aftermath of the Arab Spring: A renewed French and American dialogue with Africa and the Arab world, to be held in Marrakech, Morocco, on June 13-15. The forum, featuring guest of honor Jean-David Levitte, former Ambassador to the United States and Special Diplomatic Adviser to Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, is open to all former Young Leaders of the French-American Foundation. 

Estelle Youssouffa, of the 2011 class of Young Leaders, is an independent, bilingual broadcast journalist. A news anchor on French 24/7 news network ITélé and the global network TV5 Monde, she’s also an investigative journalist working for France 2, Un Oeil sur la Planète. She graduated with a degree in journalism studies in Tours, France, before studying international relations and political studies at Québec University of Montréal. She has previously worked for the French news network LCI, the Arabic news network Al Arabiya, and as Paris correspondent with Al Jazeera English. She teaches seminars at the Institut Pratique de Journalisme in Paris, Université Paris-Dauphine. She participated in the 2009 Yazid Sabeg Commission on Diversity in the Media created by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which resulted in a Diversity Charter signed by 18 French national media outlets.

Estelle, we’re delighted to have you as a Young Leader and very excited about the enthusiasm and effort you’ve demonstrated to keep the community active. We’d love for you to tell us more about your experience as a Young Leader and about the French-American dialogue with Africa and the Arab world program you’re developing this summer in Marrakech.

You’re among one of the most recent classes of Young Leaders, having taken part in your second year in Le Havre this past fall. What did you gain from your participation in the French-American Foundation Young Leaders program? Was there one program take-away, whether personal or professional, which has proven particularly valuable?
Traveling on both sides of the Atlantic allows us to discover the character of our countries and take the time to meet. The very diverse profiles among the group and the exceptional access we are granted is unique. This year, Young Leader Edouard Philippe welcomed us in Le Havre, which he runs as mayor and a Member of Parliament. He showed us his town and its architecture as well as the merchandise port, which is one of the busiest in Europe. The Foundation took us to Omaha Beach, which was a very moving moment: the military Young Leaders shared their reflections on the wars they are or have been fighting. The Young Leaders program anchors us in this very deep, historical alliance between our two countries with a personal touch.

I also enjoyed being part of the Young Leaders program because of the off-the-record debates we had: it provides a very rare insight into the decision-making process of people in charge. As a journalist, I would likely have met most of the Young Leaders in the program for a report. But we would have never had such lengthy personal conversations. I feel very lucky to have met such generous, dedicated, high-achieving Young Leaders willing to share their views and experiences. Their thoughts opened new perspectives for me. It boosted my drive; Young Leaders are such an inspiration! And I must add that some Young Leaders became very good friends. We see each other, speak, or email since most of the French Young Leaders live in Paris. We talk shop and swap career advice, but we also laugh a lot together and have a good time over dinner or brunch. To me, that is what is most precious about this program!

Tell us what inspired you to organize the “Young Leader High Level Panel” in Marrakech.
On our last day in Le Havre, a group of us felt we would miss traveling together and having the opportunity to talk at length. We picked a theme for our trip that would engage us. The Arab Spring is an historical event which is unfolding before our eyes, and it is deeply changing this part of the world. North Africa and the Middle East are strategic regions for both the USA and France: the Arab revolutions have a long-term impact on our ties, policies, and business relations with these countries. It is crucial that we are able to have a better understanding of what is at stake there and who the players are. As Young Leaders, we will be dealing with the deep changes and historical twists and turns that this region will undergo in the next decades. Being able to meet Arab Young Leaders in Marrakech, exchange views with them, and build lasting personal ties is a fantastic opportunity I hope French and American Young Leaders will embrace.

What specific themes do you plan to address in this conference?
The four-day meeting will bring us together with military experts, bankers, political leaders, and activists. We will also talk about Islam, media, women's rights, arts, etc. Our hope is to bring more food for thought to Young Leaders, a different perspective on the Arab world, and an experience that will push us to go beyond stereotypes and headlines. We want to have high-level talks in a friendly atmosphere. Loved-ones are welcome, and we intend to really enjoy Moroccan hospitality!

You’ve worked closely with Christine Poyer-Rufenacht, a fellow Young Leader from your class, to organize this conference. Have other Young Leaders been involved?
Christine is a trooper: she is indeed my lovely partner in crime! The Young Leaders network is proving very helpful in putting together this event: everyone is very kindly offering their contacts, advice, and expertise. Some are sponsoring the event and hopefully more will when reading this! It's a group effort, and to me, that is the spirit of the French-American Foundation Young Leaders program: driving the agenda, striving for knowledge, and excellence with a smile.

How did you engage Ambassador Jean-David Levitte as guest of honor for this program? What do you think he will bring to this conversation?
French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte responded to our invitation right away and with great enthusiasm. As Ambassador, he was a strong advocate of the Young Leaders program and said it is very special to him. For us, it is an exceptional opportunity to meet and talk with such an impressive diplomat. Among the many positions he has held, Ambassador Levitte represented France in Washington and was the special diplomatic advisor to Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy. He is also a distinguished fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and member of the International Advisory Board of the Atlantic Council of the United States. Need I say more? His insights on the Arab Spring will be fascinating to hear, and I hope Young Leaders will join in the conversation we are preparing. Ambassador Levitte is highly motivated; he is already asking Moroccan officials to come and talk to us. We feel very lucky!

You’ve been very involved with the French-American Foundation and have many insights both on French and global affairs. We’d like to learn a little more about you.

You joined the Foundation in New York for a panel discussion prior to the 2012 French elections. As everyone on the panel predicted, François Hollande was shortly thereafter elected President of France. It’s been nearly a year since his election. What has been the most noteworthy change Hollande’s presidency and the Socialist government has brought to the lives of the French people?
I guess there has been very little change, and that is probably what is noteworthy for the French! There is actually growing impatience and disappointment in public opinion. Voters expected much and hoped a Socialist president would be able to ease the impact of the economic slowdown. But growth is not back, and unemployment is on the rise. It is a very grim context, and there is no room to maneuver for this government. The EU is also insisting on structural reforms and less public spending. President Hollande has to defend this austerity position, which is unpopular. It is hard to see an economic stimulus plan, but the government has created a public investment bank aimed at helping entrepreneurs. After an acrimonious political debate and the very public exile of Gerard Depardieu, the proposed 75-percent tax on the highest revenues has been rebuffed since being deemed unconstitutional. So far, the only major reform which seems under way and in line with the candidate's promises is the gay-marriage bill, which has been approved by the Lower House of the Parliament.

You are “Franco-Mahoraise,” meaning you are originally from Mayotte – an archipelago located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique, that was elevated from a territory to an overseas department of France in March 2011. How have your Mahoran origins influenced your journalistic or personal pursuits?
Mayotte is a Muslim, African tiny microscopic island, and I guess since it has been a French territory since 1841, I feel very Franco-French! But I am indeed mixed race and very proud of my roots. My Dad is a black non-practicing Muslim with various African origins, and my Mum is a green-eyed brunette with Belgian Catholic and Polish Jewish heritage... nothing original, I am simply the product of the 20th century! And I must say President Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008 resonated deeply with me. When national or racial identities are so polarized, mixed-race people can somehow be perceived as outsiders, but I believe they can help build bridges. Barack Obama explained very well the intimate knowledge of the multiple heritages we all carry: it's a fabulous blend. Since the clash of civilizations seems to be the biggest challenge humanity faces now, I believe I have been given a few handy genetic tools! Being French but looking like a foreigner helps me connect with minorities and listen candidly to the opposite point of view. At a very young age, I learned that a dominant group somewhere can be a minority elsewhere: it puts things into perspective, and that shapes my work ethic.

You took part in the French-American Foundation’s Media Coverage of Immigration program in 2010. How has this informed your journalistic interests or the way you report on different cultures and issues?
The program brought together journalists from various backgrounds and countries in Miami. Our discussions showed that our industry is going through enormous changes. We are flooded with information while adapting to technical revolutions and dealing with shrinking budgets. Gathering news is not what is difficult anymore. But it is up to journalists to make relevant information newsworthy and make sense out of it. We journalists need to be up to the challenge and meet the public's demand for pertinent news with perspective and analysis. We discussed objectivity, local versus mainstream media, and how to cover global events without being biased. I met great fellow journalists, and we kept the conversation going back in Paris when I organized dinners to discuss these issues with some of my French colleagues.

A March 5, 2012, article in the journal MayotteHebdo began with these two sentences: “Estelle Youssouffa est ce qu'on appelle une grande journaliste. Une de ces femmes qui ont fait rêver des milliers de gamins : être reporter, partir à l'étranger pour couvrir des zones de conflits, rencontrer des gens, dans des pays improbables.What do you think of this portrayal?
I don't think I am a "grande journaliste": I am still learning my job and trying to get better at it! I realize that being on TV presenting the news and reporting is prestigious– the dream job for many. The media are getting a lot of attention, but news makers are neither the story nor the heroes: those who fight, work hard, are in pain, or in anger are news. To me, they are the story. Meeting them and communicating what they are going through is what motivates me. Being able to speak to the public, interview people and have them open their doors to us is a privilege. I feel entrusted with their stories, and my job is to carry them to viewers. That's a merciless but beautiful mission, and my job allows me to be in incredible situations with extraordinary people.

Is there one extraordinary reporting experience that has really left an impression on you?
Every report is unique. However, once, when I was in Qatar in the desert on a camel farm with the male members of a Bedouin clan, I felt very fortunate. I had never approached camels before and learned that they are very expensive, smart animals! At sunset, the youngest member of the family called for prayer, and they all gathered to pray with their carpets on the sand. We then ate around the fire while some played with their iPads: this scene captured a traditional world being transformed by gas wealth. I was the first woman ever allowed on that farm and the only western journalist who could meet and film the females of this family in their home back in the city. Sharing that with my viewers felt extraordinary. I am always excited about the next person I will meet, the next story, the next interview, the new investigation I will work on: It's a thrill!

Was this a typical day for you?
Most of the time, my job is much less glamorous: people ignore what goes on behind the scenes. For a 20-minute report, an investigation takes 3 months of work, and it is not always successful. It is an exposed and precarious business. I would also add that I cannot take sole credit for the newsroom's work: a large team puts together the news editions I present. My cameraman and editor is also instrumental in making the reports for which I am recognized: his pictures are beautiful and also tell the story. The way he connects with interviewees contributes to the success of our reports. It's all about teamwork ; I love that I learn from my colleagues and that we build a show together. It takes hard work and dedication, but I would not dare complain. I am lucky enough that my passion is my living.

You were once quoted as saying, “Pour avancer dans le journalisme, il faut travailler, toujours travailler. Lire, toujours lire. J’étais toujours fourrée à la bibliothèque, plongée dans les dictionnaires. Un conseil : faites l’amour avec votre dictionnaire.” What was the last book you read?
I can say very stupid things, especially when I am trying to motivate my students during my seminars: this quote is proof that you should not trust a journalist who says it is off the record!

On a more serious note, the last book I read is "Le Coran expliqué aux jeunes" by French-Moroccan Islam specialist Rachid Benzine. I interviewed him on TV5 Monde, and he agreed to come and talk to us in Marrakech for the High Level Panel. His book brings together all the latest research available on the first years of Islam, its birth, and how the Quran was written. It's a fascinating story, and this book asks many relevant questions. The next book to read on my list is FAF Young Leader Jeff Chu's "Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America." It is a personal and pertinent take on homosexuality and religion. I have also bought French philosopher Michel Serres's book "La petite Poucette," which talks about the deep changes mankind is going through with technology and transportation. Hopefully, I will interview him one day!