Simone Veil : Une intellectuelle engagée
In the history of the French press, the nineteenth century is the moment when the notion of the intellectual was born. Following the scandal of the Dreyfus Affair (accusing Alfred Dreyfus of betraying France) that broke out in 1894 and the publication of the article “J’accuse” by the French writer Emile Zola published in the newspaper ‘L’Aurore” in 1898, many writers and politicians gave their own point of view on this affair. Having spoken publicly on a case of a national scale by expressing a point of view and a personal analysis, the notion of intellectual appears to define any person who devoted himself to defending his values with the public sphere by giving a precise analysis, product of his mental reflection, of any subject.
Some time later, this term took on a new dimension with the appearance of the notion of the “committed intellectual”. The latter specifies the activity of a person who shares his or her ideas on a subject while supporting a cause of a political, social, ethical or religious order.
The growth of the number of intellectuals went hand in hand with the expansion of the press; here we will focus on the culture of mass media. The Belle Epoque (1881-1914) marked a turning point in the history of journalism in France with the invention of the rotary press, which made it possible to print on paper and allowed a wide circulation of newspapers. The mass media are audiovisual media such as radio and television, which provide easy access to information. The media is no longer just written on paper because the text can be read with sound or projected on television with images and speakers. This new media culture established a link between intellectuals and the public because they can directly communicate with this public through the different forms of media.
This gives rise to the question of the image of the intellectuals proposed by the media. Each medium puts forward a person in a different way. For example, the print media focuses more on an event attended by the intellectual (discussion on a defended subject, etc), while a TV report will highlight the image of the intellectual, usually filmed with a narrative voiceover. As a result, there are two distinct images of the same person. It is thus a question of analysing the image of the intellectual proposed by a particular medium, that of the written press which establishes a certain intermediality between the text and the image.
To illustrate this complex phenomenon that is the relationship between intellectuals and the media in France, we will take the example of a committed French woman from the twentieth century: Simone Veil. After a difficult childhood during the Shoah, she lost several members of her family but survived and later went on to study political science. She occupies an important place in French society by virtue of being appointed Minister of Health under Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. This appointment was a turning point in her political career and her life as a committed intellectual woman since she supported the cause of women by fighting discrimination concerning abortion. Indeed, by decriminalizing this act, she became an icon of society and created “la loi Veil”.
In order to communicate her views with a public audience, Simone Veil used a variety media, notably television which allowed her to make use of visual interviews; she also contributed interviews to the radio, an auditory format. But we must remember that in the written press the ideas of the intellectual in question are presented through the prism of the journalist and the particular political orientation of the newspaper itself. Indeed, each journalist has his or her own point of view concerning the person being interviewed. This problematises the image of the intellectual conveyed, which can then be said to be multiple. The aim is still to remain neutral enough not to influence the reader or spectator, to grant him or her a certain freedom with regard to personal opinion. However, when intermediality is bought together in a press article by the presence of photographs to illustrate the subject and make it more dynamic, the perspective can be misleading. Indeed, it allows us to know both the point of view of the photographer but also of the journalist who chooses the photos that will illustrate his writing. In order to explain the relationship between the chosen intellectual, Simone Veil, and the media, let’s take a press article from the French daily La voix du Nord, dating from 30 June 2017 and entitled ‘Europe, the great fight of Simone Veil’. This article focuses on her major struggles: feminism and peace in France and Europe.
The article is illustrated with a black and white photograph and shows Simone Veil in 1980 during an agricultural demonstration in front of the European Parliament, of which she was President from July 1979 onwards. In this photograph, the intellectual is clearly visible, taking up most of the image’s space.
SimonVeil is speaking with a megaphone which immediately draws the viewer’s attention. The people around her are evidently journalists since they all have microphones positioned at her mouth to record what she says. All those present, including Simone Veil, are looking at the interlocutor: the farmers. As they all are men, Veil the intellectual stands out because she is the one speaking.
The question of the angle of perspective is important because the photo is slightly taken from below, which emphasizes the megaphone that refers directly to her. Veil is clearly focused on what she is saying and stares at the other person without paying attention to others. Unlike this black and white photo, which dates from 1980, the article in which it appears is more recent and was published on the anniversary of her death, a tribute to her and an illustration of her political life. During the agricultural crisis of 1980, wages reform was demanded and the MPs were concerned by a situation that had to be resolved in order to avoid longterm aggravation at a European level since agricultural land was at that time diminishing and land prices were increasing post-1996. This remains a problem to this day.
This article, which focuses on Simone Veil’s political career, offers a positive image of the intellectual. Veil is described as a committed woman who fights for her cause and who, in this particular case, invests herself in a parliamentary role in seeking to solve the agricultural crisis for a more peaceful future. We know, of course, that this was not the only cause for which Veil fought and that she was fully committed to all her projects.
From this analysis, Simone Veil’s use of the media is clear. The representation made of this committed woman is positive and is highlighted in the photograph itself. It is also clear from the journalistic article in which this photograph appears, which summarises Veil’s long political and intellectual career. Simone Veil’s ideas were disseminated in the public sphere via a number of media formats and it is the latter which allow her to pursue her various causes. The relationship between intellectuals and the media is of course a complex one since intellectuals depend mainly on the media while also being subject to the way they are represented in these media. It cannot be claimed that there is only every one image of an intellectual since the media themselves are always multiple: each medium offers its own vision of the intellectuals, just as the intellectuals propose their own vision of themselves through their commitment.
Image Credit: Agence France-Presse