Harry Roselmack, French television anchor. –Photo By Brian W. Carter
Roselmack explores American diversity, media and politics on a State Department international leadership program
Harry Roselmack, who made history in 2006 when he became the first Black evening news anchor in France, visited the Los Angeles Sentinel last week as part of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. He toured several U.S. cities on his 10-day trip, meeting with a variety of people to get an in-depth look at diversity in American society, media and politics, as well as the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.
Roselmack currently presents on two primetime current affairs programs, “Sept à Huit” (Seven to Eight) and “Harry Roselmack en immersion” (Harry Roselmack in immersion), televised nationally on TF1 TV, France’s most popular domestic network. Both programs take a deeper look at important news stories of the day, the former featuring 10-minute segments on different stories. The latter program is filmed in documentary style, where Roselmack embeds himself for an extended period of time within the communities on which he reports. Most recently, he examined life in prison; in one of his most controversial episodes, he looked at France’s fundamentalist Muslim community.
During our interview, Roselmack discussed the recent history of racism and discrimination in France. “I think that the French discrimination is very insidious because it’s not clear,” he said, noting the fact that because the French Constitution explicitly outlaws discrimination by race, origin and religion, the sorts of institutional racism that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement in America never existed in France.
“In France, it wasn’t a problem about the laws,” he continued, “it was a problem about the behavior, about the practice.” Because it is illegal for the French government to collect data on race or to enact policies directed at helping racially identified groups (such as Affirmative Action in the U.S.), Roselmack said the problem of collective racial discrimination in France was not identified until 25-30 years ago.
Roselmack’s family is originally from the Caribbean island of Martinique, one of five overseas regions under the French Republic. His parents came to the mainland under the auspices of a 60s’ government program that offered youths from France’s recently decolonized territories work in the public service sector. He grew up in what he said was a largely white suburb of Tours, a city about an hour’s train ride from Paris, the French capital.
It is the children of immigrant families like his, he stated, who began to notice that despite their parents’ efforts to assimilate, “the Republic didn’t do their part.” He characterized the problem as a “glass ceiling,” and explained that his presence on national television has changed the minds of many about what Blacks in France are capable of. But he made the careful distinction that he does not merely represent Blacks or people from Martinique: “I’m representing diversity, every kind of diversity.”
Roselmack is a member of Club Averroès, a group that works to bring minorities into French media. At one time he was also a member of a lobbying organization with a similar purpose, but now he considers his success in the field of journalism to be a better tool for encouraging minority youth to live their dreams. “I don’t want to politicize or I don’t want to use my public voice [to do these kind of things],” he said, “I think it is important for a journalist of a national TV broadcast to have a voice which is quite neutral.”
Roselmack acknowledged that it is difficult to remain impartial on some issues, but stated that “to be neutral is not to be indifferent.” He visited Washington D.C. before he came to Los Angeles, where he met a similarly-minded journalist: Gwen Ifill, a ground breaker herself as a distinguished African American journalist and political analyst. Roselmack’s translator, Judith Oringer, recalled that Ifill emphasized “the difference between objective and fair. She’s not always sure she can be objective, but she always tries to be fair.”
In Los Angeles, Roselmack met with Watts Labor Community Action Committee president Tim Watkins, who gave Roselmack an “impressive,” in-depth tour of Watts. He also met with an ethics professor who taught him about what he called “the real history of America” – the less flattering facts that are often glanced over in textbooks, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Roselmack was surprised by what his various contacts, the L.A. Sentinel included, had to say about the continuing legacy of racism in America. He said that rest of the world usually views the U.S. as having moved beyond this complex problem, as “somewhere everyone has a chance.” But he said that he was very happy to have delved beyond the superficial and the cliché during his stay in the U.S.
Outside of his career in journalism, Roselmack has authored a “fantastical” novel called “Novilu.” He also stated that he may have political aspirations in the future, but for now, he is focused on producing serious and nuanced news. He hopes that his life and work will help others to live better together, and at present he is pursuing this goal through excellence in the field of journalism.