Violette Lazard and Vincent Jarnigon, both emerging leaders in French journalism, traveled to the United States in April 2015 as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Their exchange focused on the complicated dynamics surrounding media coverage of justice cases, political corruption, police brutality, and racially-charged issues. During their first few days in Washington, we sat down with Violette and Vincent to learn more about their work back home and find out what they expected from their exchange experience. Three weeks later, we followed up to see how the program impacted them personally and professionally – what surprised them, what they learned, and what their goals are for the future.
Can you tell me about your professional backgrounds in France?
Violette Lazard: I work at l’Obs, which is a weekly newspaper, and I used to work for a daily newspaper, Le Parisien and Libération, and I’m an investigative reporter. I work on justice topics mainly, and corruption—everything that involves politics and money.
Vincent Jarnigon: I work for Ouest France, a daily newspaper, the original newspaper, the first newspaper in France, with 780,000 issues per day. The headquarters is in Rennes in Brittany. I’m the editor-in-chief of the local editorial team in Rennes. I’m more on the management side with a team of 18 journalist that cover everyday subjects, culture, justice, politics, economy, social, and everyday life.
What were your first thoughts when you learned that you had been selected for the IVLP?
VL: I was very happy. I had worked on a lot of justice topics in America… but I didn’t really understand the justice system, because it’s really different from the French one, so I was like “Wow! I will understand how it works [after the program]”.
VJ: It is an honor to be invited by you, and it is most important professionally. For sure it’s a plus to understand the American institutions. The American institutions have adapted to our demands regarding media and justice. The requests that we made at the U.S. Embassy have been entirely respected by the Department of State. And I think it’s a classy gesture.
What are your expectations for your program? What do you hope to get out of the program?
VL: For us to understand, to have better knowledge about the justice system and how people think and feel about it. And the second thing is, maybe if someday I have to come back here to work, if something happens and I have to come here as a reporter, I will know who is doing what. We’ll already have contacts with people who will be resources that we can call. For me, and for my newspaper, it means that we will be truly operational, and fast.
VJ: It is about the same, for me. I am going to become a resource, a key person for the newspaper. They can ask me who is doing what and to be able to say, “Be careful, that’s not how it works, but if you want to know how it works, you can call all of the people that we met.” And as we have the business cards, these people will be recommended by us, so questions can be answered in an easier way. To have those connections, for a French journalist, is very important.
I know you have very busy schedules planned out; what are you looking forward to the most?
VL: To really be with people on the ground. Here in Washington, it is very interesting. We meet people in an office, and they talk about what they are doing, but we don’t see exactly what they are doing in real, concrete situations. So I think what we are looking for the most is to really be on the ground…with a police officer doing patrol or to see a prison, to see a court of justice, to really see the action. I think it’s very important for us to understand and to have a concrete idea.
VJ: Even though the stay in Washington is very important because it is laying the foundation for the law, the federal system, and in the other states, we’ll understand situations even better because we have learned the system here.
How does it feel to be returning home after three weeks in the United States? Has your experience been valuable?
VL: The experience has been very rich and thorough. This is true both at an intellectual level, because the participants have been able to gain knowledge, and at a human level. The discovery and the experience of the American way of life have both been very interesting.
What has been the most impactful part of your exchange? What are the biggest takeaways for you?
VL: The understanding of the American legal system from the federal level to the state and municipal level has been enriching.
VJ: I feel the professional meetings and the exchange of so many business cards will allow me to have a network, and to make sure information is as accurate as possible when I have to deal with American news.
Has your perception of the United States changed over the last three weeks, either in a personal or professional sense?
VL: I don’t think my perception has completely changed. However, I do feel now that my understanding of the United States is more refined. The area that was the most surprising is the difference between states regarding their judicial systems. Throughout the trip, I got the impression that I was traveling through several different countries, instead of one country as a whole!
VJ: I’d say I’ve experienced a total change regarding my perception of the United States, compared to what I had known through the French media and also the American media. I’ve discovered a system that is way more complex than the one depicted in France. This is true luck to be able to uncover this complexity. It is a huge country with diversity, injustice, and creativity. Injustices do exist within some communities and towards African-Americans in certain areas of the country. This is not a judgement, just an observation. If an American citizen was visiting the French suburbs, he or she may have a similar experience and observations. Diversity has helped America to be dynamic and this is the strength of the country. Immigration is the wealth of America.