Interview: Philippe Gélie

In the 22 years he's been at Le Figaro, Philippe Gélie has reported from all around the world, including Paris, the Balkans, Chechnya, Somalia, Colombia, Jerusalem, Brussels, and - since 2003 - Washington, DC.

In the 22 years he's been at Le Figaro, Philippe Gélie has reported from all around the world, including Paris, the Balkans, Chechnya, Somalia, Colombia, Jerusalem, Brussels, and - since 2003 - Washington, DC.

He recently spoke to PRWeek about his experiences covering the US from a foreign perspective.

PRWeek: Do you have a broad coverage area?

Philippe Gélie: It's pretty much everything, but I'm not alone. We have five people in the US: two in Washington, two in New York, and one stringer in LA. 

Of the people in New York, one is mainly focused on the UN, and the other is a reporter who travels the country doing features. So I'm mainly in charge of politics and diplomacy. I also try to travel on average a week a month.

PRWeek: How do you decide what to cover?

Gélie: Well, they know everything already back in France. Every morning when I get up, I'm six hours late compared to them. If they want they can read the New York Times before me; they can know everything in advance.

PRWeek: And they say, ‘Why don't you have this story?'

Gélie: Actually, they never do that. I think the most important job I have is to advise them on what is most important to cover. Every night I send an email, usually to the foreign editor, suggesting a story for the next day, an angle. I even suggest the length of the piece. Ninety percent of the time it's what they hoped for. So I think that the huge amount of information that everyone gets about everything, and especially about the US, makes it even more crucial to have somebody there who is really focused on sorting out what is important and why.

PRWeek: Putting things in context?

Gélie: Exactly.

PRWeek: But you are not necessarily writing from a "French angle"?

Gélie: Absolutely. The French angle is relevant, [for example], when you write something about Iran or the way the State Department would see the European Union on issues. But I'm really here to cover the US, to try to explain what's going on here.

PRWeek: How helpful do you find officials at the State Department or the White House?

Gélie: I must say, every time I go for a special briefing - say, the president's trip to Europe - you can raise your hand as long as you want, [but] as long as you are not a member of the regular White House correspondents group, there's no chance to get to even ask a question. Only when you travel with the president are you then treated on an equal basis.

PRWeek: So ordinarily they just call on the same set of people. Why do you think that is?

Gélie: For foreign media to be [seen] as more than a very small spot on their radar screen, they [need] somebody there every day.

I'm not complaining about it. I've been a foreign correspondent for more than 12 years now, and it's the same everywhere.

PRWeek: But you can also contact officials outside the briefings?

Gélie: Absolutely. I had an interview with the president back in 2005. They knew where to find me when they wanted to. I'm not complaining about it. I've been a foreign correspondent for more than 12 years now, and it's the same everywhere. It's part of the game. You have to acknowledge that for a congressman of Texas, you're not as important as the Dallas Morning News. The State Department is another story because obviously they have more occasions to solicit my interest on issues or invite me to go to briefings. We have an easy relationship with the State Department, and when I need something I know who to call, and usually they help me to get to where I want.

PRWeek: What about Congress?

Gélie: This is the most difficult part for us. After three years here, I've started to know a few people who are helpful, and you start getting invited to some dinners and parties where you meet people. It's really [how] it works. You have to work every day at that.

PRWeek: Since you've worked in different countries to get a sense of comparison, how open would you say are US officials generally?

Gélie: I used to come here in the early ‘90s, and I covered the ‘92 election extensively, traveled for more than two months in the country. My sense at that time was that it was much more open, at every level. And I was surprised when I arrived here in the summer of '03, and one of the first things I covered was the California recall and the governor's race there. The organization for the press surrounding Schwarzenegger was crazy; you had to be either in the bus or you were nowhere. On election night you had to be in the room. If you were outside the room you could be speaking to people but they were not listening to what you were saying. In ‘92, I went to Little Rock a couple of days before election day; I just showed my press card and was granted a seat, a telephone line, and a place in the press room. Everybody was open.

PRWeek: Do colleagues who have also covered politics for a long time say similar things?

Gélie: Some colleagues tell me that until the presidency of Ronald Reagan, there was a lunch twice a year for foreign correspondents. This doesn't happen anymore. If you get invited to meet the president with a bunch of others, you can ask maybe two questions because you have five or six guys representing every country.

PRWeek: Is it just this president or just a trend in general?

Gélie: I think it has a lot to do with the interests of the president in meeting other people. It's broadly linked to the openness of an administration. On the other hand, I understand they have other priorities and they have a job to do. So again, I'm not complaining, I'm just sensing it's less open than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

PRWeek: How does it compare with covering French government?

Gélie: Well, it's hard for me to say because I've been abroad so long! But my sense is that when the correspondent of the New York Times asks for an answer of the foreign minister or even the Élysée Palace, she's considered an important person to deal with. We are a smaller country and the US is a superpower, so if you are the Washington Post or New York Times in Paris, I would suspect that is a little easier than being Le Figaro's correspondent in Washington. But then Le Figaro is well-known, and I manage to have personal connections with people in almost every government department who tend to think that it's useful and that they should speak to a leading French newspaper. So it's OK.

PRWeek: Have you been covering the State Department's new public diplomacy efforts?

Gélie: I've been trying to get an interview with [undersecretary for public affairs] Karen Hughes. I sense that it's really focused on Arab media and Arab world. But I have argued in faxes and media requests that we have 6 million to 7 million people in France of Arab descent and also a big Muslim community and that they would be very interested in understanding what public diplomacy is about and how the US is trying to improve the image of America in the Middle East. But the last time she went to Paris, after I insisted so much, they included a guy from my company at the roundtable there. So the effort eventually paid off, sort of.

PRWeek: What are your favorite stories to cover?

Gélie: The best stories are always the ones outside Washington. So it can be anything.

Last year I went to Alabama to cover church arsons. I've done a few pieces with the Army at Fort Dix - soldiers preparing to go to Iraq. I've done a piece on the big rodeo at Cheyenne, WY.

It's great to be a correspondent in DC, but you also have this huge fascinating country at your doorstep, and it's open for us.

Name: Philippe Gélie

Outlet: Le Figaro

Title: Washington bureau chief

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