Describe your education and career path.
I studied history and politics at Trinity College. In second year I edited the student paper and in the third I went to Strasbourg on an Erasmus exchange. After college, I spent a year in Dublin, contributing to the Irish Times and travelling whenever I could. I also did some sub-editing at the Sunday Tribune and had the journalistic equivalent of a walk-on part in the current affairs division at RTÉ Television.
I missed academia, so I went to Cambridge the following year to do an M.Phil in modern European history. I was trying to figure out whether to do a PhD or give journalism a go when I asked the news editor at the Irish Times if there was any work going. They initially gave me a three month contract in the newsroom, extended the contract a few times and then gave me a staff job. I’ve been there for six years, the last two as Paris Correspondent.
What factors are likely to determine the French presidential election?
The economy has been the dominant issue so far. French unemployment is at a 12-year high, growth is stagnant and there’s a widespread public feeling that the crisis is hitting the country hard. The second big issue is President Nicolas Sarkozy himself. Despite several successes, notably on the international stage, his popularity has been at record lows for three years. His personal style, mercurcial, impetuous and abrasive, puts a lot of people off. Nearly all elections are to some extent referendums on incumbents; in this one I think that’s truer than usual. The killings in Toulouse may well shift the dynamic of the campaign, bringing security, crime and secularism to the fore at the expense of the first two topics I mention.
What are the main challenges and most enjoyable aspects of being a foreign correspondent?
There’s a balance to strike between material for different sections in the paper, so as to cater for as wide a range of interests as possible. But there’s a more fundamental balance to strike between material on subjects that are familiar to readers or that conform to their ideas about the country, and material that is less familiar, deeper, and very often more representative of modern France. You could run pieces on baguettes and cheese and Carla Bruni and idyllic southern villages and it would delight many people, but none of that tells us much about the rich, complex, multi-faceted state of France today. The job is to inform and sometimes entertain, but it’s also to challenge readers’ pre-conceptions of France, to try to tell them things they may not know.
Certain types of stories can take longer to assemble. Writing for a foreign newspaper puts you further down the pecking order.
One of the most enjoyable aspects is the vantage point it gives you on the country. I also enjoy moving between languages every day. French is the language of my working day, but then I write in English, and, since it was my first language, I think in Irish and speak it often.
How has Ireland’s economic crisis and its response to it been viewed in France?
Ireland gets less attention in France than many Irish people may think. The common thread running through most analyses of its crisis, however, is that the Irish State embraced an ultra-liberal, low-tax, lightly-regulated Anglo-American economic model that lay the ground for its economic undoing. One of the Irish political clichés that was picked up here was Mary Harney’s Boston versus Berlin dichotomy, because it spoke to a fairly common perception here that Ireland had turned its back on prevailing European economic thinking.
Because it’s a recurrent source of tension between the two countries, Ireland’s low corporate tax is familiar to many French people, and the fact that French tax-payers are paying for Ireland’s bail-out has only hardened French opposition.
The specialist financial press did a good job of explaining the reasons behind Ireland’s crisis, but most media coverage has focussed mainly on the impact, particularly the resumption of emigration, ghost estates and collapsing property prices – topics that resonate widely.
I think there has been a shift in coverage of Ireland in the past six months. The idea has taken hold that Ireland is on the mend. The French Government has every reason to talk up Ireland’s progress, as it needs a programme country where it can one day say that a rescue package worked.
Finally, it’s constantly remarked on, in praise or reproach depending on the speaker, that Irish people have accepted the sort of austerity that would have half of France out on the streets.
Name a story you’ve covered during your career that stands out and why.
The Tunisian revolution stands out. It was extraordinary to witness the dignity, hope and thirst for a voice in the idealistic young people who drove Ben Ali from power. Tunisia was one of the most entrenched and brutal police states in the Arab world. I had been there about eight months before the revolt began and found it one of the most frustrating stories I had covered. I was followed by police, prevented from meeting certain people, and any discussion about politics had to take place quietly, discreetly, in confidence.
The country I returned to in January 2010 was unrecognisable. The morning after Ben Ali fled, even as snipers held their positions and the city was still tense, you couldn’t stop people talking, arguing, debating, recounting how it had been. We didn’t know at the time just what Tunisia had set in train in the region. I’ll never forget those cold days in January when I stood among thousands of smart young people on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, watching them waving their country’s flag, triumphantly and proudly singing their national anthem.
How do you like to relax?
I read, travel, listen to music, watch films, catch up, slow down and wonder whether there’s an obscure, counter-intuitively spelled Olympic sport in which I’m not yet too old to cut it as a pro.