BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. We're devoting the rest of the show to reflections on sex and the media, and we thought France was a reasonable place to begin. France, at least by reputation, would seem to be the epitome of sexual freedom, but for the last six months, right wing legislators have been campaigning to eliminate erotic movies from French television. Most of the controversy has been framed in terms of free speech versus family values, but as journalist Frank Browning reports, the new French porn wars touch much deeper fissures in French politics.
FRANK BROWNING: Starts with P, rhymes with T, and it stands for trouble. Pornographie Televisee. Like this soft-core film broadcast one recent Sunday at midnight, built around three female sorcerers out to get a hapless stud photographer. [SOUND OF MUSIC] Lots of breasts, buns and nipples, but no penetrating images. There are these days about a hundred pornographic films a month on French television - everything from whip-cracking sirens to kittenish coquettes to buff boys in the beach -- something for everyone. Or so it was until a campaign was launched to purge pornography from television. At the center of it all is Dominique Baudis, president of the Superior Council on Audio-Visuals or CSA -- more or less the French version of the FCC. Baudis took office after the rightist victory last spring and quickly appointed the commission to study the effects of TV violence and pornography on the young.
DOMINIQUE BAUDIS: It's impossible to accept that young children of 10 years old or eleven years old, looking at pictures, very violent or pornographic picture. You know? It's bad for the little child.
FRANK BROWNING: Simo Neri is a mother of two who's lived in Paris for fifteen years. She says she doesn't want her children watching violent and degrading television shows. But she's very skeptical about attempts to ban programs.
SIMO NERI: I don't think that by simply saying let's just repress everything that has to do with sex or so-called violence, especially without defining it, in the public media is going to solve the problem. It's just going to make kids much more curious--
FRANK BROWNING: Her 13 year old son Nico, shrugs his shoulders.
NICO: I think it's basically stupid. Also kids bring like magazines, like porn magazines to school, and even like sometimes they sell them.
FRANK BROWNING: Most kids would be able to figure out the new access codes to cable shows, Nico believes. And anyway, if you're clever, you can still find most anything on the internet. To illustrate he took his mom and me upstairs to the bedroom to show us a game he had downloaded. [COMPUTER STARTUP SOUNDS]
NICO: In this game you bas-- you're basically some Mafia guy, and you have to kill people and that kind of stuff. So. Now you have to find a prostitute-- okay - here's one. Okay. So now that you took the prostitute in your car, you have to go to like, kind of like a secret area where there aren't a lot of people going by-- [COMPUTER SOUNDS] so you don't s-- you don't really see anything, but-- what the noise is saying and like - is that they're basically [LAUGHS] -having sex in the car.
FRANK BROWNING: So far the proposed regulation of sexual images and pornography has not touched the internet. But a number of bills are still circulating through Parliament and there has been talk of policing the web. Like Nico, many critics have pointed out that kids are perhaps more likely to scour the net than search out late night cable TV for porn. Not all these initiatives have come from conservatives explains Divina Frau-Meigs, a sociologist who served on the commission examining violence and pornography.
DIVINA FRAU-MEIGS: The left is coming at pornography and at the crack-up on pornography because of the women--at-- issue - and the issue of identity politics -- how to preserve the rights of women and their own dignity, etc. The right is coming at it from a point of view of morals and politics of morality which is to say how to preserve family, matrimony, moral order and how to keep the hierarchy of youth and adults in place.
FRANK BROWNING: And TV is not their only interest. Many of those who want to get rid of blue movies are also after France's oldest and completely legal profession -- prostitution. The minister of interior has even proposed prosecuting prostitutes who solicit their customers publicly -- in effect forcing them off the streets where they earn their living. Response, an organization of Paris prostitutes has staged street demonstrations and recently threatened to start naming the politicians on their client lists. There's no direct link between the anti-porn campaign on TV and the crackdown against prostitutes that's taking place in several cities, says Divina Frau-Meigs. One is about the effect of media; the other, about the morality of certain work. Yet the timing of these campaigns, she believes, does have a common source, and that is the threat posed by the far right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen who on an anti-immigrant law and order campaign came in second in this year's presidential elections. To fend off the far right she believes, the government proffered its own list of enemies to moral order.
DIVINA FRAU-MEIGS: Like young people, like prostitutes, like beggars, etc. It's not really the people who are causing the major trouble in France. But they're the ones who are perceived as, as creating civil disorder, and I think that's why at the moment they're the major target.
FRANK BROWNING: And that perception, she says, came to a large degree from television reporting during this year's election campaigns.
DIVINA FRAU-MEIGS: It was argued that the elections went in such a swing towards the right because of the over-emphasis on delinquency and, and youth abuse etc, and it's true that for the major media channels, the reporting on youth violence increased by 50 to 60 percent.
FRANK BROWNING: Purse-snatching and petty robbery among the young has increased in France in recent years, but only slightly, and violent crime among the young has held steady. As Frau-Meigs sees it, France is coming more and more to resemble the United States in the way that the media both exploits sensationalist sex and violence and then generate public fear by over-reporting the actual level of violence. Just how far any of the sex, media and behavior laws will go is hard to say. France is famous for passing laws to regulate almost everything, and the police and bureaucracy are equally famous for the tradition of "fermer les yeax" or "closing their eyes" to laws that seem to them to be a waste of time. At the moment not many people expect the street women to become Mormons nor Emanuelle and the sexy sorcerers to turn into Snow White. For On the Media, I'm Frank Browning.