Secular France mourns loss of Arnaud Beltrame, while press remains silent on his faith (updated)

If you know anything about the history of France, you know why it is common for journalists and scholars to add the word "secular" in front of the country's name.

For millions of people, part of what it means to be truly "French" is to view public life through a lens in which religious faith is kept out of view -- a matter a private feelings and beliefs. This has affected debates about many issues linked to Islam, from the legal status of veils and Burkinis to efforts to grasp the motives of radicalized Muslims.

What about the nation's deep Catholic roots and the violence unleashed against that faith during the French Revolution?

These tensions are currently on display in news coverage of French efforts to honor the late Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, who died after offering to take the place of a female hostage being used as a human shield by an ISIS gunman.

The goal as been to hail Beltrame as a uniquely French hero, while avoiding testimonies of those close to him about the role his Catholic faith -- he was an adult convert -- played in his life and work. Then there was the fact that Beltrame and his wife Marielle were only weeks away from a Catholic wedding rite, two years after their secular marriage.

All of this was described, in great detail, in vivid, detailed, testimonies published by Famille Chretienne (Christian Family), a major religious publication. Hold that thought.

I wrote about the Beltrame story earlier this week -- "Sacrifice in France: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life ... ' " -- and have continued to follow the story while researching a Universal syndicate column for this week.

I can be pretty cynical about the "tone deaf" nature of lots of mainstream news coverage of stories of this kind. Still, I have been surprised that mainstream editors, especially here in America (ironically), continue to avoid the "religion ghost" in this highly symbolic event. Time element? Hours before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week (in Western Christianity).

Scan this Newsweek report -- "Who is Arnaud Beltrame? French Officer Who Traded Places With A Hostage During Terror Attack Dies" -- and see what is missing.

Then do the same thing with this CNN.com report: "France honors hero officer who swapped places with hostage." You can catch the tone of the coverage in this reference to
French President Emmanuel Macron:

"To accept to die so the innocent can live, that is what is in the heart of the soldier's commitment," said Macron at the ceremony honoring Beltrame. He added that Beltrame's willingness to give his life was "greatness that so transfixed the whole of France."

A familiar something seems to be missing from this New York Times story, as well.

Note the headline  -- "Perfect Sense of Control’: Tributes Flow to French Officer in Terror Attack" -- especially since it points toward personal qualities linked to Beltrame's actions. Here is a sample of that:

For most people it would be unimaginable to approach, unarmed, a gunman, said Bernard Bajolet, the former head of the French foreign intelligence service, but Colonel Beltrame was not just brave, he was also deeply prepared for the moment.
In 2005, when Mr. Bajolet was serving as ambassador to Iraq, Colonel Beltrame led the gendarmes contingent guarding him.
The French gendarmes sent to protect overseas operations are given especially tough training, Mr. Bajolet said, but Colonel Beltrame stood out. Then a captain, “he said how enthusiastic he was about the mission and that he was ready to sacrifice for it -- not in a suicidal sense, but he knew that in certain circumstances you have to do certain things and he told me that,” Mr. Bajolet said.
“He was a man with a perfect sense of control,” Mr. Bajolet added. “I trusted him completely.”

 

 

For American news consumers, what really matters is the copy produced by the Associated Press, since that is what appears in most local newspapers. So what did AP have to say about tributes to Beltrame? Again, scan the article for yourself:

The coffin of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame was driven through the morning drizzle in a procession across Paris from the Pantheon to the Hotel des Invalides, the final resting place of Napoleon. Macron delivered a patriotic public eulogy calling for national solidarity after last week’s attack, which together with myriad other extremist attacks on French soil have claimed more than 200 lives since 2015.
Beltrame symbolized “the spirit of French resistance,” Macron said.

Globally, Reuters is the wire service of choice for many newspapers and websites. There is a tiny hint of faith here, hidden in the vague word "values."

Colleagues of Beltrame have paid tribute to the gendarme’s sense of duty, calmness under pressure and a generoristy which inspired those serving beside him.
“In serving the country he gave his life,” General Denis Favier, former senior official in the National Gendarmerie told BFM TV. “He showed he was a man of values, a man of honor who went beyond the call of duty to fulfil his mission.”

I could go on and on with examples of this radio-silence syndrome, of course.

However, The Daily Mail has included the religion angle in its coverage of this symbolic tragedy -- which proves that references to religious faith represents "conservative" content for "conservative" niche readers. Right? I mean, "correct"?

This passage, by the way, includes a major error that the Daily Mail really needs to correct.

Today's national homage includes a minute's silence in French police stations and myriad events in schools that both honour Lt. Col. Beltrame's memory and provide a focal point for national grief after last Friday's killing spree.
Some 2,000 high school students and scores of police attended the Paris event that began as gendarmes sang the French revolutionary anthem the Marseillaise in the stone courtyard of the French Interior Ministry. 
Also present today is his wife, Marielle. The couple were devout Catholics, and were married by a priest as Lt Col Beltrame lay dying in hospital on Saturday.
Lt Col Beltrame reportedly kept a picture of himself and Marielle in his hat, and the family have said the hat, with the picture in, will rest with him in his coffin. 

Actually, in his testimony published by Famille Chretienne, Father Jean-Baptiste -- a monk who prepared Arnaud and Michelle Beltrame for their upcoming Catholic wedding -- specifically noted that he was not able to marry them in the final hours at the hospital.

I was able to join him at the hospital in Carcassonne around 9 pm last night. The gendarmes and the doctors or nurses opened the way with remarkable delicacy. He was alive but unconscious. I was able to give him the sacrament of the sick and the apostolic blessing on the dying of death. Marielle alternated these beautiful liturgical formulas ... just before the opening of Holy Week. I had just prayed the office of none and the Stations of the Cross for him. ...
I could not marry him as an article awkwardly said, because he was unconscious.

So here is an old, old question: Why avoid one or two sentences of factual material about this man's Catholic faith and the public testimonies -- including one from the national chaplain of the gendarmerie -- about its role in his life, his work and his marriage?

I guess I can understand the hesitancy to discuss this angle among some officials in France.

But what about journalists, in a story that broke at the start of Holy Week?

UPDATED: A reader caught a BBC follow-up report about the funerals that I missed, which contains quite a bit of faith-based material. See this passage, which includes a strong image about Beltrame and some solid material drawn from Muslims who attended the memorial service.

In the packed Church of Saint-Etienne in Trèbes, the bishop of Carcassonne and Narbonne compared the police officer's actions with those of a Polish saint who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger at the World War Two death camp at Auschwitz.
Mourners, which included members of the local Muslim community, lined the back and front steps of the church.
"Your presence tells us that the creators of hatred will not win," Bishop Alain Planet said to the Muslim congregates in his address.
Outside the 14th-century church, the local imam later said according to the news agency AFP: "The [Muslim] community has been stabbed, Islam itself has been stabbed... by people who use symbols that are dear to our hearts."

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from RT coverage.

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