Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the French colonial governor in North America who founded Detroit, died centuries ago. But France’s interest in this unique American urban city situated in one of the world’s largest democracies has not died.
Instead, one could say that the special bond that Cadillac discovered when he named the Detroit River “d’Etroit” is now being displayed in a rather interesting way in the wake of the bankruptcy in Detroit.
The French media has taken an interest in Detroit that is worth noting, since the announcement of chapter 9 bankruptcy, giving special attention to all things Detroit.
In the last two months two signigicant publications in France, the first being Le Monde and then Le nouvel Observateur, two of the most influential media outlets in Europe, contacted me about my take on the city and bankruptcy. They want to know what life would be like after bankruptcy.
Just as their correspondents were very curious to talk to me as demonstrated in their emails, I was equally looking forward to hearing about how Detroit is viewed in the eyes of France.
Because media helps shape public opinion and thus any story about Detroit in the French press does have an impact on how its people, and government, see this urban city that often gets derided in news reports that are beyond our shores.
For example, Le Monde, the most influential newspaper in France which is equivalent to the New York Times and widely read in Europe, and Le nouvel Observateur, the largest weekly magazine in France, which carries the same clout as Time magazine, are two publications that have massive reach beyond France itself.
And so on Monday, Natacha Tatu, correspondent for Le nouvel Observateur, who was once based in Chicago covering the auto industry, walked into my office for an interview to begin her exclusive look into Detroit’s present condition and where it potentially could be.
She had with her a list of people to talk to, the majority of whom were not available. They either did not respond to her email requests or just were too busy to sit down with France’s largest weekly magazine for a story on Detroit.
She was a bit disappointed but was encouraged by the fact that a few people were open for conversation with her. For example, Quicken Loans, founded by Dan Gilbert, arranged an interview with her and Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures, one of Gilbert’s companies.
We discussed for almost an hour the financial crisis, new political leadership, the private sector, growth of neighborhoods, public safety, a booming downtown, Midtown and the future of the city.
She specifically noted that she visited some of the neighborhoods and saw firsthand poverty, abandonment, despair and blight, all of which form some of the recurring themes that take center stage in our political town halls.
On the bankruptcy she was keen about the decision that Judge Stephen Rhodes will hand down next week when he rules on the eligibility question of the city entering chapter 9. I told her we’ll wait and see.
At the end of the interview she assured me that her story was going to be a balanced and thorough piece on the city, referencing the “60 Minutes” program on CBS.
As she started to ask about my take on “60 Minutes,” I reached across the chair from my desk and handed her my column, the rebuttal I wrote three weeks ago about the program’s extreme and unbalanced coverage of Detroit. She promised to read it as she puts her story together.
Before she left, I decided to turn the table on her, to ask about France and why in the last eight weeks, two notable publications are descending on Detroit for special coverage.
My first question was the obvious one that is on everyone’s mind — the city’s international image and especially in France.
“So far, the image of Detroit in France is a very bad image. All the TV programs are about the devastation of the city. I haven’t seen anything positive,” Natacha told me as I leaned back on my chair, not surprised.
Redefining Detroit in the international media by doing balanced and informed stories that do not suggest the city is the Mogadishu of the Midwest as CBS’ Bob Simons carelessly put it, is going to be like climbing Mountain Everest or Mountain Kilimanjaro.
That is because it is hard to erase decades of prejudiced coverage and perceptions that have long been fed to global media.
If the perception about Detroit is so bad in France, because of its own media, why another trip?
Natacha’s answer was different.
“I met a French guy who is buying a lot of houses in Detroit, working with some Canadians,” she said. “I found it very interesting. He believes strongly in Detroit.”
The French man who is looking at Detroit with a different lens from the ones being presented to the public in France is Michael Bugaldon. Apparently, Bugaldon, like other investors, has been silently buying numerous houses in the city as well as some in the suburbs. Unlike others, Bugaldon is not drinking from the wells of pessimism, despair and destruction that have long been the hallmark of the city’s national and international image.
If a French businessman can defy his own country’s negative view of Detroit in France and travel to the city to embark on a wholesale purchase of properties through auctions, what should Detroiters think of themselves?
The French public was shocked by news of Detroit’s bankruptcy, Natacha said and because of that there is an interest in knowing what will happen to the city from this point on.
“People in France are wondering what Detroit’s bankruptcy means because it is different for us in France. We don’t have chapter 9 or chapter 11,” she explained. “What we are doing now is trying to tell the story about what’s next for Detroit.”
She referenced her earlier reporting beat, saying that while she believes the auto industry is in a very bad shape in Europe, “It is a paradox that the car industry is in complete revival here in Detroit.”
How do you change the perception about Detroit internationally?
“Probably a TV program showing that people are investing in the city because there are people who won’t think about buying a house in Detroit,” Natacha said, adding that television reports are mostly based on print media reviews.
But she also has some advice.
“If the image of the city is that important to people in Detroit, they should react to something faster when an international reporter is calling. If they care about the image, be a little bit more open to the international media,” Natacha said.