French Correspondent at White House Publishes Memoir
Tangi Quéméner, reporter for AFP (Agence France-Presse, one of the three biggest news agencies in the world), realized the dream of many journalists throughout the world: he became in 2009 the only non-native English speaker to follow the President of the United
States on a daily basis.
Tangi Quéméner was born in Brest, in western France. His father, who also was a journalist, gave him a passion for the news. The young man soon headed to Paris where he studied at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) and the Journalism Training Center (CFJ). His first teacher said of him that he had “no aptitude whatsoever for wire reporting.” His career would soon demonstrate quite the opposite.
Mr. Quéméner joined the AFP in 1999. He first worked at the international desk in Paris, before flying to Cyprus, where he covered the Middle East, and then to Los Angeles, where he was the agency’s West Coast correspondent. In 2008, he reported on the Democratic
Convention in Denver and Barack Obama’s electoral night in Chicago. At the end of 2009, he entered the highly selective club of the White House correspondents, and took office in the exiguous journalists’ offices, just 70 feet away from the Oval Office.
The White House Correspondents’ Association deals with the Administration during the accreditation procedure. The association also determines where each journalist is seated in the press room, “which is built above a swimming pool,” laughs Mr. Quéméner. “The AFP is in
the third row, which is not a bad position,” says the journalist.
Becoming a White House correspondent means a “hectic pace of work,” says Mr. Quéméner, who also takes turns with other AFP colleagues in covering each of the President’s trips. “When it is our turn to be in the ‘pool’—the group of journalists embedded with the
presidential delegation and who often travel with Air Force One,—we become the eyes and the ears of all our colleagues,” he explains. According to him, “paranoia” is a widely spread trait among White House correspondents. “If nothing is happening, it means that something is happening and you are not aware yet,” he says.
Mr. Quéméner regrets that White House staff tend to privilege U.S. media over international institutions such as the AFP. “In the U.S., we are not on familiar territory, we have a problem of visibility,” says the reporter. “We constantly have to remind people of the AFP’s impact
throughout the world, and especially in the Arab world.” The Agence France-Presse has 112 journalists in North America, 73 of which are based in Washington, the organization’s largest bureau after Paris.
One of Mr. Quéméner’s major problems is to make French readers understand the particularities of the U.S. political system. “It is hard to explain to a French person that the President of the United States has less power in his country than François Hollande in France,” he says. Language can also be an issue sometimes: though very fluent in English, he admits that some phrases from the President or his spokesman – “gorilla dust,” “fiscal cliff”— can be hard to translate.
How can you stand back and keep your objectivity when you’re constantly immersed in a communication machine as regular as a clockwork? “We try to put things into perspective, to provide some context. When I write a wire story, I contact experts, think tanks who give their own point of view,” Mr. Quéméner explains. “It’s like a game with the administration,” he says. “We try to flush out the real piece of information behind the beautiful gift-wrapped present that the press team gives us.”
Very active on Twitter, Tangi Quéméner published “Dans les pas d’Obama” (“In Obama’s Footsteps”) in September 2012, in which he chronicles the three years he spent at the heart of America’s political power.