French TV makes headlines with first prime-time black newsreader

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SOME 16 years after Sir Trevor MacDonald took the helm at ITV's flagship News At Ten, France is appointing its first black newscaster to mainstream TV, following pressure from the president, Jacques Chirac.

Harry Roselmack, 32, who was born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, will become the first non-white to present the main, 8pm news on France's most watched TV channel, the independent station TF1.

Roselmack has worked for the two main news radio stations, France Inter and France Info, and presents the news on cable channel Canal Plus. TFI is touting his appointment as the "ultimate symbol" of the ethnic diversity it claims to promote.

The announcement that a black man will read the French nightly news was greeted by politicians and the media with self-congratulatory enthusiasm. There is a hitch, however. Roselmack is merely standing in for Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, while the popular newscaster takes his summer holidays. Nevertheless, the appointment has made considerable waves in a country where high-profile journalists "of ethnic origin" can be counted on one hand.

The move came after Mr Chirac called television bosses to the Elyse Palace last November after the country suffered three weeks of the most severe urban unrest in over 40 years as youths of mainly north African and Caribbean origin from the deprived suburbs went on the rampage to protest against widespread discrimination.

Mr Chirac is reported to have told the TV heads to create a more accurate representation on screen of France's minority population. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at about five million, most of whom are of north African origin. With the rare exception of sporting figures and a handful of singers and comedians, the only time non-white faces appear on French TV is during news reports on unrest in suburban ghettos.

Although journalists of African or Arab origin have presented programmes on minor stations or out of prime time, the main evening news was previously an all-white preserve.

Amirouche Laidi, president of the Averroes Club, which defends the image of ethnic minorities in the media, said: "A black man on the TF1 evening news will be a bombshell, a huge advance." However, Louis-Georges Tin, of the Representative Council of Black Associations, was more cautious. "A swallow does not make the spring," he said, warning that blacks and Arabs are too often relegated to presenting regional news or crime stories.