Eric Rouleau: The great journalist of the Near East

Eric Rouleau: The great journalist of the Near East
Blog: The French ambassador and journalist who died last month was probably the most influential journalist covering the Near East, not only in France, but around the world.
16 min read
10 Mar, 2015
Eric Rouleau, ambassador of - and to - Le Monde, died on 25 February [AFP]
Eric Rouleau died on 25 February 2015. Born in Egypt, he covered the Near East for the daily Le Monde for three decades before being appointed ambassador to Tunisia then Turkey.

No other journalist was as influential in France or the rest of the world. No one contributed to changing the western vision of the complicated east, better yet, to making it understood, as much as he did. Below is the preface of his book
Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient: Mémoires d’un journaliste diplomate [The Near East Behind the Scenes: Memoirs of a diplomat and journalist] (1952-2012).

"The tram had just taken off from Heliopolis, otherwise known as the city of the sun, which was a new suburb in Cairo. Just like every morning, the young man would sit comfortably in his seat, waiting to reach the prestigious faculty of law in Giza City. While the tram drove along brand new shops, thieves breaking a storefront caught his eye.

"He jumped from his seat and, upon seeing the culprits escape in a car, hailed a taxi that tried to catch them in vain.

"Forgetting all about his classes, he rushed to the English daily Egyptian Gazette where he worked in the evening. The editor-in-chief, who was impressed and somewhat amused by Rouleau's account, stopped the scheduled articles and changed the front page headline to "Theft in Heliopolis" by our "star journalist". On that day in 1943, a star was born in Cairo."
     Tenacity, flair and a bit of luck born out of being in the right place at the right time were to mark his career.

The journalist was not yet known as Eric Rouleau, but as Elie Raffoul. He was only 17 years old - a golden age for many people. A few weeks before this incident and despite his father's advice, he had given up a better paid job as a pen pusher at an insurance company and opted for the Egyptian Gazette. At the same time, he pursued his law education each morning. Tenacity, flair and a bit of luck born out of being in the right place at the right time were to mark his career.

He emigrated to France in 1952, worked at the Agence France Presse (AFP) and then joined Le Monde. For several decades, between 1950 and 1980, as part of his work for the French daily, undoubtedly, he covered the news of the Arab countries. But, he also focused on Israel, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Africa during its decolonisation, Ethiopia and even the remote Pakistan. He became the most famous journalist of the most renowned French daily.

His colleague and lifelong companion Jean Gueyras said: "The sun never sets on Eric Rouleau's empire," just like the British Empire and the empire of Charles V, where the expression initially originated.

But, how does one end up in the Rue des Italiens in Paris when they are born in a suburb in Cairo? How does a transition from the
Egyptian Gazette to Le Monde happen? It seems that the supposedly unbridgeable gap that separated them could be surmounted after all.

In fact, Rouleau was francophone, just like many Egyptians, whether Christians, Jews or Muslims, or members of any of the diverse communities that coexisted in Egypt, including Greeks, Italians, French and Syrian-Lebanese.

Thousands of renowned names shone in the sky of Egypt's francophone literature, which have been unfairly forgotten. They included Edmond Jabes, Albert Cossery and Georges Henein. Those who tried their luck with surrealism rubbed shoulders with Paul Eluard and Max Jacob and spoke a unique French that was unusual at times, with accents that rolled the r's and expressions that were literally translated from Arabic.

It was hard to imagine their love for France, their second home, which inspired so many Egyptians at the time. On 10 June 1940, Rouleau could not believe his eyes and ears. At the dinner table, his father burst into tears for the first time in his life when he heard over the radio about the French capitulation. For this man who was born in Aleppo and educated at the francophone schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, France was the land of liberty and justice.

"What preoccupied my father most in his life was the Dreyfus affair whose twists and turns he knew in detail," Rouleau recalled. "He spoke of it often and much. He proudly described public gatherings and protests in which he participated to defend the Jewish captain accused of spying for Germany. He recited texts by Jean Jaurès, Emile Zola and Victor Hugo whom he honoured, and he peppered his words with quotes from the fables of La Fontaine."

A few decades later, Rouleau was awarded the Legion of Honour.
     I was ecstatic [at being awarded the Legion of Honour]... I thought I saw my father standing in the first row.

I was ecstatic because it was President François Mitterrand himself who was rewarding me for 'serving France'. I thought I saw my father standing in the first row of figures who attended the ceremony at the Elysée Palace," he recalled.

Many people shared this passion for France.

During the same era, Henri Curiel and his brother Raoul - who were also francophone Egyptian Jews - headed to the French consulate to enlist in the fight against Nazi Germany. But the officer in charge rejected their enlistment with disdain. In Cairo, people listened to
Radio Londres and General Charles de Gaulle supporting a free France rather than Marshal Pétain's France. In October 1943, French and Egyptian people from all confessions created the Friends of France "to concretise their attachment to a country with a soul and fate they never stopped believing in".

Rouleau was not only Egyptian, francophone and francophile, but he was also Jewish. Yet how can one define a Jew? Anti-Semites tried in vain by inventing a race whose people they often reduced to religion. Israel has failed too in that regard. After all, how can one use the same term to describe believers and non-believers and people claiming to have a more or less vague Jewish culture, and others who reject it? Is a person Jewish by choice or is it the anti-Semite who makes the Jew, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it?

Just like many young people, Rouleau faced an adolescent crisis and decided to become a rabbi, but he soon quit and lost his faith. Although the world of Talmudic studies definitely had a lot to lose, the field of journalism won considerably.

Rouleau - now turned Atheist - did not abandon his Jewish roots, but tried to understand their meaning. At the time, incredible as it might seem, Zionists enjoyed complete freedom of action in Egypt. The Jewish Agency was well-off in Cairo and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Jewish National Fund, established in 1901 and destined to develop land for Jewish settlement in Palestine, welcomed grants in synagogues. "Most often, the donors had no political incentive and only wanted to give alms," Rouleau recalled.

Rouleau later turned to the Hashomer Hatzair movement, the "Youth Guard", an extreme leftist Zionist movement.

The hundreds of adolescents who joined the movement participated in sports competitions, took Jewish history classes and engaged in philosophical debates where the labour movement ideologists were prominently present," he added.

Rouleau learned about Marxist thought, but he left the movement a year later, as his beliefs collided with its narrow nationalism and indifference to the conflicts raging in Egypt, even those against the colonial power. "I could not believe that all Egyptians were anti-Semitic, and I had no intention to emigrate," he said.

Egypt's Jews felt they were Egyptian, and the Zionist siren song never bewitched them.

In his book Un homme à part [A man apart] that was dedicated to Henri Curiel, Gilles Perrault beautifully wrote, "Apart from the Zionist minority, no one felt the need for a Jewish state or the urge to chant L'an prochain à Jérusalem [Next year in Jerusalem] when it was enough to take the 9:45 train to get there."

The Arab-Israeli conflict made the lives of Egyptian Jews impossible. They were the victims of waves of judeophobia in the Arab world, and of the Israeli government's attempts to use them as fifth column. As a result, many were forced to emigrate to France, the real Promised Land.
     The Arab-Israeli conflict made the lives of Egyptian Jews impossible.

Nowadays, criticism of Zionism is often equated to hidden anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, during the first half of the 20th century, the majority of Jews around the world were apathetic if not hostile to the Zionist project. Rouleau took himself for an Egyptian, and he was united with his compatriots beyond religion.

In 1943, he started studying law and ventured into the field of journalism. At the time, Egyptian universities acted against the enemy hated by all, the treacherous Albion - the United Kingdom - which was the omnipotent colonial power that been occupying the country since 1882. People could still feel the burning humiliation of 4 February 1942, when the tanks of His Britannic Majesty surrounded King Farouk's palace, and forced him to dismiss the prime minister and appoint a government in favour of the alliance with London.

For some time, nationalist Egyptians had their eyes set on Germany and impatiently hoped Erwin Rommel's tanks that drove at breakneck speed to Alexandria would finally arrive - in the name of the old principle "the enemies of my enemies are my friends".

But after Rommel's defeat in El-Alamein in the autumn of 1942 and the Soviet victory in Stalingrad, the left was on a roll.

"I attended public gatherings and protests staged on campus. I encountered Marxists who differed from others through associating national liberation with social rebellion and citizen equality with antiracism," said Rouleau. "Copts and Jews fought in their ranks just like Muslims. Some evenings, we convened in a room that was occultly directed by the Democratic Movement for National Liberation - a movement founded and led by Henri Curiel. In fact, it was a public forum where speakers met to debate current international affairs. The organisers avoided addressing domestic problems for fear of provoking the vigilant political police. Although they were considered outlaws, communists were practically tolerated then."

In February 1946, this unrest materialised with the formation of a national committee for workers and students, and with waves of protests against the British presence. It was a political and social unrest similar to the uprising that would flare up in Egypt in January and February 2011. Rouleau actively participated in these activities, and he saw one of his young friends shot during a protest.

The creation of the Israeli state in May 1948 would decide in a couple of years the fate of Jews of Egypt and the Middle East. King Farouk's government reproached Rouleau for his links with the extreme left that were indeed real and his connections to Zionism that were not. He was forced to choose between prison and exile, all the while giving up his nationality.

Under duress, he chose exile, but like many individuals in exile, he cherished Egypt all his life. At the age of just 24, equipped with light luggage and rich experience, he left for France. He was not discouraged by the year he spent unemployed, and he finally found a job at the Arab radio transmission department of AFP. At the time, newspapers did not have many correspondents abroad and had little means to know what was happening. Therefore, people had to tune into local radio stations to remain in the know.

In October 1954, he made his first scoop. He announced Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had escaped a Muslim Brotherhood-led attempt on his life. In 1955, Rouleau started collaborating with Le Monde. Once again, Egypt and the crisis between Nasser and the west gave him the chance to sign his first front page article "The Aswan dam will still be built," Cairo affirms (Le Monde, dated 22-23 July 1956).

A few days later on the evening of 26 July, he reported Nasser's speech to AFP in which he announced, bursting out in laughter and perhaps surprised at his own boldness, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal company that would fund the construction of the Aswan Dam since western investors did not pursue it. The AFP management, taken aback by this news and thinking that Nasser would not "dare" do that, held back the information for a while and only decided to broadcast it when rival stations did.

For Elie, known thereafter as Eric Rouleau in his articles, these years were years of learning. He travelled a world booming with events to report stories. He published his first major series over three days, entitled Israel, état occidental? [Israel, a Western state?].

He met Mustafa Barzani, the historical leader of the Iraqi Kurds, with whom he built exceptional ties. Barzani opened Rouleau's eyes to the importance of the Kurdish demands in the Near East.

Rouleau visited Iran where he wrote about "the other side of the story", noting that the regime in place was authoritarian and megalomaniac. His writings dismayed some of his fellows who were "tolerant" of the Shah allied with the West.

He went on to cover the coup in Turkey on 12 September 1960 and the execution of the prime minister. Rouleau then arrived in the former Belgian Congo [now the DRC] that was undergoing decolonisation.

The manoeuvres of the former colonial power and the United States led to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independence hero, on 17 January 1961. He wrote about the uprising in the wake of Lumumba's death and, from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), he sent an article entitled "Les troupes lumumbistes déclenchent une offensive contre la province de l’Equateur et du Kasai" [The Lumumbist troops wage an attack against the provinces of Ecuador and Kasai] (26-27 February 1961) that appeared on the front page.

Every day, at his own peril, he had to take the road to reach Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to send his articles to Paris. At the time, articles were dictated over the phone.

The Arab world was also a stage of historical events in those days. It witnessed the creation of the United Arab Republic that united Egypt and Syria in February 1958, the Republican coup in Iraq in July 1958, the advent of the republic in northern Yemen and the outbreak of the civil war in 1962. But, how could he write about Arab countries which he was not allowed to enter because of his Jewish origins?

He had been considering abandoning the Middle East section of Le Monde, when something unexpected happened. Was it luck yet again? Nasser personally invited him to visit Cairo in early summer 1963. Rouleau detailed this return to his homeland in the first chapter of his book Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient: Mémoires d’un journaliste diplomate [The Near East Behind the Scenes: Memoirs of a diplomat and journalist] (1952-2012).
     After receiving legitimacy from the most popular representative of Arab nationalism, the Middle East's doors suddenly opened to him.

After receiving legitimacy from the most popular representative of Arab nationalism, the Middle East's doors suddenly opened to him.

In the decades that followed, he met all the leaders of the Arab nation, from King Hussein to Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini and Hafez al-Assad. Although his articles mainly focused on Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Rouleau's career led him to explore other horizons. He notably covered the fall of Greek colonels, the coups in Turkey and the twists and turns of the first phases of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.

Having the flair of a good journalist, he never missed a story. In June 1967, he reported from Cairo following the Israeli attack. In 1970, he covered the massacres of Palestinians at the hands of the Jordanian army in Amman. He returned to Cairo on 28 September 1970, the day Nasser died unexpectedly. In 1974, he focused on Nicosia, following the coup attempt against President Archbishop Makarios (Cyprus and Greece were always part of his empire at Le Monde, as he considered them, in his own British vision, part the Middle East which included Greece, Cyprus and Turkey).

Rouleau was often warmly welcomed and received honourific treatment. He stayed at the most luxurious hotels where the people in charge waited to meet him, confide in him and reveal their stories. This provoked the jealousy of some fellow journalists.

One country constituted an exception to this hospitality - Israel. Although he managed to interview David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, as he mentioned in his memoirs, he was dismissed as an "Egyptian agent" by right-wing leader Menachem Begin, and the whole establishment there had the same opinion. Jean Gueyras recalled that in Paris, "he was harassed by the Israeli embassy through daily letters from outraged readers addressing the director of Le Monde".

For the leaders of the Jewish state in the 1970s, Rouleau was more than an enemy. He was a traitor haunted by self-hatred. However, what they could not understand was that, on the contrary, he was the holder of Jewish principles that they were seeking to bury - principles that rejected narrow nationalism and embraced solidarity with all the oppressed.

One of his friends, Chehata Haroun, an Egyptian-Jewish lawyer who remained in Egypt until his death, demanded the following epitaph be engraved on his tomb: "
I am black when the blacks are oppressed. I am Jewish when the Jews are oppressed. I am Palestinian when the Palestinians are oppressed."

Rouleau had the urge to narrate his return to his homeland in Heliopolis at the end of the 1960s. Accompanied by his wife Rosy, he knocked on the door and was warmly welcomed by the tenants to whom he told his story. To his surprise, they burst out in laughter, as they were Palestinians. The irony of the situation was clear. He became friends with these uprooted people who had neither home nor country, and he felt neighbourly ties between them.

Rouleau had always studied the devastation caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict on the coexistence between communities and the spirit of tolerance. He wished, more than anyone else for fair peace to be achieved, and a Palestinian state to be established.

He believed this would ensure security across the whole nation. As he mentioned in his book, he played a mediating role between Israel and Arab countries several times, swapping his journalist's hat for a diplomatic hat. In 1970, Rouleau tried to organise a visit by then-President of the World Jewish Congress Nahoum Goldman to Cairo. However, his initiative failed because Labour party leaders vetoed the visit. He thus concluded that every peace initiative ever proposed had been sabotaged by Israeli officials - especially after the Oslo Accords.

Rouleau owes his influence and reputation to his talent, his knowledge of Arabic and his listening and communication skills. But, he also has none other than
Le Monde to thank. The newspaper's circulation was still limited then, with 140,000 copies in 1946 and 475,000 in 1969.

During these decades, this daily from Paris' Rue des Italiens would include the "It" international political analyses. Its foreign news bulletin, which was anonymous and published on its cover page, was decrypted by all
chancelleries. It represented journalism in real time before television emerged, before the rise of satellite channels and even before infotainment which only considered events that could be staged worthy of showing. Back then, it was the written press that determined the importance of news and which did not need spectacular images to circulate.
     In the 1980s, the media scene changed. It became possible to watch 'live' coverage of wars and Olympic Games.

However, in the 1980s, the media scene changed. It became possible to watch "live" coverage of wars and Olympic Games. Written press was in a quandary, and Le Monde was wracked by succession disputes.

In 1985, Rouleau transitioned to a diplomatic career at the request of President Mitterand. He was appointed ambassador, first to Tunis - then headquarters of the Arab League, where the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) sought refuge after its expulsion from Beirut in 1982 - and then to Ankara in Turkey. After this time, only diplomats would benefit from his culture, analyses and countless connections. Ironically, Rouleau himself noticed that the number of his readers dropped from hundreds to two, and even sometimes one - the president of the republic.

During the first meeting of French ambassadors held in Paris after his assignment, each of the diplomats introduced themselves and their country of assignment - for example the Ivory Coast, Jordan, Argentina.

When it was his turn, he stood up and said: "Eric Rouleau, Le Monde." There was silence, then the audience broke out in laughter. Freud believed that slips of the tongue expressed unconscious desires. Did Rouleau consider himself the ambassador of the daily paper? Or did he see himself as ambassador to the world, monde in French, as he crossed from north to south? Might he have simply meant that he was our ambassador to a planet whose glitches he would help us solve?

This is an edited translation originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.