DoD/U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum
During her five-day diplomacy trip to France, the Veep met with global leaders and made inroads with French President Macron. But you'd never know it based on the U.S. media coverage.
This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?
Last Thursday, Vice-President Kamala Harris made a huge announcement, at the official opening ceremony of the Paris Peace Forum 2021 during her five-day visit to France, which ended Nov. 13. She said, on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration, “We are pledging more than one billion vaccines worldwide.”
There has been universal opprobrium over the U.S. “hoarding” vaccines during the pandemic, and so this declaration was no small gesture. It was the trumpeting of a commitment that should have highlighted the differences between two U.S. presidential administrations, in particular the way the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts have been actively combatting the pandemic and getting people vaccinated.
You can be forgiven if you missed the announcement, because headlines, and indeed big news stories about it only appeared in France. In fact, you wouldn’t be the only American to have been oblivious to the fact that VP Harris was even in France, let alone what she was doing there. or what she did while she was there. Outside of Twitter, there was almost no reportage of the trip, which was meant to mend fences with France following the Australian submarine deal debacle earlier this year, as well as showcase VP Harris and allow her to hone her foreign policy bona fides for a possible future presidential run, as she has dealt mostly with domestic policy throughout her career.
VP Harris met with global leaders, including outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian President Mario Draghi. French President Emmanuel Macron was charmed by Harris—the two had so much to discuss and got on so well that their respective aides had to get them to wrap up the visit.
At the Armistice Day commemoration, “National television cameras focused on Harris, casting her image on a Jumbotron screen overlooking the ceremony several times,” said David Andelman, a former European correspondent for the New York Times and CBS News. But by her trip’s end, the Times—still the newspaper of record in the U.S.—offered only a tepid assessment in a short piece late Nov. 12, with the headline: “In France, Kamala Harris Searches for Role on Global Stage.” The piece largely focused on her previous international trips more than her current one, and instead reported more on her flagging poll numbers.
If you Googled VP Harris’s French trip, what you will find is a plethora of stories about her allegedly using a French accent while speaking and using the singular emphatic pronunciation of the—THEE—which somehow translated to American reporters as some sort of pseudo-French parlez- vous. You have to go to French news stations France 24 and AFP to get French news reports on Harris’s trip that weren’t about the allegation of the French accent.
Of course, Fox News detailed AccentGate exhaustively. But they weren’t the only ones—the left-leaning SFGate featured their story “The Kamala Harris ‘French accent’ saga is really strange.”
C’est vrai. Très étrange.
“It is possible that she did try to use an accent, as she is no stranger to cringeworthy moments during her public appearances,” wrote SFGate’s Eric Ting.
AccentGate was such a conservative talking point that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, hoping to run for president in 2024, declared on Sean Hannity’s show, “The clip from Vice- President Harris is just more than embarrassing on the world stage … Our adversaries watch that and see weakness. They see people who aren’t serious.”
Trump’s Secretary of State says VP Harris isn’t serious? That’s rich.
Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs devoted four tweets to the accent and one to Harris’s trip. It was Jacobs’s seeming Karening of the VP that set Black women all over Twitter to adding THEE to their Twitter names.
On Nov. 12 Jacobs tweeted, “The @VP again used the ‘thee; pronunciation for the word ‘the’ when making a point. Some critics have claimed she appeared to adopt ‘a fake French accent’ when she said ‘the plan’ during a tour of a research lab on Tuesday. Today at Paris press conference, she said ‘the topic.’”
Mon Dieu. Jacobs was ratio’d mercilessly, with 8.5k replies and 2.5k quote tweets. On Nov. 14, she added, “Clarifying tweet: After critics including likely 2024 candidate Mike Pompeo went at @VP for this, wanted to point out she has used same wording in multiple remarks—last week, on campaign trail in Iowa, etc—which debunks claims it was new to France. Thanks for all your comments.”
It was actually Abigail Marone, press secretary for Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who first accused Harris of using a French accent during a (not-covered-by-legacy-media) speech to the Pasteur Institute, where Harris spoke about her mother’s cancer research, among other things.
Jacobs is hardly the only offender here, though she did take most of the Twitter heat from Harris defenders. What was more noticeable by this reporter was her other tweet about Harris, which was spectacularly damning not just of Jacobs, but of the entirety of the press corps covering Harris’s trip.
On Saturday, as VP Harris prepared to leave, Jacobs wrote the following tweet accompanied by a photo of Brigitte Macron holding her arms out to Harris, a huge smile on her face while PM Macron smiled in the background along with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff.
“VP Harris ends 5-day (gaffe-free) Paris trip w multiple themes—hours w Macron (global stage/sub tiff amends), research lab (covid/cancer/science), American cemetery (salute to war dead/US alliances), peace forum (inequality/women), Libya summit (democracy/elections) @AbacaPhoto”
The entirety of the five days of “multiple themes” summed up in one tweet with the disclaimer “gaffe-free”?
As I tweeted on Sunday morning, “I just spent over an hour reading French news reports on @VP Harris’s 5day trip to France. The French thought it was a major news story; US didn’t. When folks ask why Harris’s poll numbers are so low, maybe this lack of reportage is part of it. One shouldn’t need to know French.”
I posted several tweets in French about things Harris had done in France, including her and Emhoff’s poignant visit to the Carillon café on Nov. 13, to pay their respects. Nov. 13, 2015, was the night when a series of coordinated terror attacks ravaged Paris, including one at the café. A total of 190 people were killed and 416 were injured. It’s referred to as Nov. 13, much as the U.S. refers to 9/11.
Harris and her husband spoke with the Carillon owner, Ali Amokrane, at the café, “en souvenir des victimes de cette terrible nuit”—in memory of the victims of that terrible night. The accompanying photos showed the VP and her husband talking inside the bar with Amokrane and another, of the VP placing a bouquet of flowers outside.
Then there was that monumental announcement about the vaccines. As well as the Paris Peace Forum highlighting “huge announcement from VP Harris, with a quote from her saying, “I am honored to announce that the United States supports the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is running for president of France, lauded VP Harris on Twitter, as the VP was the sole foreign dignitary to attend the Armistice Day events at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Hidalgo wrote, “France and the United States are unfailing allies and share a common history, the memory of the two world wars of the twentieth century. What a beautiful symbol the presence of VP Kamala Harris is for this commemoration today.”
In Dec. 2019, Maya Contreras wrote here that legacy media had doomed Harris’s presidential bid. Contreras, who is known for her long, informative, data-packed threads on Twitter, stated, “It didn’t matter that Senator Harris was a strong candidate with a passionate base. The misogynoir of press coverage doomed her from the outset.” Having covered the 2019 campaign by Harris, I agreed with Contreras’s assessment at the time, and had written about the issue months earlier.
Yet has anything changed since Contreras and I wrote about the legacy media’s treatment of Kamala Harris in 2019, me at the beginning of the primary race, she at the end? Contreras’s perspective remains depressingly true to now. The erasure of Harris’s France trip serves as a klaxon. Harris is getting the Hillary 2016 treatment with a soupçon of racism. As I replied to Jacobs, “The word of THEE day is misogynoir.”
Teasing out what parts are sexism and what parts are racism in the coverage of the first woman VP who is also the first Black VP and first Southeast Asian VP is an impossible task. But Harris’s return from France was met not with plaudits for all she had accomplished in those five days (gaffe free, too!), but a series of attack pieces.
On Monday morning, CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who wrote hundreds of anti-Hillary screeds in 2015 and 2016, damned Harris with this story: “Here’s how you know the White House is worried about Kamala Harris.”
The New York Post posited, “Kamala Harris sidelined amid growing tensions with Biden, insiders say,” while “Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris’ frustrating start as vice president” was an in-depth “Harris in disarray” story for CNN. Veteran Black journalist April Ryan claimed that Harris is always in the background while Biden was arm-in-arm with Obama.
It was the Guardian—more foreign press—that reported on the White House support for Harris on Nov. 15. A story with the headline, “‘A bold leader’: White House defends Kamala Harris after reports say she’s struggling” quoted White House press secretary Jen Psaki as saying, “For anyone who needs to hear it, Harris is not only a vital partner to [Joe Biden] but a bold leader who has taken on key, important challenges facing the country—from voting rights to addressing root causes of migration to expanding broadband.”
On Inauguration Day, Minna Dubin wrote a compelling piece about “The Importance of Kamala Harris” in these pages, about how important it is for young girls to see our first woman vice-president. But Dubin was reminded by her young son how crucial it is that boys behold the sight of a woman in power, too.
That piece and its hopefulness could bring you to tears. But so, now, 11 months later, could the coverage—or lack thereof—on the historic first that is Kamala Harris.
Dubin wrote about Harris’s power and that is what resonates in the France debacle: This is the first role Harris has held where she does not have the political power to effectuate her ideas and policy proposals. Harris serves not as an Attorney General of the most populous state or even a senator to 40 million. She serves at the pleasure of the president. And part of that is standing behind him “like a ninja,” as Jimmy Kimmel joked last week.
That position of power relative to Biden means Harris must walk a fine line—she cannot contradict Biden. And she also can’t appear to already be running for president in 2024.
But beyond that, Harris is a target: Her femaleness and Blackness are a flashpoint for a CRT- and abortion-obsessed GOP, who see her as a threat. Fold in the Hillary quotient that has propelled the legacy media for over 25 years and it’s a perfect storm of naysaying and microaggressions.
The fact of Harris’s tenure is she has been highly successful within the limitations of her VP role. If Harris were white and male, her France trip would be touted for the success it was, rather than a dismissal wrapped in a fake news narrative of AccentGate.
“The media was never going to let a Black woman win,” as Contreras noted two years ago. And apparently, they still won’t.
Democracy Dies Behind Paywalls
Help keep DAME’s critical reporting available to all.
Our supporters believe in fairness, truth, and transparency. Your financial support today ensures that we can continue to build a more equitable media landscape. Sign up today during our 2023 drive to support media dedicated to reporting on the issues that affect us all.