A driver deliberately drove his car into pedestrians in Dijon, France, injuring at least eleven people. The driver aggressively swerved into pedestrians at five different locations in the city on the evening of Sunday 21 December.
Witnesses reported that the driver cried “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) and claimed to have acted in the name of the children of Palestine, according to French police.
The news coverage of these attacks varies widely however.
In an article entitled, “Un déséquilibré renverse onze piétons à Dijon,” Le Monde presents the attacks as being carried out by “un automobiliste, probablement déséquilibré.” The reporter for Le Monde cites a source involved with the police investigation who indicates that « l’homme, né en 1974, présente le profil d’un déséquilibré et serait suivi en hôpital psychiatrique ».
The French media presents this attack as an act of violence by a mentally ill man who was already well known to police for his erratic behavior in Dijon.
BBC begins its report, entitled “France Dijon: Driver Targets City Pedestrians,” differently, emphasizing Islamic motivations, rather than mental stability in its lead: “A driver shouting the Islamic phrase ‘God is great’ in Arabic has run down pedestrians in Dijon, France, injuring 11, two seriously, French media say.” The BBC does provide some balance, clarifying that the attacker “is said to be ‘apparently imbalanced’ and to have spent time in a psychiatric hospital.”
But, then the BBC immediately pivots to discuss a completely unrelated case in another French city: “French police shot dead a man on Saturday after he attacked them with a knife, also shouting ‘God is great.'” The BBC report goes on to link the violence in Dijon to Islamic terrorist attacks. The BBC reports: “France has the largest number of Muslims in western Europe – estimated at between five and six million. There have been a number of ‘lone wolf’ attacks by Islamists in recent years.”
The New York Times report, entitled “France: Driver Goes on Rampage, Feeding Fears,” leads off in a alarmist tone: “A driver deliberately slammed his car into crowds around the city of Dijon in eastern France on Sunday, raising concerns at a time when Islamic extremists are calling for attacks in France.” The use of “rampage” in the article’s title also references the potential for mass violence, since the term is often used in reports on mass shootings in the United States.
Like the BBC, the New York Times quickly moves on to tie the driver’s violence to terrorism: “The Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations have repeatedly called for attacks against France, notably because of the French military’s participation in U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq. Some extremists have specifically suggested that anyone angry at the French government could use weapons easily at hand — such as cars or knives — to stage ‘lone wolf’ attacks.”
The motives for the driver’s attack remain uncertain. The New York Times points out that French officials have not confirmed even the initial witness testimony: “Police union official Michel Bonnet said on BFM television that some witnesses apparently heard the driver say ‘Allahu Akbar,’ or ‘God Is Great,’ and refer to the ‘children of Palestine.’ But the Interior Ministry would not confirm that.”
The editorial stances of these three major newspapers reveal different assumptions about the relationships between religion and violence. Although all three reports indicate the lack of detailed information regarding the driver’s motives in the Dijon attacks, they frame the story with established frameworks based in their own reporting patterns. Le Monde emphasizes the problem of mental illness, the BBC stresses the threat of “lone wolf” Islamic radicalism, while the New York Times implies the menace of an Islamic terrorist organization’s inspiration for the attacks.
Given the uncertainty on the Dijon driver’s motives, these differences may suggest broader patterns of reporting or editing in these news publications.