Eleanor Beardsley, Reporting from Paris
By Leigh Savage
Eleanor Beardsley, Paris correspondent for NPR, says she never once considered a career in journalism or radio as a student, which is why her top piece of advice for young people is to stay open to possibilities.
Being willing to take the leap when opportunity struck - and being prepared to make the most of it - took her around the world and transformed her life.
“Do what feels good and right for you, get experience,” she says. “You have to follow what you love.”
Lauded for her insatiable curiosity and thorough, insightful reporting - along with her distinctive voice that still hints at her South Carolina roots - Beardsley has become a key contributor to the NPR Europe reporting team.
For Beardsley, who grew up in Columbia and graduated from Furman University in 1986, those early loves were French and European history, her double major. “I wasn’t good at French, but I loved it, and I wanted to be fluent,” she says.
A study-away program in France lit a fire in her to find a job that would send her to France. After working for U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, she decided a master’s degree in international business from the University of South Carolina was a sure path to travel, so she earned that degree in 1991.
Beardsley has stayed involved with the school, including hosting a virtual forum in March that discussed the political aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic in the European Union.
“We’re very proud of Eleanor as an alumna for her stellar achievements in journalism and business,” says Karen Brosius, executive director of the Folks Center for International Business at the Moore School. “She is a wonderful example of the Moore School’s international business program, which is nationally ranked number one for its leadership and preparing the next generation of leaders who can understand and address the issues that shape our world.”
After earning her master’s, and considering her next step in the midst of a recession, she went back to Washington, D.C., and took a job at a restaurant - and the confirmed Francophile naturally chose a French restaurant. Opportunity knocked during a lunch shift, when she met a French executive from Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris).
Before she knew it, he asked her, “How’d you like to go to France?”
She says by following her passion for France - even while waiting tables - she was able to meet French people, including a Disney bigwig seeking French cuisine. “If you pick a path, things will pop up,” she says. “You’ll meet people by following that path.”
Never a Disney person, she leapt at the chance nonetheless, and went on to fill several roles there, including selling conference spaces to Paris businesses.
“Euro Disney was just opening, and it was an incredible experience,” she said, and a great opportunity to work on her language skills.
That role led her back to D.C., working with organizations including the economic affairs department of the French embassy and the World Bank.
Though her French adventure was over - for now - she continued to seek out roles that let her interact with French people and travel there as much as possible.
Another turning point came when she was fired from a position with a French consulting firm.
“It’s still traumatic,” she says. “I was 30-something, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. But it actually put me on a better path. That’s when I started thinking about journalism.”
Here’s how Beardsley tells it: “I was in New York, floundering. I went to the New York Public Library and got a book on how to get a job in D.C. I opened it up, and I saw a French television news bureau.”
She reached out, and within 24 hours, she became a producer with TF1, a commercial news network in France - despite having zero journalism experience.
“It was coming up to the 1996 presidential election, and they wanted someone who spoke French and knew politics - I had spent three years on Capitol Hill.” She enjoyed the work, but what really interested her was radio.
Another twist of fate
Then another opportunity presented itself, and Beardsley saw a chance to pursue a radio journalism career while also indulging her wanderlust.
A friend was in Kosovo, which was frequently in the news at the time. It was 2000, and the Kosovo War of 1998-1999, involving Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Liberation Army and NATO, had left a lot of tension in its wake.
Before the trip, Beardsley bought radio equipment and called The World, a radio show based out of Boston, to pitch stories reporting from Kosovo. Their response was a solid “maybe.”
“I went there, and incredible stuff was going on,” she says. “I was with an Albanian family when the father was released from prison. I went with a Serb who was living in an enclave guarded by NATO tanks.”
When the Serbs voted out Slobodan Milosovic in 2000, she had three stories air. She had found her calling. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
Next came a position with the United Nations in Kosovo, which led to a variety of job offers, including with the department of public information.
“The post-war environment was absolutely fascinating,” she says. “I arrived in Kosovo at 37 years old, and I was thinking how I never knew this existed. People from all over the world were there - young people doing incredible jobs with aid organizations. It was an amazing place and fascinating work.”
Meanwhile, she was building her journalist experience: radio stories for The World and Marketplace, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
“That was my journalism school,” she says.
When the Kosovo adventure ended, she decided to head back to Paris, where she worked for Agence France-Presse writing for their newswire and doing freelance radio for NPR on the side.
She proved her journalistic mettle by finding unique scoops, including tracking down then-Presidential candidate John Kerry’s French cousin. “I just called up this mayor - the cousin was a mayor of a small town in Brittany - and we had this incredible interview by the sea.”
When the NPR correspondent in France moved to Russia, he recommended her for the post, “and I’ve never stopped working since then,” she says.
Her role at NPR has led the peripatetic correspondent to Ukraine, Tunisia, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary and more, and she is gratified by the opportunity to share the experiences and stories of a diverse cross-section of people to radio listeners around the planet.
She reports on all aspects of French life, including politics, economics and culture, and has covered war, terrorist attacks and the migrant crisis as well as elections and sports.
While journalism is always changing, and some news outlets are struggling, she says NPR has never been stronger. In 2020, 57 million people were listening, reading or watching NPR content each week, up 10 percent compared to 2019.
“We’ve never had more subscribers,” she says. “There is a need for real reporting based on facts.”
Beardsley, who is married to French journalist Ulysse Gosset and has a 15-year-old son and two stepsons, says being willing to take risks has paid off in her career, and looking back, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I tried a lot of things,” she says. “Don’t wait for someone to give it to you. Try some things. Yes, you will fail at some. Really, failure can point you in a better direction.”
What do you do when you aren’t working?
Before the pandemic I would meet friends for dinner or drinks and we’d sit out at a cafe. We went to dinner parties. Now that’s not possible, because restaurants and cafes have been closed. But things will open again. In the meantime I have not just liked but really needed my daily walk along the Seine river, past the beautiful bridges and houseboats. I also adore strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens.
It’s nice to travel to different places. We go to Burgundy quite a bit, we have a tiny little country cottage down there in a Medieval village.
Do you have a favorite restaurant or French meal?
I love old authentic bistros with great atmosphere. I almost don’t care what I’m eating. A cozy place with waiters in white aprons and black suits rushing about. They usually have traditional French fare like thick slices of duck breast with crispy fat and creamy potatoes, or a big juicy steak with crisp hand-cut fries. Always fresh vegetables and good salads.
What are some of your favorite places in Paris? In France?
Paris is a great city to get lost in. I suggest just going to a neighborhood and wandering around: Montmartre or the Marais or St. Germain des Pres. Walking through the warrens of tiny cobbled streets and seeing the different shops and cafés - that’s what I love doing.
I also love strolling the Luxembourg Gardens … It’s a real slice of Paris. That’s where the Parisians go. It’s a traditional old park with ponds where kids are racing sailboats, tennis courts, chess tables, a puppet theater and ponies. But also old trees and beautiful lawns and statues.
Has tourism begun to pick up yet in Paris?
It’s been a strange feeling to see no Americans here or busloads of Chinese or anybody else. You could always tell which country had their school vacation by the tourists that were here.
No one has started coming back yet. But President Emmanuel Macron says he wants Americans to be able to visit this summer so I expect we will start to see tourists soon.
Do you see yourself living in Paris forever?
People always ask me if I’m going to stay here forever. I’ve never been a huge planner. I sort of let life take me where it will. But I’ve now been here 17 years. So yes, I guess I could see myself staying here.
What are hot topics in France right now?
The hot topic for today was whether France should honor Napoleon on the 200th anniversary of his death. Because he was a genius engineer, builder, and administrator who crafted modern France’s penal and civil codes as well as its education system.
But he was also a warmonger who caused millions of deaths and reinstituted slavery in the French Caribbean. So there was a big debate. Macron walked a fine line and spoke about all of Napoleon. But he did commemorate him. He said Napoleon Bonaparte is part of us. Though he did not celebrate him.
Otherwise there’s beginning to be a lot of talk about next year‘s presidential election. And currently it looks like Macron‘s adversary is going to be far right leader Marine Le Pen again.