PARIS — WHEN the government-owned television station France 2 opened up a prime-time slot last July to make room for a series of special programs from Tunisia, the station's management figured it was making a nice gesture toward France's North African population and the country's southern neighbors.
The surprise came one night when a Tunisian movie about a boy coming of age in Tunis went head-to-head with a Jean-Paul Belmondo film on the leading commercial station. The little Tunisian clobbered the big-name French star in national ratings.
"There was complete astonishment throughout the station," says Frederic Mitterrand, a well-known French television artist who produced the Tunisian programming for France 2. "Unfortunately, the interest in the southern shores of the Mediterranean quickly fell off," says Mr. Mitterrand. "It's not hostility, it's just indifference."
Even as observers on both shores of the western Mediterranean note the intensifying presence of Western and particularly European images throughout much of North Africa, exposure across southern Europe to the life and culture of the Maghreb - through television, movies, books, or personal contact - remains surprisingly weak.
The effect is that public perception of Arab and Islamic North Africans, whether viewed across the Mediterranean or as immigrants in Europe, is largely reduced to cliches: some benign, some distorted and frightening, but all damaging in their over-simplification, most observers believe.
"The picture most Europeans form of their southern neighbors - in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria - is disastrous," says Leila Chaouni, a Moroccan publisher. "Not many Europeans know anything of our countries other than couscous and camels."
Other observers, like historian Benjamin Stora, point out that a lack of familiarity with Europe's southern neighbors has led over the last decade - with the growth in Islamic fundamentalism and the Gulf war, for example - to a deteriorating image of the Arab and Muslim as "frightening and menacing."
In opening a recent seminar here on Mediterranean cultural exchanges, French National Assembly President Henri Emmanuelli noted that it was such rationalist Arab thinkers as Ibn Khaldun and Maimonide who "irrigated the Europe of the Middle Ages, proposing a humanist model that prepared the way for the Renaissance and scientific progress."
But how many French, including those now in public schools, know that? French curriculum continues a Franco-centric vision of the country's cultural development.
France's media are also criticized for failing to reflect the country's many cultural influences. "Any time we try for programming [on immigrants or the French Arab population] we're told, `We aren't the US or England here, we don't want anything to encourage ghettos,' " says Mohamed Mebtoul, a French television producer.
Tunisian film director Ferid Boughedir says his first attempts in France to finance "Halfaouine" - the Tunisian movie that won more French viewers than Mr. Belmondo last July - were turned down by funding sources who said the screenplay didn't show enough of either the "misery of the third world or of the desperate plight of the Muslim woman," Mr. Boughedir recalls.
Despite such experiences, others point to signs that the French are slowly opening up to Arab-Islamic influences. Mitterrand emphasizes the success of several Arab entertainers, including the popular comedian Smain, who are helping acquaint the public with the North Africans among them.
And in case French television executives didn't get the message, last summer's showing of "Halfaouine" indicates there may be more interest in knowing the "other" from the other shore of the Mediterranean than France's decisionmakers think.