Democracy in France depends on restoring a free press

 

The situation of the press in France is an example of the wider media crisis across Europe. France may have narrowly avoided a far-right government – for now – but the task of mobilising funds for independent newsrooms is just beginning.

A (narrowly averted) far-right government in France would have resulted in breakdown of the social fabric, racist, sexist, homophobic discrimination, a war on minorities, the suppression of liberties and ecological regression. But there are warnings for anyone who cares about our democracy.

In its strategy for power, the media was a focus  for the extreme right. Billionaires associated with  the right-wing movement sought the takeover of publications, television channels, and radio stations in the pursuit of ending media pluralism.

Everywhere the extreme right governs the free press is violently attacked. In France, the ground has been methodically prepared under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. The president has continuously restricted the protections and rights of journalists, through attacks on the secrecy of sources and the primacy of confidentiality, the law on global security, and the planned merger of public broadcasting.

A new ownership structure

France is unique in that 90 percent of its national dailies (in terms of readership) and all its private television channels are owned by seven major industrialists, financiers, and philanthropists whose interests lie outside the news business. Often dependent on public commissions, these ‘captains of industry’ now structure the news landscape.

Bouygues controls the country’s leading television channel, and six other channels. Arnault of LVMH, the world’s leading luxury goods group, owns two national daily newspapers, a radio station, and several magazines. Bolloré (Vivendi), owns a television empire (Canal+ and four other channels), France’s leading magazine group (Prisma), a major radio station and two weeklies. And this concentration is even worse at the local level.

The concentration of information in the hands of a few billionaires has been accompanied in recent years by takeovers of newsrooms. In recent months, several editorial directors have been sacked by their shareholders because they disagreed with their editorial choices. There are repeated attacks on the independence of editorial staff. This decline in independence, and consequently in the quality of information, is a major explanation for the gulf of mistrust that has opened up between public opinion and the media.

The far right at the heart of mass media

Vincent Bolloré is an industrialist who has become a media magnate in the space of fifteen years. He has made no secret of the fact that he wants to impose a far-right ideological agenda on his newsrooms. For example, his rolling news channel CNews promoted the 2022 presidential candidacy of  Eric Zemmour, who has been repeatedly convicted of inciting racial hatred.

Bolloré is also known for purging the editorial teams of media outlets he buys. Almost all the journalists at I-Télé, which became CNews after the takeover, have left the channel. Ninety employees of Europe-1, a major general-interest radio station, resigned following its takeover by Bolloré. Another example is the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, whose editorial staff  for four weeks to protest against the appointment of far-right journalist Geoffroy Lejeune as managing editor.

Public broadcasting is also under threat. The profession faces pressure and recurrent criticism from the government, which has just announced a vast reform of the sector. A landscape of information and opinion is emerging that could favour the far right in the next elections, with polls showing it to be the favourite for the 2027 presidential election.

End the manipulation of state subsidies

France also has the most heavily subsidised press in Europe. In total, the state devotes more than a billion euros in direct and indirect subsidies to the press. Without these, most titles would be recording huge losses.

As examples: despite a net profit of €14bn for the LVMH group in 2022, Bernard Arnault  than €16m for Les Echos and Le Parisien in 2021. In two years, the Le Monde group, controlled by Xavier Niel, has received €18m. These billionaires have destroyed value, made redundancies, accumulated losses, and missed out on the digital revolution. They have shied away from investing, so that they can drink from the tap of public subsidies, which now account for nearly a quarter of their turnover.

In 2022, the Union for Independent Online News Media (Syndicat de la presse d’information indépendante en ligne, or SPIIL), an independent online press association, expressed its frustration with this system, which ‘distorts competition and seriously harms pluralism’. The trade association represents more than 280 independent titles, the vast majority of which are digital. The independent press is thus massively discriminated against, producing a disproportion that SPIIL calls, ‘indecent and discouraging for the many independent publishers working to promote pluralism of information.’

Legal attacks on independent journalism

The last few years have also seen several legal attacks on journalists. Cascading lawsuits have been  (led by Vincent Bolloré) following the publication of investigations into their business and media dealings, forcing financially fragile titles to incur heavy legal costs. Denounced by the entire profession as ‘gagging tactics’, these SLAPPS are designed to dissuade journalists from investigative work.

Urgent need to support the independent press

It is against this backdrop that dozens of independent media  . They are also trying to produce quality, independent journalism, and rebuild a relationship with audiences who no longer trust the mass media and are turning away from them.

France is a specific example but we can see the same trends all over Europe. The erosion of protections for freedom of expression and media freedom is a key factor in the democratic backsliding Europe has witnessed in recent years. That is why there is an urgent need to mobilise funds for independent newsrooms, infrastructures, networks if we want to maintain our democracies, the right to inform and the right to know.

Charlotte Clavreul is the Executive Director of Fonds pour une Presse Libre

Juliette Decoster has 20 years of experience in philanthropy, most notably as Program manager at a foundation where she oversaw programmes relating to media and democracy, whistleblowers protection, regulation of multinationals climate justice and civic space.

[1] https://fondspresselibre.org/

[2] From 2019, the Fund provided also 700.000€ of grants to 34 independent media outlets, made possible thanks to 6.000 individual donors.

[3] https://fondspresselibre.org/59-propositions-pour-liberer-linfo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Comments (0)

bitlife

Agenda-Setting Tactics and Propaganda: In an effort to disseminate propaganda and disinformation online, far-right actors implement agenda-setting tactics. In order to influence public discourse, they strategically emphasize specific narratives and themes. They can develop an environment that is conducive to their ideology and influence public opinion by controlling the narrative.


quordle

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