The French media: in bed with power

17 mars 2012 § Poster un commentaire

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that France is a left-wing country. I live in Paris on the marching route of the regular demonstrations – manifestations, known affectionately as manifs. On the radio on Saturday mornings, people wish each other “Bonne manif!”. The socialist François Hollande, favourite to win this spring’s presidential elections, says, “My adversary is finance.” He’s calling for a tax rate of 75 per cent on anyone (except possibly footballers) earning over €1m.

But socialism is only the French surface. Below that, a cabal of billionaires exerts a surprising grip. The French political scientist Patrick Weil says: “You have this country where the ideology is revolutionary and egalitarian. So owners of fortunes protect themselves through different means.” A glance at French media dispels the notion that France is a socialist republic.

When I read French newspapers, I’m usually impressed. Journalists here seem like academics who can write. But whereas American and British journalists aim to sell newspapers, and sometimes even to keep power honest, France has a different tradition. French media have historically been in bed with power, writes Jean Quatremer in his excellent new book Sexe, mensonges et médias. Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s chief minister, wrote about himself under a pseudonym for France’s only newspaper. Later Napoleon did much the same thing.

As French journalism has become upper-middle-class, it’s crept even closer to power, says Quatremer. Today’s ministers and senior journalists often studied together at Sciences-Po, live in the same bits of Paris, eat together and sometimes sleep together. In a country where various ministers’ wives have anchored the TV news, and Hollande’s girlfriend is a journalist, who needs metaphors about being in bed with power?

One way Parisians show off is by swapping gossip about politicians. It proves they are insiders, because that kind of information is rarely published. When French journalists speak truth to power, it’s often during pillow talk. In print, they are usually more cautious. They covered up Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual habits until he ran into trouble abroad, notes Quatremer. Officially, the silence showed that French media respect private life.

More precisely, they respect the private life of powerful politicians. Since Strauss-Kahn lost power, journalists have jumped on his sexual practices as revealed by the “Carlton affair”.

This tameness makes French media attractive to billionaires. French billionaires illustrate the point once allegedly made by George W. Bush: there is no French word for “entrepreneur”. Typically, French billionaires inherit their fortunes. This is probably because France has a relatively underdeveloped financial sector: instead of getting capital from banks, capitalists get capital from their families. The billionaire heirs Serge Dassault and Arnaud Lagardère between them own most French print media. The billionaire heir Martin Bouygues is the main shareholder of TF1, the main TV channel. So perfect is their control that in 2001, Bouygues and Lagardère even helped save the communist newspaper L’Humanité.

France has no Rupert Murdoch, no magnate who owns media to make money, says Christophe Deloire, co-author of Circus Politicus. Rather, French billionaires typically own media to support their main moneymaking businesses. As Arnaud Lagardère’s father once explained: “You see, a press group is a great asset for picking up contracts.” In France, contracts often come from the state. Inevitably, French owners court politicians rather than ordinary readers or viewers. That suits French journalists: there’s a Parisian tendency to view France as a sort of holiday resort, inhabited by smelly peasants who vote far right or far left. Whereas British media are too populist, French media aren’t populist enough.

France’s media-political embrace climaxed under President Nicolas Sarkozy. He gave himself the right to appoint the directors of state TV and radio. His links with private media barons are almost hilarious, featuring the manifold entanglements of a Brazilian soap opera or Victorian novel. Bouygues is godfather to one of Sarkozy’s sons. Sarkozy has called Lagardère “more than a friend, a brother”. Vincent Bolloré, another billionaire in media, lent Sarkozy his yacht. Dassault, whose family is big in fighter planes, is a senator in Sarkozy’s party, though sadly no longer a mayor, having lost the post after a court found he had paid cash to voters.

On the “night of Fouquet’s” in 2007, many of these men gathered with Sarkozy to celebrate his election in that swish Champs-Elysées restaurant. To those living beyond the choicest arrondissements of Paris, all this looks a bit like Putin’s Russia. No wonder Hollande has built his campaign around distrust of wealth and capitalism.

No wonder also that, on the average day, less than 2 per cent of French people buy a national newspaper. Quatremer notes hopefully that people increasingly get their news from independent websites. Well, at least some of the websites are independent. When Arianna Huffington recently launched a Huffington Post for France, she boldly diverged from French tradition. She didn’t appoint a minister’s wife as editor. She appointed a former minister’s wife: Anne Sinclair, Madame Strauss-Kahn.


/ Simon Kuper, Financial Times Magazine, March 16, 2012


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