Billionaire Tycoons Are Turning French Radio Into a Copy of Fox News

For decades, Europe 1 has been one of France's most respected radio networks — but under pressure from its new billionaire owners, it's being merged into the Fox-style CNEWS. Last week, journalists took strike action, trying to stop a French broadcasting icon from becoming yet another far-right echo chamber.

French billionaire Vincent Bolloré’s intervention in Lagardère Group media is the logical next step in his latest project: the creation of an unabashedly far-right audiovisual giant. (Zakaria Abdelkafi / AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, June 16, staff at France’s Europe 1 radio found themselves in a meeting with a representative of human resources. At the private radio station’s Paris headquarters, journalists were increasingly at odds with the new editorial line imposed by management — part and parcel of the broadcaster’s absorption by its new shareholders’ Fox-like TV channel.

With tensions already running high, one journalist, Victor Dhollande, discovered that the human resources officer had been secretly recording the meeting on behalf of management. A widely admired but often combative employee who had earned accolades for his coverage of the pandemic, Dhollande lost his temper and was put on suspension until the end of June, with the possibility of his forced departure from the network.

By recording the meeting, management wanted to keep its thumb on the pulse of a growing staff revolt. On Friday, June 18, demanding that Dhollande’s suspension be rescinded, journalists voted overwhelmingly for a weekend strike, as airtime was filled with previously produced content or handed off to uncontracted employees and freelancers. Barring the restoration of editorial autonomy, the workers demanded that management grant the right to termination benefits through a “conscience clause,” which allows journalists to leave a media organization should its political bent change substantially. To their dismay, the journalists found out that the station’s particular status as a “press agency” would preclude their access to this legal provision.

Sharp Right Turn

In recent months, Europe 1 radio has indeed changed its orientation, as it has been caught in the crossfire of a major transfer of power in the French media landscape. For decades it has been one of the flagship entities of the Lagardère press empire, which also owns the tentacular Hachette publishing house, a chain of airport and train-station bookstores, and print titles such as the popular society magazine Paris Match and the weekly paper Le journal du dimanche. Now, this empire is in crisis — and new shareholders are making their presence felt with a sharp right-wing turn.

Facing declining circulations, low ratings, and steep financial losses, Arnaud Lagardère — scion of the industrialist Jean-Luc Lagardère — has in recent years been forced to accept capital infusions from eager third parties. London-based vulture fund Amber Capital and the Qatari Investment Authority have respectively taken 20 and 13 percent stakes in Lagardère. Bernard Arnault of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy fame has likewise taken a bite of Lagardère media. France’s wealthiest individual, Arnault last fall increased his stake to roughly 7 percent.

With a reputation in Parisian business circles as a dilettante, Lagardère, with a fortune of roughly €200 million, is a weak competitor in a world of swashbuckling mass-media concentration. Through extended negotiations and arm-twisting, he finally acceded to loosen his control of the governing board in favor of the new stakeholders. A shareholders’ meeting at the end of June will clarify his media empire’s new governance structure — passing from limited partnership control to a more anonymous corporate structure.

With the new balance of power at Lagardère media, Europe 1 journalists are most worried by the now dominant stake controlled by billionaire Vincent Bolloré. Though his roughly €8 billion fortune is paltry compared to Arnault’s €185 billion (the world’s largest, according to Forbes), Bolloré’s portfolio extends from infrastructure and logistics to telecommunications and publicity and includes marquee brands such as the popular television network Canal+ and the publicity giant Havas. Bolloré’s intervention in Lagardère media is the logical next step in his latest project: the creation of an unabashedly far-right audiovisual giant under the auspices of Vivendi, the Breton industrialist’s media conglomerate.

One Europe 1 journalist — speaking to Jacobin on condition of anonymity, out of fear of reprisals in impending contract-termination negotiations — knows firsthand what working for Bolloré means. Before starting at Europe 1, she worked in the early 2010s at another Bolloré outlet and witnessed the particularly clientelist and interventionist relationship he had with his media holdings. 

“I have no desire to go through the same experience again,” she remarked. Though he is careful to keep his hands clean from direct editorial involvement, “Bolloré surrounds himself with people that are more Catholic than the Pope, as we used to say. They are constantly forced to self-censure.” 

As the journalist remembers, there was an implicit understanding among the editorial staff as to what stories could and could not be run. For instance, coverage of anything pertaining to the Ebola outbreak in African countries where the magnate boasted extensive investments and political ties was to be avoided. She recalled that during the 2014 mayoral elections in Paris, her colleagues had to angle their coverage in favor of the Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo. Her arrival at city hall meant the prospect of a more generous contract for the Bolloré-owned car-sharing company Autolib’.

Bolloré has long been something of a political chameleon — his media investments acting more as tactical appendages to his other industrial concerns than as part of a coherent ideological project. While he boasted a close personal friendship with President Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s right-wing president between 2007 and 2012, Bolloré’s media outlets also gave favorable coverage to center-left figures like Arnaud Montebourg and Anne Hidalgo in the early 2010s. During her earlier tenure under Bolloré, the Jacobin source remarked that there was even a tacit understanding that coverage of Marine Le Pen and France’s nationalist right was to be kept to a bare minimum.

Since 2016, however, following the breakdown of France’s traditional party system, the metamorphosis of the billionaire’s media portfolio has also meant a new political direction. Whether out of pure opportunism or genuine conviction, Bolloré has placed his bets on consolidating a far-right pole in the media ecosystem. In 2016, Vivendi acquired the private television network i>Télé, now known as CNEWS, which resulted in a similar strike and the ultimate departure of scores of journalists ill at ease with the billionaire’s plans for the network. 

False Balance

Bolloré’s maneuvering to seize control of Europe 1 was cause for alarm within the current government. France’s audiovisual regulatory authority has hesitated from intervening in ownership battles, and President Emmanuel Macron’s entourage is rumored to have been behind Bernard Arnault’s increased stake in Lagardère. Boasting an already impressive media portfolio, with titles ranging from the liberal business daily Les Échos to the newspaper Le Parisian, Arnault was meant to provide a counterweight to Bolloré, checking the rise of a conservative media behemoth in the lead-up to the 2022 presidential election. 

Staff journalists fear that moves fusing Europe 1 radio with CNEWS will turn their network into something of a French-language Fox News Radio. Adding an audio annex to CNEWS promises to extend the reach of the round-the-clock harangues already spewing out from the television panels. These constantly host polemicists like the far-right Éric Zemmour to lament France’s decline opposite a more moderate debating partner, present only in order to preserve the illusion of pluralism. 

“The role of journalists is not to give a platform to person A and then person B,” the Jacobin source said. “The goal of journalists is to decipher, inform, and explain. What CNEWS does is give an open platform to one same type of people on the Right. ‘On the Right’ is a bit too kind. To people who are really on the extreme right.” 

On June 21, as the Europe 1 staff voted to extend the strike, Lagardère spoke out on the developing conflict in an interview with the conservative daily Le Figaro. Dismissing his employees’ anxiety about Bolloré, Lagardère claimed that the deepening ties with Vivendi were purely a function of financial necessity — a chance for Europe 1 to benefit from the “synergy” of being part of a burgeoning media group. “To say that Europe 1 is going to pass into the hands of Vivendi,” Lagardère maintained, “is a fantasy on the verge of conspiracy theory. Vincent Bolloré is an asset, not a threat.” 

Workers have ample reasons not to be convinced of this — to say nothing of the fact that the surveillance of the June 16 meeting showed that management is digging in for a pitched battle over programming and editorial changes. The radio’s restructured schedule, slated to take effect in the coming months, points to the formerly centrist radio station’s de facto annexation by CNEWS. If Lagardère does retain a modicum of formal control in coming years — and an annual salary of €5 million to boot — his chosen strategy for maintaining relevance seems to be acting as Bolloré’s loyal lieutenant. 

Louis de Raguenel joined Europe 1 as assistant chief of the political service last fall, as the feeding frenzy over the Lagardère group was picking up speed. A former editor at far-right weekly Valeurs Actuelles, Raguenel’s arrival was greeted with animosity by long-standing journalists. In the station’s new editorial hierarchy, however, Raguenel has been promoted to director of the political service. 

Laurence Ferrari anchors CNEWS between 5 PM and 7 PM. With the new scheduling, she will officiate at Europe 1 between 5pm and 8pm, where she will lead her first hour with CNEWS, followed by an hour of coverage shared between the radio station and the television network. The CNEWS talking head Sonia Mabrouk, author of a 2021 screed against subversive elements in France, will pick up a key Sunday roundtable slot, sponsored by the television network and Arnault-owned newspaper Les Échos. 

Beyond this undeniable editorial entanglement, the weight of Bolloré’s censorship is already closing in on journalists at Europe 1. Last Friday, the humor columnist Christine Berrou resigned after she was told to change an upcoming segment which contained a jibe at Éric Zemmour, the far-right polemicist and CNEWS commentator who otherwise rages over cancel culture and wears his judicial convictions for hate speech as a badge of honor. On Twitter, Berrou posted an edited screenshot of a text sent from a superior, who wrote that “after discussion with [X], it would make more sense to take out this reference to Zemmour.” 

“At Europe 1, we don’t have a culture of rebellion,” the Jacobin source conceded, “we have been used to being walked all over.” The silver lining is that perhaps that is starting to change, as rank-and-file journalists find themselves caught in the grips of an expanding far-right media giant. But it might be too little, too late. On Wednesday, the strike was called off, as management offered assurances that employees who do leave Europe 1 will have access to benefits on the model of the “conscience clause.”