Far-Right Media Tycoons Are Poisoning French Democracy
French presidential candidates are meant to have equal access to the airwaves. But the buildup to this month’s election instead shows how unaccountable billionaire media owners can set the political agenda — and promote astroturf far-right candidates.
- Interview by
- Harrison Stetler
The specter of media concentration has become a central question in France, with public debate dominated by right-wing culture war obsessions ahead of the first round of the presidential election this Sunday. With anti-immigrant candidate Éric Zemmour’s latest sallies flooding the news in recent months, the country has been reminded of the enormous power of large press conglomerates.
Just in the last year, France has witnessed the consolidation of two new media poles.
One is a fresh expansion of the media empire of billionaire tycoon Vincent Bolloré. In the mid-2010s, he acquired the Canal+ group, which included the future CNEWS, the Fox-like channel infamous for hosting Zemmour as a prime-time pundit. He has embarked on a massive expansion of his media empire and is currently in the process of absorbing the Lagardère media group into the Canal+ orbit. The move heralds the advent of a fully integrated far-right media sphere encompassing publishing, advertising, television news, radio, and print publications.
The other revolves around TF1, France’s flagship private television station. Owned by famed telecoms, construction, and real estate mogul Martin Bouygues, TF1 is commencing a fusion with the M6 group. Facing increasing public pressure to confront the dangers of media concentration, the French Senate has held a series of public hearings in recent months, summoning figures like Bolloré and Bouygues for a round of staid and uncombative questioning.
Julia Cagé is an economist at Sciences Po in Paris. Her research focuses on campaign and political party financing as well as the media industry. In early February, Cagé published Pour un télé libre: Contre Bolloré, a book on Bolloré’s emergence as a media magnate and what public actors can do to protect pluralism in mass media. Her other books include The Price of Democracy and L’information est un bien public: refonder la proprieté des médias, coauthored with Benoît Huet.
Cagé sat down with Jacobin’s Harrison Stetler for a conversation about media concentration in France and its effect on public debate.
Vincent Bolloré has been the at the center of attention in France in recent years, but the story of his interest in the press goes back even further. Can you explain the history of Bolloré’s media strategy?
His interest in the news media is really quite recent. It’s true that he entered the sector at the time of the creation of the digital terrestrial television (the so-called TNT in France), which allowed the opening of new channels. He took control of a channel to create Direct 8 in 2005. This was his first step in the media sector — before he was not really in the news media.
In 2014–15, however, he took control of the Canal+ group, which at the time contained the i>Télé news channel, now rebranded as CNEWS. It’s worth noting that he had previously sold Direct 8 to the Canal+ group, which shows that he was not necessarily attached to news media! So he took back control of the broadcaster and the same for CSTAR, which was then called Direct Star [a premium music channel]. This is how he really entered the television business.
More recently, we have seen the seizure of the Europe 1 radio network from the Lagardère Group, last summer. In 2019, he announced that he was going to acquire Prisma Media, the leading group of magazines in France, which he finally acquired it in 2020. And now we have the takeover of Journal du Dimanche (JDD) and Paris Match [also from Lagardère].
So we’ve really witnessed a change of strategy and scale. Before, one could say that he was in the media because of Vivendi and Universal Music — but music production is not the same as owning news media, which really is a new thing for Vincent Bolloré.
How do all these different ownership positions interact? We have, on the one hand, a huge pole that is going to be built in publishing — encompassing France’s two largest publishing groups. After that, as you already mentioned, there are the magazine publications, Europe 1 radio, and the television arm.
He creates what he calls “synergies.” You can see this between CNEWS and Europe 1. For example, if you listen to the radio on Saturday or Sunday morning, you hear CNEWS. They do joint programs, they share airtime. This allows him to mutualize costs. This will undoubtedly grow and develop with the press titles that he has recently acquired — with Paris Match and JDD in particular. For example, he will probably make more journalists from Paris Match and JDD appear on CNEWs and Europe 1 — aiming for the mutualization of costs and “synergies.”
Then there’s the whole question of publishing. When you make books, what do you have to do next? Promotion, to sell them. The other source of “synergy” is that you have media outlets that will be able to serve as platforms for authors from Bolloré’s publishing houses. There’s also the fact that buying the publisher Hachette, in addition to Éditis, which he already owns, will also allow the mutualization of costs. It is obvious that he will take advantage of this to seriously cut costs and reduce overheads.
We must not forget that Bolloré is a cost killer. There is the conservative ideological aspect of course, but then there’s the cost-killer aspect. Wherever he arrives, he reduces expenses enormously and shifts to a low-cost model.
One of the arguments that Bolloré has often advanced to justify his media takeovers has been a form of economic nationalism. These “synergies” and the centralization under a single umbrella group, he claims, is the only way to ensure that the French media and telecommunications industry could remain competitive on an international scale. What do you make of these arguments?
This argument does not hold at all. If you watched Bolloré’s hearing before the Senate, it was a joke. “There’s the GAFA [Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple] and Netflix. With €24 billion in sales, we are tiny, we are dwarves,” he seemed to say. I swear, he used the word “tiny” fifteen times and “dwarf” twenty-five times! It was breathtaking. The argument doesn’t hold up because these are not the same markets. On the one hand, you have corporations that have an international market. On the other, you have companies that serve an exclusively French market. So the right comparison is not with Netflix as such: it’s the revenues made by Netflix in France. And, in this case, the French companies are entirely competitive.
You mentioned the recent hearings before the Senate. These hearings were a reflection of the growing public awareness of the risks posed by media concentration in France. We saw the upper crust of the Parisian business elite, owners of the largest media groups, in front of the Senate for a few days. What did these hearings reveal in terms of what politicians in France can or are willing to do?
Nothing. It’s quite a shame, really. This inquiry commission could have been a useful initiative — but it was conducted in a very, very poor way. It was striking to see the politicians’ deference to the billionaires who were interviewed. They were not far off thanking them, though it was an inquiry commission where they were obliged by law to present themselves.
In general, I don’t really take the United States as an example of a functional democracy — because it really isn’t. But there was a huge contrast with your average congressional investigative committee — just because a billionaire comes in doesn’t mean they roll out the red carpet. He’s treated like an ordinary citizen, and that’s normal. But here, they were not treated like ordinary citizens. This prevented the senators from asking real questions. So it was quite useless, or even to the benefit of the billionaires.
Today, Bolloré is considered the main sponsor of the French far right, the financial backer of the main threat to the current government. But the center of the political field, and the Socialist Party and Emmanuel Macron, has its share of responsibility in the current scandal surrounding Bolloré. It was during the presidency of François Hollande, while Macron was finance minister, that his takeover of Vivendi and Canal+ took place.
Yes, but it’s not only the Socialists. The real problem is with legislation in France. The current media regulations date from 1986. In fact, there was the law of 1984, which was unraveled by the Right when it gained control of parliament two years later. It’s a law that was made before the arrival of the internet and that has only been reformed in little pieces since then. It’s like regulating high-speed train travel with laws designed for horse-drawn carriages. It doesn’t work.
Yes, it was during François Hollande’s presidency that this merger took place, and the administration did nothing, but it was the law that had to be changed. Hollande did nothing, like Nicolas Sarkozy before him, or like Emmanuel Macron after. There is no political courage to tackle this, and that is what is really missing. Unfortunately, I am afraid that nothing will come out of the inquiry commission because it came much too late in this administration.
What are the main weaknesses of the current media regulation in France? How can channels like CNEWS get around them?
The weapons available to us are very limited. Take, for example, the global regulation of political speech time. [Instead of regulating by targeted time slots at prime-time hours, for example,] the current rules allow channels to put broadcasts of political meetings on a loop during the night to balance out speech times.
The regulations also define political speech in a very narrow way. As it is currently defined, it is applied to only when actual politicians or political figures are speaking. When you had Zemmour speaking, for example, as a journalist before he declared his presidential candidacy, his interventions were not considered to be political speech. Although it was clearly just that, if not more.
And then regulators have powers that they don’t actually use, for example with the allocation and renewal of frequency and broadcasting rights.
But these are measures or regulations that ought to come after another question — what about the problem of ownership?
I have very precise proposals on this. But I think that today there are not enough rules imposed on a publisher when they are given the authorization to broadcast on a television or radio frequency. In the short term, I think it will be difficult to change capital ownership — because you don’t necessarily have many people who have three, four or five billion euros to put on the table.
But short of democratizing capital ownership, we have to democratize governance: we have to separate political rights from capital rights, and, in particular, we have to ensure that half of the seats on the board of directors of the media company are reserved for salaried employees, two-thirds of which should be left for journalists. It is also necessary to give a right of intervention to employees so that they can intervene and oppose the arrival of a new controlling shareholder.
This could be put in the law. That is to say that we can put in place a certain number of principles to be adhered to in order for a publisher to be assigned an audio-visual frequency.
But it seems that the government’s strategy to oppose or contain Bolloré is to fight fire with fire. Last summer, as Bolloré became a controlling shareholder of Lagardère, the government is said to have encouraged the entry Bernard Arnault, of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, into the capital to counterbalance that of Vincent Bolloré. Another big question today, which has also been looked on rather kindly by the current government, is the merger between TF1 and M6, which would constitute another massive, yet more moderate, private media pole. In your book, you evoke the “Italian scenario” to describe the future of the media landscape in France . . .
Everyone, including the head of public broadcasting, which is quite astonishing, says that the way forward is to constitute a large public media group and a large private group. As if that were the solution! But we know very well how that works — it’s the situation in Italy. We don’t have the same audiovisual sector in France, of course, where the rules are stronger. In Italy, however, there is a single publicly owned audiovisual group in the hands of politicians, and a private media group that is in the hands of a specific political tendency [the Silvio Berlusconi–owned Mediaset group]. The end result is a politicized television ecosystem and a very uninformed citizenry.
Relative to the Italian example, we can say that the French public audiovisual system works well. Even if the governance is not perfect — it would be better to have something like the BBC — it is nonetheless pretty good. The journalists of the public broadcaster can do their job very well.
But what happens tomorrow if you have Zemmour or Marine Le Pen elected? What I am trying to say is that a pluralistic offering of private media is also a way to protect against attacks on public broadcasting. If the public audiovisual network is the only rampart, it is vulnerable to changes of government.
So the government’s strategy is to create another large private group to confront the press outlets in the Bolloré orbit?
No, it’s not even that! A merger between TF1 and M6 is not even to contain Bolloré. The goal is to have Martin Bouygues [the owner of the Bouygues group, which includes TF1] in his back pocket! The rise of Bolloré is not really a bad thing for the current government, either. The ideal political situation for Emmanuel Macron is a second-round face-off with Marine Le Pen or Éric Zemmour. In fact, his odds are even better against Zemmour than against Le Pen. As things now stand, Macron would win against Le Pen, but the gap is narrowing. Against Zemmour, he still has a huge lead.
In fact, Macron has every interest in Zemmour being in the second round. So he has every interest in the Bolloré channels doing what they are doing today. It’s a bit of a dangerous game. It’s like saying, “Après moi, le deluge.”