Workers in France Have Gone on Strike to Save Public Broadcast Media

French media is ever more prey to billionaire owners and the far-right pundits they promote. Public service broadcasters offer a more balanced alternative — but now Emmanuel Macron’s government is threatening their future existence.

French public media workers march behind a banner that reads "Let's Save Public Media" during a rally called by unions in Paris on June 28, 2022. (Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)

If some moves tick all the political boxes, the French government’s plan to eliminate an annual €138 audiovisual tax is surely one of them. Coming at the expense of institutions accused by some of elitism and progressive monoculture, it promises much-needed relief for average French taxpayers trapped in an inflationary crunch. Two weeks after President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition lost its absolute majority in the National Assembly, the move builds an early bridge with the right-wing opposition.

Announced on the campaign trail this spring, the reform is part of a highly anticipated cost-of-living package, as annual inflation in France is expected to reach 7 percent by September. On Wednesday, the government — for now headed by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne — will present a series of measures aimed at protecting French consumers’ purchasing power. This will include extending a price freeze on heating gasoline, tweaking payroll taxes, and relaunching a one-off stimulus check for essential goods. If it passes muster, the package will be the first major bill to emerge from the fragmented new parliament elected in June.

Paid by households in possession of a television set — and waivable for those without one, alongside low earners — the contribution à l’audiovisual public finances France’s well-developed offering of public service radio and television. Upward of twenty-three million households pay the fee, which provides over €3 billion in annual funding to the three flagship public broadcasting organizations: Radio France, France Télévisions, and France Médias Monde.

But not everyone’s happy. On June 28, journalists and production staff at the networks participated in a one-day work stoppage, with hundreds converging on the National Assembly in rejection of the threat to their funding source. For public media already facing belt-tightening, the elimination of the tax will create a budget hole that jeopardizes their future viability.

Political Coup

“It’s a political coup to say they’re going to eliminate this tax to aid purchasing power,” Renaud Dalmar, union representative for the Union Syndicale des Journalistes (CFDT) at Radio France, told Jacobin. When Macron initially announced the initiative in March, reservations within some unions were undercut by the expectation that a stand-alone law doing away with the tax would be offset by the creation of some new funding valve. At the time, the fee’s fate was up in the air, attached as it was to a phased-out residential tax.

Now, the elimination of this funding source as part of an omnibus anti-inflation law has raised concerns that no replacement tax is coming. Journalists and union representatives fear that this points to a future where public service broadcasting will be the subject of annual (and highly political) budgeting negotiations and forced to undergo a cost-cutting bout of restructuring.

Privatization is not yet on the table — though it is an old rallying cry of the French right. But critics of the proposed measure argue that it will leave the service handicapped. On the heels of the government’s announcement to eliminate the tax, a pair of center-right senators from Les Républicains released a report on public service broadcasting, which called for the “fusing” of TV and radio broadcasters under one umbrella network, mutualizing production work and studio use across formats.

Delphine Ernotte, the president of France Télévisions, is said to support a move toward an integrated group, and perhaps the transition toward private ownership, arguing that it would be the only way to digest budget cuts and respond to competition. Workers and management at Radio France are more hesitant, however. “That would entirely disintegrate the radio offering,” Delmar says. Indeed, recent examples of similar moves toward “fusion” don’t augur well for the production of high-quality radio programming. On everyone’s mind is the 2021 hostile takeover of the private radio station Europe 1 by the television network CNEWS, owned by hard-right media mogul Vincent Bolloré, leading to the radio network offering synchronized broadcasts of television news spots and talk shows.

“Fusion” at the national level risks being incredibly costly, however, potentially provoking not only a broad social movement among the staffs at the networks but also incurring the short-term costs of mass restructuring and layoffs. A more likely scenario, sources say, is a fusion between France 3 and France Bleu, branches of the national networks offering locally catered radio and television programming. In a media landscape centered around Paris, which hosts the overwhelming majority of the country’s press institutions, this would threaten a source of reliable coverage of local news and issues.

Bastion of Leftism?

What looks like yet another skirmish over public services and the politics of austerity is in fact a hot-button issue on the Right, which has come to target public radio and television as a bastion of “leftism” in French political culture. Reappropriating the Left’s critique of the conservative “mediatized intellectual,” young right-wing firebrand Eugénie Bastié, now a talking head on the conservative chain CNEWS, laments in her 2021 book The War of Ideas in France that “nobody seems to make any noise about the high level of visibility granted anticapitalist economists Thomas Piketty or Thomas Porcher, or the overwhelming majority of left-wing thinkers invited on public broadcasting shows.”

In fact, many people are making noise. During the presidential campaign, France’s far-right candidates joined in a chorus of criticism against taxpayer-supported broadcasting, with Marine Le Pen calling for complete privatization. “I think we need to cancel the [television tax],” far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour told the private radio network Sud Radio, “so that the public broadcasters stop fleecing us and then spitting in our faces.”

Though public television and radio in France are renowned for high-quality programming, there is no way to possibly claim that they are reserve of post-1968 leftism, as the narrative embraced by the Right clams. For better or for worse, public broadcasters adhere to a relatively pluralistic diet of programming. Take, for example, the radio station France Culture, where listeners can alternate between the weekly ramblings of conservative essayist Alain Finkielkraut, or a five-part shows on the past, present, and future of Marxism.

Macron and the Right’s attack on public broadcasting comes amid a period of profound change and instability in the media landscape. In just the last year, two private media behemoths have emerged in France’s audiovisual sector. One pole, under the control of ultraconservative businessman Bolloré, brings together CNEWS and Europe 1 radio, alongside a host of publishing houses and magazines. Under the encouraging eye of the government, billionaire Martin Bouygues is proceeding with the absorption of the M6 chain by TF1, France’s most watched network controlled by Bouygues since its privatization in the late 1980s.

A strong public media pole has become a political priority for France’s left-wing forces, who view it as one possible counter to a concentrating media landscape under the control of large businesses. “Today, who is in control of the production of information? Bernard Arnault, Vincent Bolloré, Patrick Drahi, and Martin Bouygues,” France Insoumise MP François Ruffin told France 3. “To counter that, I think that we need public sector media that can put them under scrutiny as well.”

Several MPs from the left-wing alliance joined the striking journalists on June 28, calling for the maintenance of an audiovisual tax, albeit scaled to income. Judging by viewership numbers, the offering from France Télévisions and Radio France are also highly in-demand services: France 2, the flagship public news station, closely follows TF1 in audience figures, as France Inter radio was the most listened to network in 2021.

“What’s really going on here, is that Radio France . . . is a business that works very well, and has very good results, which frustrates the private sector,” says Dalmar. “Behind all of this is a lobby of private groups that think that [it] takes up too much space and needs to be broken.”

Public broadcasting staff want a major reinvestment to allow the networks to do their jobs, after years without a salary revalorization and as the pressures of layoffs are felt throughout overstretched newsrooms. On June 30, Le Monde reported on rapidly deteriorating working conditions at the public radio service, where short-term contracts and stingily compensated freelancing stints are supplementing cuts in full-time staff positions.

“They cut employment rolls and ask us to keep doing the same job,” says Dalmar, pointing to the general feeling of burn out among journalists and producers. “No longer having the time to think and to do one’s job properly has a major impact on quality. To be able to say to yourself, we didn’t get it right and should start over — that’s what allows you to provide a quality service.”

In the coming weeks, Macron’s plan for the audiovisual tax needs to overcome the tricky new situation in the National Assembly following June’s parliamentary elections. Some union officials retain guarded hopes that local pressure against right-wing MPs from rural areas could dissuade a vote in favor. If not, and assuming that implementing a refashioned tax is politically out of reach, the best-case scenario appears to be multiyear budgeting vehicles such that public broadcasters will not be beholden to annual wrangling and the political pressures that come with it.

“A specific tax is a much better guarantee . . . because it’s much easier to make cuts once its inscribed in the budget,” says Lionel Thompson of the CGT Radio France, arguing that a “budgetization” of public service media risks turning into an “easy way for the government to have leverage over editorial line, knowing that it holds the budgetary strings in its hands.”