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OPINION: French media risks becoming a political playground for billionaires

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: French media risks becoming a political playground for billionaires
France is beginning a major review of its TV licensing. Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP

Strange winds are blowing through the French media, writes John Lichfield. They may be a breeze compared to the hurricane which threatens to re-shape the French TV landscape in the next few months.


In the space of eight years, the right-wing, devoutly Catholic billionaire Vincent Bolloré, has built a broadcast and print media empire, ranging from Canal Plus and C-News to Paris Match and the Journal du Dimanche.

He is accused of promoting a hard-right, Islamophobic, identitarian agenda, notably through the C-News TV channel whose “news” consists mainly of the recital of extreme right-wing views. (Think a French Fox News, without the balance.)

Explained: Who's who in French newspaper, magazines and TV

Questioned last month by a parliamentary committee, Bolloré denied that he had any political intentions or ambitions. “I never intervene. I am not informed of anything,” he said.

Enter stage-centre another billionaire, Rodolphe Saadé, a Franco-Lebanese ship-owner. Last month he agreed to buy France’s most watched 24-hour TV news Channel, BFMTV and the radio station RMC.


Saadé is close to President Emmanuel Macron. He already owns the financial paper La Tribune and its new (excellent) Sunday spinoff, Tribune Dimanche, plus a couple of regional newspapers, including the Marseille newspaper, La Provence.

When he bought BFMTV, Saadé said that he intended to create a media group devoted to “pluralism, independence and ethical journalism”. Hooray for that.

Within a few days, the editor of Saadé’s Marseille newspaper, La Provence, had been suspended, pending dismissal, for publishing a front-page headline on a presidential visit to the city which was, allegedly, unflattering to Macron.

The President had made a lightning visit to coincide with a police swoop on drug dealers in a north Marseilles housing estate. The newspaper’s headline the next day read: “He (ie Macron) is gone but we’re still here.”

Pro-Macron politicians complained; the editor was suspended.

The editorial staff went on strike; the journalists at La Tribune joined in; the editor was reinstated.

Vincent Bolloré, for all his protestations of non-interference, has a record of firing journalists who fail to promote his hard right worldview. Does Rodolphe Saadé, for all his promises of pluralism, now plan to create a media empire to serve the Macronist and post-Macronist centre-ground of French politics?

Would that be more acceptable than a far-right empire? One of Macron's handicaps as President has been the absence of a “centrist” voice in the French media. He has been bashed from the Left and bashed from the Right. No newspaper consistently defended him except the Journal du Dimanche - until it was bought by Vincent Bolloré last year and became a vacuous bill-board of hard right obsessions.

Staff at BFMTV are already worried that they will be expected to go “soft” on Macron in future or present a constantly flattering portrait of the government. That would be catastrophic for BFMTV and would be unlikely to help Macron, or his successor, very much.

In the US, the shameless right-wing bias of Fox News gradually corrupted other news channels which have become overtly pro-liberal or boisterously anti-conservative. British TV news channels, BBC and Sky have thankfully avoided that trap. Not so British national newspapers, which, like the French ones, remain mostly stuck in their ideological or tribal lanes.


France, unlike the UK, has a relatively thriving regional press, including La Provence, which avoids obvious, political bias. It is said that the first newspaper that Emmanuel Macron reads each day is Ouest-France, operating in Brittany and southern Normandy, which has a circulation of 600,000, twice that of Le Figaro or Le Monde.

In global terms, Ouest-France is an Asterix-like village which has resisted the drift to 24-hour news, fake news and no news at all. It is reported that only two out of ten French adults now regularly consume “mainstream” journalism, from newspapers to TV news channels.

And yet news organisations, both print and broadcast, remain an obsessive attraction to French billionaires. (France has 43 of them, according to the new Forbes list; the UK has four times as many.)

Little money can be made from news. Much can be lost. But information, even in the news-wary 21st century, is still power.

Stand by for an unseemly billionaires’ wrestling match in the next few months as 15 of the 30 licences for French terrestrial TV channels come up for review. The broadcast regulator Arcom says that “the game is totally open. We are starting with a blank sheet.”


In other words, Vincent Bolloré could lose his most precious media jewels, the five Canal-Plus channels, C-News and C8 (which is the lucrative home of the TV shock-jock Cyril Hanouna). Rodolphe Saadé could, in theory, lose his newly acquired BFMTV.

Also up for grabs are the slots occupied by Gulli, W9, TMC, TFX, NRJ12, LCI, and Paris Première. The changes do not take effect until next year but initial pitches for licences for new and old channels have to be made by next month.

The billionaire Xavier Niel, founder of the Free telecoms company and part-owner of Le Monde, is said to be preparing a bid for at least one slot.

There is pressure from the left and centre of politics for two Bolloré channels – C-News and C8 – to be denied new licences for repeatedly flouting the rules on balance, fairness and, in the case of C8, good taste. The National Assembly is already holding a commission of inquiry, which questioned Bolloré, Hanouna and others ineffectually last month.

Will Arcom dare to deny the hard and far right its TV voice – however ugly – two years before the next Presidential election? C-News is propaganda, not journalism but closing it down would be hazardous. It might drive more people away from traditional media into the crazier and darker corners of the internet.

Should the “centrist billionaires” – such as Saadé and Niel – answer hard-right propaganda with centrist propaganda?

I don’t think so. I’m old and old-fashioned enough to believe that mainstream, non-populist politics is best served in the long run by “independent and ethical” journalism


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Deborah Baron 2024/04/03 20:09
I protest your characterization of CNEWS as a recital hard-right, Islamophobic, identarian agenda and a French Fox News. CNEWS does not. The Arcom investigation was blatantly politically motivated. Using their logic, BFMTV, and the Guardian for that matter, proselytizing extreme hard-left views; therefore, are propaganda and not “proper” journalism either! An attempt to regulate, eliminate or censor these news outlets in favour of one point of view is undemocratic.

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