Press freedom in France is threatened by crisis, concentration, and a lack of independence


France is an outlier among other major European democracies for the mediocrity of its media system and the strong position of the far right within mass media. Over the past fifteen years, the French media landscape has been radically transformed. While demand for information has never been so high, thanks to the digital revolution, the overall supply of information has never been so low, giving rise to growing concern among media professionals represented by journalists' societies, unions, associations and collectives.

En français | Po Polsku.

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A new ownership structure

"The key to a people's civil liberties lies in the freedom of the press", said Emile Brachard in 1935, when he was defending the adoption of the first professional statute for journalists before the National Assembly. Why mention him now? Because the situation in France today has a lot in common with that of the inter-war period (1919-1939). It was the heyday of the "industrial press", which was controlled and manipulated by the very richest, engulfed in corruption. It would eventually tip over into collaborationism.

Defending the status of journalists, Brachard attacked "these groups that control the newspapers, in other words this capitalism of the press", which despised independent journalism and those who produced it; the journalists. He denounced the multiple attacks on the fundamental law of 1881 on press freedom, "these many and varied interventions, all tending to bend the rules" in order to satisfy newspaper owners.

Nearly a century later, this freedom must be defended again as new attacks increase. And this freedom needs to be extended, because the liberal law of 1881 has been steadily eroded over the last fifteen years.

The revolution of the last fifteen years has been the takeover of most of the private media ecosystem by businessmen. Often dependent on public commissions, these 'captains of industry' now structure the news landscape. France is unique in that 90% of its national dailies (in terms of readership) and all of its private television channels are owned by seven major industrialists and financiers, whose interests lie outside the news business.

Bouygues (Bâtiment travaux publics), who controls TF1, the country's leading television channel, and six other channels; Arnault (LVMH, the world's leading luxury goods group), owner of two national daily newspapers, a radio station and several magazines; Bolloré (Vivendi), who owns a television empire (Canal+ and four other channels), France's leading magazine group (Prisma), a major radio station and two weeklies; Niel (telecoms), which controls Groupe Le Monde, regional dailies and several weeklies; Dassault (aviation and armaments), owner of Le Figaro, France's leading conservative daily. The latest addition is Saadé (CMA-CGM group, the world's 3rdlargest shipping company) who, in addition to a regional daily and a business daily, has just bought seven television channels and a major radio station from Drahi (telecoms).

This concentration is even worse at the local level. An official report[1] published in the summer of 2022 by the Inspectorate of Finance and the Inspectorate of Cultural Affairs found that "Press concentration is high for the national daily press and very high for the local daily press".

Newsrooms have lost their independence

A new crisis is underway: a crisis of independence. Most of these major shareholders promote their own interests and political positions in the media that they control. The concentration of information in the hands of a few billionaires, or the emergence of an "industrial press", has been accompanied in recent years by violent takeovers of newsrooms. In the context of an information ecosystem in crisis and unable to provide for its consumers, the media bought up by industrialists and financiers are used primarily as levers of influence. These media owners are investing in protection, not development, risk-taking or innovation.

In recent months, a number of editorial directors have been sacked by their shareholders because they disagreed with their editorial choices. This was the case with Hervé Gattegno, director of Le Journal du Dimanche and Paris-Match, who was sacked by Lagardère and Bolloré. Nicolas Barré, editorial director of the business daily Les Echos, was dismissed by Bernard Arnault, leaving the outlet without a director for almost a year now. Aurélien Viers, editorial director of La Provence, was dismissed for an “ambiguous” front page headline that displeased the outlet's management, but was reinstated a few days later.

There are repeated attacks on the independence of editorial staff. In each case, consciences are raised for a short while before interest is swiftly lost, and nothing changes... This decline in independence, and therefore in the quality of information, is a major explanation for the gulf of mistrust that has opened up between public opinion and the media.

The far right at the heart of mass media

Vincent Bolloré is an industrialist who has become a media magnate in the space of fifteen years. He has made no secret of the fact that he wants to impose a far-right ideological agenda on his newsrooms as part of the "fight for civilisation". For example, his rolling news channel CNews promoted the 2022 presidential candidacy of far-right essayist Eric Zemmour, who has been repeatedly convicted of inciting racial hatred.

Bolloré is also known for purging the editorial teams of media outlets he buys up. Almost all the journalists at I-Télé, which became CNews after the takeover, have left the channel. Ninety employees of Europe-1, a major general-interest radio station, resigned following its takeover by Bolloré. Shortly before that, censorship, programme cuts and dismissals marked the industrialist’s takeover of Canal+.

Another example is the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, which has gone from crisis to crisis. In June 2023, for the first time in its history, its editorial staff went on strike for four weeks to protest against the appointment by shareholder Vincent Bolloré of far-right journalist Geoffroy Lejeune as managing editor. Lejeune had earlier been sacked for his ultra-right views at the weekly Valeurs Actuelles, owned by businessman Safa.

Finally, you might be forgiven for imagining that public broadcasting would remain untouched by the economic powers that be. But this is not the case. The profession faces pressure and recurrent criticism from the government, which, after changing the way it is funded, has just announced a vast reform to reorganise the sector.

As a result, journalism and news media are in a very bad way. A landscape of information and opinion is emerging that could favour the far right in the next elections, with polls showing it to be the favourite for the 2027 presidential election.

A waste of huge public subsidies

France also has the distinction of having the most heavily subsidised press in Europe. In total, the state devotes more than a billion euros in direct and indirect subsidies to the press. Without these public subsidies, most titles would be recording huge losses.

By way of example: despite a net profit of €14bn for the LVMH group (the world's leading luxury goods group) in 2022, Bernard Arnault has taken the lion's share of these public subsidies, receiving more than €16m for Les Echos and Le Parisien in 2021, and €22.5m in 2020. In two years, the Le Monde group, controlled by Xavier Niel, has received €18m, the Le Figaro group (Dassault family) more than €16m, Libération (Patrick Drahi via SFR and an endowment fund) €14.5m, and so on.

One can legitimately wonder about the reasons for such high levels of state support for these major media outlets.

With little innovation, the written press has botched the move to digital. These billionaires have destroyed value, made redundancies, accumulated losses, and missed out on the digital revolution. They have shied away from investing, so that they can drink from the tap of public subsidies, which now account for nearly a quarter of their turnover. Without these public subsidies, virtually all printed titles would be bankrupt.

A simple arrangement between the government and big media seems to be in play, leading to all sorts of concerns about independence.

This system of public funding - which has become a form of rent - has long been criticised, including in several parliamentary reports by senior civil servants which were submitted to the government executive, and a report by the Court of Auditors. Criticism has been levelled at its inefficiency, the distortions of competition it causes, the opacity of the award criteria, and the difficulties this creates for new entrants to the market, and its lack of support for innovation.

In 2022, the Union for Independent Online News Media (Syndicat de la presse d'information indépendante en ligne, or SPIIL), an independent online press association, expressed its frustration with this system, which "distorts competition and seriously harms pluralism”. The trade association represents more than 280 independent titles, the vast majority of which are digital. The independent press is thus massively discriminated against. "This disproportion is indecent and discouraging for the many independent publishers working to promote pluralism of information", said SPIIL. This is a message that the government just does not want to hear.

Legal attacks on independent journalism

The last few years have also seen a number of legal attacks on journalists. Cascading lawsuits have been launched by businessmen (led by Vincent Bolloré) following the publication of investigations into their business and media dealings, forcing financially fragile titles to incur heavy legal costs. Denounced by the entire profession as "gagging tactics", these attacks are designed to dissuade journalists from investigative work. The National Union of Journalists (SNJ, the majority union) has referred the cases of several journalists, who were the targets of police violence during demonstrations against pension reform, to the Human Rights Ombudsman.

The 1881 press law, the founding text of freedom of information in France, is regularly circumvented, in the name of business secrecy or to identify journalists' sources. Commercial courts, even though they have no jurisdiction over press matters, have even ordered "preventative censorship" against the publication of articles. To this we can also add the use of these same courts to hunt down journalists' sources, and the summonses in September 2023 of three journalists working in the regional press by the General Inspectorate of the National Police - "summonses whose sole purpose is to intimidate, exhaust and silence", according to the SNJ.

Such is the news landscape in France. The deterioration is not necessarily spectacular, but it is continuous and low-key. It is coupled with the increasing insecurity of the journalistic profession and the many attacks on the public's right to pluralistic, high-quality information. Journalists' unions, collectives, lawyers specialising in press law, associations defending civil liberties, and journalists' associations in many media have been sounding the alarm for too long to be ignored.

Freedom of the press is not a professional debate between journalists. It is first and foremost about citizens, respect for their right to know and their ability to find information and form their own judgement. Without independent information, there can be no genuine democratic debate. This is affirmed by constitutional laws and case law, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights.

The urgent need to support the independent press

In France, it is against the backdrop of an information crisis that dozens of independent media are trying to produce quality, independent journalism, and rebuild a relationship with audiences who no longer trust the mass media and are turning away from them. These independent media are inventing new formats, adapting to new use-cases, and investing in digital technology. It is within this milieu of several hundred independent media organisations that the future of journalism is being invented and rebuilt.

Just a few examples:

  • Who invented the digital newspaper subscription model? Two independent titles, Mediapart and Arrêt sur images, which have been profitable for years and continue to invest in new content.
  • Who is innovating in digital radio, new modes of audio storytelling and podcasts? Arteradio and France Culture, the public service broadcasters, quickly followed by numerous independent sites.
  • Who is rebuilding connections with readers, thanks to the participative nature of digital media? Independent titles.
  • Who is reviving combative investigative journalism that has been stifled in the mainstream media? Mediapart, followed by many others like Disclose, StreetPress, Mediacités, Blast, to name just a few.
  • Who is inventing new video formats, both live and recorded, studio programmes, reports, or video investigations? All those independent titles are, and with the means to produce them.
  • Who is shaking up the old monopolies built up by the regional dailies, and renewing local news? Marsactu in Marseille, a beneficiary site, Mediacités in Lille, Lyon, Nantes and Toulouse, Le Poulpe in Rouen and Normandy.
  • Who is exploring new fields of information? Reporterre, Basta, Orient XXI, La Déferlante, Splann! on agro-industry in Brittany, Radio Parleur.

Today, this independent press serves as a laboratory and a spur to action. Every day, it counts millions of readers, listeners and viewers. Step by step, it is building a new information ecosystem. It is doing so while being, de facto, banned from banking, with no access to credit from financial institutions. It is doing so while being massively discriminated against in the allocation of public funding. It is doing so in unfair and distorted competition with a billionaire-run mainstream media who, having already monopolised public aid to turn it into income, are working on another income stream, private this time, through secret agreements with GAFAM.

Against this backdrop, the mission of the Free Press Fund is precisely to help these independent titles. The Fund grants financial aid for innovative editorial projects, and the technical development needed to build a sustainable economic model for this independent press ecosystem, which deserves to exist. In this way, it aims to put journalism back on its feet and where it belongs: at the service of citizens.

Translated by Ciaran Lawless | Voxeurop

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.