Le Monde Diplomatique
By André Schiffrin
It has been difficult to start a debate in France on the conglomeration of publishing, newspapers and television. But the recent election of Nicholas Sarkozy has finally focused the attention of part of the French press on the political control of the media. Sarkozy has been amazingly open about his close ties to the billionaires who own newspapers, publishers and television companies, calling them his friends. They reciprocated by directing their newspapers to support his every move.
The most obvious example related to the attempt by the Hachette-owned Journal du Dimanche to print the story of Sarkozy’s wife refusing to vote during the elections. The editor was scolded and the story killed. After that the paper servilely covered every photo op. When Sarkozy and his prime minister donned Clintonesque shorts, the headline proclaimed “France is on the move” and when Sarkozy made a point of including his wife in the 14 July celebrations, the headline was “The star couple”. We can be sure that in future no gimmick, no matter how tired, will fail to produce the appropriate praise.
France has produced a new model of media control, somewhere between Berlusconi and Putin. Sarkozy does not need to emulate Berlusconi in actually owning the titles: his friends will do that for him.
The figures are well known. Two thirds of all French newspapers and magazines are owned by Dassault and Lagardère, France’s leading arms’ manufacturers. Lagardère’s affiliate, Hachette, also owns the majority of French publishing houses, as well as controlling a large part of the book and magazine distribution network. In the recent election, only Bayrou, the centrist candidate, complained about the media being controlled by groups whose primary customer is the government. That the Socialist Party failed to discuss the issue at all underlines its weakness and timidity.
In most countries conglomeration has happened because it increases profits. In the United States, the long established Knight-Ridder chain of papers was sold because it was making only 19.6% profit a year (most papers average 26%). But French newspapers have been barely profitable. The main reason to buy them is to exert influence, as Serge Dassault frankly admitted when he bought Le Figaro, wanting a paper to express his own views.
All of the press has been worried by recent moves by the billionaire Bernard Arnault, who wants to buy La Tribune, the leading financial paper; its coverage directly affects his interests. The parallel to Rupert Murdoch’s recent acquisition of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal is clear.