France: anger against the “media elite“

Since the end of 2018 tensions have been simmering in France: the protests of the “yellow vests” were initially directed against an increase in fuel prices, but it wasn’t long before they began demanding sweeping changes in social policy. The government’s concessions have so far failed to appease the demonstrators, who enjoy broad support among the population. Their anger is also directed against the media.

A participant in the Yellow Vest protest against media concentration.
A participant in the Yellow Vest protest against media concentration.
For the media is perceived as part of the Paris elite against which the lower middle class is now rebelling. Since it is customary in France to combine economic and political interests with journalistic activities, the independence of the French media leaves something to be desired. Most of the media are owned by wealthy business people or industrialists, such as Internet entrepreneur Patrick Drahi or Serge Dassault, the owner of an arms manufacturer.

The rifts between the media and the people have grown even deeper since the protests began, with journalists mainly interested in arresting images focussing on the violent riots in Paris and paying little attention to the many different forms of protest that have been staged in the rest of the country, the yellow vests say. In their view the coverage of the protest movement has been subjective and biased. Angry demonstrators have attacked reporters and television teams. Newspaper printing facilities were blocked off to prevent the distribution of papers. Reporters Without Borders called on representatives of all parties to condemn the violence.

The relationship between President Macron and the media also appears strained. From the start of his term of office he has kept his distance from the press. He has tried to subject coverage of his person to stronger controls and has banned journalists from the Elysée Palace. In November 2018, in line with Macron’s plans, the French parliament passed two controversial laws under which parties or candidates can take legal action against public rumours and fake news in the three months leading up to a nationwide election. Critics, including several journalist organisations, warned that the legislation curbed freedom of expression and could foster censorship. In their opinion the president was simply trying to suppress inopportune information.

France had already tightened its surveillance laws after the Islamist attack against the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices in January 2015 in which twelve journalists were killed. In order to monitor “critical foreign-policy interests” and “defend against attacks on institutions of the Republic” the secret service is now permitted to store Internet data taken directly from providers. But observers fear that the vague terminology used in the regulations may allow the surveillance to be extended to political activists and journalists.

Yet press freedom has a long tradition in France: the first newspaper, called Strassburger Relationen, appeared in the seventeenth century. During the French Revolution the number of newspapers rose to 1,000. In 1881 press freedom was enshrined in the constitution. France is also home to the world's first news agency, Agence France Presse, founded in 1835.

Television plays a central role in public debate, in particular the 8pm news of the private broadcaster TF1 and the public station France 2. If a French president wants to address the nation he appears on France 2. France has one of the largest numbers of radio stations in the world, currently around 900. The public station Radio France broadcasts news and cultural and regional programmes.

France has a broad spectrum of print media. The national newspapers with the most readers are Le Parisien, Le Figaro and Le Monde. Some regional newspapers, such as Ouest-France, reach a good deal more readers, however. Although many papers are struggling with declining circulation figures, recent years have seen the arrival of new newspapers such as Mediapart, L’Opinion, Causeur and Les Jours. Many of these new papers offer a substantial platform for an exchange of opinions. French newspapers are also increasingly courting readers outside the country. In 2016 the Catholic newspaper La Croix launched an English-language site and Charlie Hebdo tested a German-language edition.

Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 33 (2018)

Last updated: January 2019
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