In recent years, the French press has quietly undergone a transformation, barely making any ripples: “A handful of billionaires control almost all of the major national print and audiovisual media. Billionaires who certainly have not made their careers in the news business. Billionaires who have acquired almost all the newspapers not according to professional logic but with influence and complicity” of the finance world, politics and senior management of newspapers.
That’s the state of affairs presented a new book, Main basse sur l’information (Don Quichotte, 441 p., € 19.90), written by Laurent Mauduit, former deputy managing editor at Le Monde and co-founder of the Mediapart site.
The list of acquisitions of French media is staggering, and it includes big names in the press, known throughout the world. For example, the journalists of Le Monde and Libération have lost editorial control.
Mauduit describes in detail what he calls the “moral crisis” of the French media, which illustrates a more general crisis of democracy, all the more worrying now that we are a few months from the presidential election (scheduled for April 23 and May 7, 2017), when, in all likelihood, the ballot will become a clash between right and extreme right.
For Mauduit, the crisis of the media is one more of the failures of the presidency of Francois Hollande who has succumbed to the power of money, with the exception of a bill introduced by the Socialist representative Patrick Bloche to protect information sources and to require compliance with ethical codes of conduct.
The crisis is contaminating also public radio and TV, which entered a spiral that approaches the information trends of private audiovisual networks.
Big names of the business world control the media. Some have a long history while others just landed as predators: Vincent Bolloré, the head of an empire linked to the French neo-colonialism (Canal+); the Franco-Israeli businessman Patrick Drahi (Libération, L’Express); Xavier Niel, telecom, Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint-Laurent and the banker Matthieu Pigasse (Le Monde, Le Nouvel Observateur); Bernard Arnault, Chairman of the luxury group LVMH (Les Echos, the main business daily, Le Parisien, acquired in 2015); the Lebanese billionaire dealer in the international arms market Iskander Safa (Valeurs Actuelles; he also got his hands on part of the former Hersant empire, the other part of which ended up in the clutches of dealer Bernard Tapie); the heir Arnaud Lagardère (Europe 1, Paris Match, Le Journal du Dimanche); the first builder of public works in Europe Martin Bouygues (TF1, the largest European television channel), Serge Dassault, aviation and armament (Le Figaro); François Pinault, a luxury group (Le Point); the Bettencourt family, owners of L’Oreal (L’Opinion).
All these characters have, at various times, braided their own interests and made agreements among shareholders, so as to constitute a real narrow caste that pulls the strings of the economy and politics. And they influence content, either through explicit pressure or prompting journalists to self-censor, to stop uncomfortable investigations or pluralist debates.
Thus, the neoliberal pensée unique keeps spreading. It’s the same thing that happened with the Second Empire and between the two world wars, two periods that ended badly.
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The icing on the (spoiled) cake: These billionaires have collected the bulk of public aid to the press, which had been designed to ensure media pluralism.
Let’s see the data of 2014:
1. Le Figaro (Dassault) €15.2 million
2. Aujourd’hui, Le Parisien and Les Echos (Arnault) €14, €4.3 and €3.4 million
3. Le Monde, Télérama and L’Obs (Neil, Pigasse, Bergé) €13.1, €7.1 and €5.2 million
4. Libération (Drahi) €8 million
5. Paris Match (Lagardère) €3.6 million
6. Le Point (Pinault) €3.5 million
The ‘neo-colonial capitalism’ of Vincent Bolloré
The billionaire who controls Telecom-Tim Italia and wanted to buy Mediaset Premium is the head of a group linked to neo-colonial capitalism, present in 45 African countries (ports, public works, plantations etc.).
He uses the newspapers to influence policy and win contracts with African governments. Vincent Bolloré is the head of the Vivendi empire, the media and entertainment group. And through the capital of Telecom Italia, he also has to do with the Berlusconi family (Mediaset).
The businessman is close to ultra-conservative Catholic circles. In 2014, he bought a controlling stake of Canal+ (and “I-Télé,” more information below). He has suppressed programs (like the the famous Guignols) and imposed chief editors with far-right political leanings.
Matthieu Pigasse is an investment banker at Lazard who politically navigates between left and right (from Ségolène Royal to Sarkozy). He has contributed to the dismantling of the French cooperative banks, at the loss of the state (and citizens), and did not disdain to advise the Caisse des Dépôts to invest in the capital of Pink TV (a channel directed to the gay audience, which then spiraled into pornography). He also does business with Bernard Tapie.
Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint-Laurent, is very close to the businessman-essayist Alain Minc, puppeteer of the great assault of financiers on the media.
At Libération, an onslaught by the financiers
Patrick Drahi claims he “rescued” the newspaper, which had fallen into a severe crisis. In a few years, even though nobody really knows how he did it, Drahi built his fortune with the company Altice. It started as a small cable network in southern France, passing through Numéricable, Noos, Virgin Mobile, Portugal Telecom, and the U.S. cable network operator Suddenlink. He now controls SFR, France’s second operator, previously owned by Vivendi (Bolloré).
In Israel, he controls I24 News, a TV channel close to Netanyahu.
In 2015, he acquired from the Belgian group Roularta L’Express–L’Expansion (L’Express is a weekly founded by Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Françoise Giroud), then NextRadioTv, which controls BFM-TV (24 hour news) and Rmc.
He jumped on Libération, partnering with the real estate businessman Bruno Ledoux, owner today of the original headquarters of the newspaper on Rue Beranger. The builder wanted to turn this property into the “Flore of the 21st century,” which is a coffee house merged with a business club where deals could be made (the editors reacted with a historic front page headline: “We are a newspaper, not a restaurant, not a social network, not a cultural space, not a TV scene, not a bar, not a start-up incubator.”).
“In a two year period,” writes Mauduit, “the group of Patrick Drahi has put more than €40 billion on the table, totally financed on credit operations,” with the consequent risk of a possible crack, “a caricature of the deregulation of finance.”
Drahi squeezes his acquisitions in order to repay his debts, subjecting the editorial staff to deep purges and cuts, not only decimating the newsrooms, but also at Sfr, where 5,000 layoffs are planned.
The assault on Libération is a case study, which was possible thanks to the connivance of the newspaper executives, who in 2011 had accepted the entry of Edouard de Rothschild as a partner.
France Television and Radio France
In public TV also, you can observe political appointments and pressure from different fronts: There is no freedom of information here, while the methods popular in private media are becoming more common in the public sector.
Hollande wanted a 24-hour public TV channel. Since the beginning of September, “FranceTvInfo” has been broadcasting. The channel, which stole the name from the radio station “FranceInfo,” is now in its death throes and probably threatened, uses the resources of “Radio France” and “Média France Monde” to counter BFM-TV, which is deemed too hostile to Hollande.