Even for a president known for meddling in matters that do not and should not concern him, Nicolas Sarkozy's alleged interference in the sale of Le Monde was shocking. Not because it was so unusual but because it was so blatant.
Hauling in the director of the country's most influential and respected daily newspaper to pull strings over its future played straight into the hands of those who criticise Sarkozy for being an omni-president. Shocking, but not an isolated example of alleged presidential interference. A few days later, two radio satirists, Stephane Guillon and Didier Porte, described by Sarkozy as “insulting, vulgar and nasty,” were sacked.
France is still waiting for the president to announce the new head of France Televisions — the three state channels — after he changed the law to give him the power to choose who he wants. Agence France-Presse, the world's third-largest news agency, has announced plans to turn into a public firm with state capital, leading to fears over its independence.
Add the events together and a pattern emerges prompting concern about the political pressures on France's Fourth Estate and fears of the “Berlusconisation” of the media, as one politician put it. It is a good soundbite, even if there are fundamental differences.
Silvio Berlusconi owns three of the largest private television networks in Italy, covering around half of the country's viewing audience. As prime minister he has control over the public service broadcasters too. Analysts reckon he has 90 per cent influence over Italy's TV output.
Sarkozy owns no media outlets himself, but some of his closest friends do: friends he is not afraid to call when he needs them. Friends who give him a direct or indirect power, like Berlusconi's, over France's media.
In April, the magazine Telerama ran a picture of Sarkozy on its cover and the caption: “Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France Televisions”. The state-run TV company had long been subject to the president's interventions: among them, suppressing unwelcome publicity, and naming the directors. At the start of his five-year term in office, one of his advisers at the Elysee, the former journalist Georges-Marc Benamou, suggested he envisaged at least a “co-directing of the TV channels with the Elysee.”
The president has often been accused of political interference in France's media, even before his election in 2007. In 2005, when he was interior minister, the editor of Paris Match was fired after running front-page pictures of Sarkozy's then wife Cecilia with her lover. It was said he was “absolutely furious” over the humiliation, and demanded the sacking of the editor-in-chief, Alain Genestar, by the magazine's owner, Arnaud Lagardere, whom he sees as a “brother.” A few months later, when Cecilia returned — briefly — to her husband, he stopped the publication of a book about her written by a celebrity magazine journalist with Cecilia's cooperation. Just before his election in May 2007, an incandescent Sarkozy could not restrain himself after not being shown what he saw as appropriate respect before an interview with France Televisions. “Nobody was there to greet me. The whole direction needs sacking. I can't do it now, but just you wait. It'll happen soon enough,” he raged.
Since his election, Sarkozy has reportedly been involved in the hiring, firing and blocking of journalists on a number of occasions. The president's hand is also seen to be behind the prosecution of a French journalist now facing prison for using a leaked video of Sarkozy sounding off at a France Televisions studio engineer for not saying “hello”.
The pressure is not always direct: Sarkozy's closest personal friends are the five biggest owners of the French press. Lagardere not only owns Paris Match, but also Elle, the Journal du Dimanche, Tele 7 Jours, Premiere magazine and France-Dimanche, as well as several news and radio stations and cable TV networks.
Martin Bouygues, described as the president's “best friend”, was a witness at his second marriage and is godfather to his youngest son, Louis. He owns France's most popular TV channel, TF1, as well as Eurosport and several other cable channels. The two men are said to speak daily.
Another witness was Bernard Arnault, who runs the luxury group LVMH, which also owns the economic magazine La Tribune, Investir and Radio Classique.
Serge Dassault is a client of the legal firm where Sarkozy was a partner, a great friend — and owner of the group Socpresse, whose crown jewel is the rightwing daily newspaper Le Figaro.
The band of loyal musketeers is completed by Francois Pinault, who owns the weekly news magazine Le Point.
Finding themselves sidelined, some have turned to blogs. The successful Rue89 was set up by former journalists from Liberation, while another, liberte-dinformer.info, calls for more freedom of information. The Socialist MP Arnaud Montebourg says the mainstream media are becoming “markedly concentrated in favour of rightwing interests”. He adds: “France is in the process of seeing its media become Berlusconi-ised. We're seeing only one way of looking at things.” Marc Baudriller, media correspondent for the economic magazine Challenges, is not convinced by the Berlusconi comparison:
“President Sarkozy is an absolute political animal and yes he meddles, he likes to get involved in this area as in many others, but he doesn't have the entire French media in his hands. He cannot stop himself interfering in the media, but his powers are limited.”
In spite of his urge to influence France's media, things do not always go Sarkozy's way. As soon as journalists at Le Monde heard he was opposed to one of the business groups vying to take over the title, they swung behind the bid.
And amid a succession of scandals, the president woke up on Friday to find his friends were powerless to stop the attacks on his government. Admittedly much of the information had emerged from new media but Thomas Legrand, political commentator on France-Inter radio, said the traditional press had been stirred from its slumber: “There's a mechanical and healthy effect here. It shows that the more there are efforts to concentrate power and to control the written press and broadcasting, the more the press plays its role as an outside counterbalance.”
For the past 30 years, Berlusconi's family has controlled Italy's top three national TV channels: the Mediaset empire. As prime minister, Berlusconi also has a tight grip on the public service national broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana (Rai).
Together, Mediaset and Rai control about 90 per cent of the national audience and advertising revenue. The conflict of interest between Berlusconi's media holdings and his government position remains unresolved. Italy's constitutional court has ruled such a media concentration is illegal but its decisions have not been enforced.
Sarkozy does not own any print outlets or broadcasters. He does not have to. His friends do. Two thirds of all French newspapers and magazines are owned by the president's close friends Serge Dassault and Arnaud Lagardere, France's two main arms manufacturers.
Lagardere's affiliated company, Hachette, also owns most of France's publishing houses and a large part of the book and magazine distribution network.
As head of state, Sarkozy can appoint the directors of public service television and radio. He has been accused of suppressing unwelcome publicity at state-run France Televisions. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010