Pushing far-right agenda, French news networks shape election debate

In a presidential campaign dominated by talk of far-right pundit Eric Zemmour, some of France's leading news networks stand accused of fostering his Elysée Palace run and plugging his hardline agenda on crime, immigration and Islam.

France’s staid old Senate seldom delivers a YouTube hit. But it is not often that the country’s most dreaded corporate raider, Vincent Bolloré, is summoned for a grilling.

Since late January, the Sénat has played host to a circus of billionaires appearing in turn to deny the obvious: that ownership of France’s main private media outlets buys them influence and protects their interests.

Bolloré, whose transport, media and advertising empire stretches across Europe and Africa, was the first to testify on Jan. 19 before a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating concentration in the media. True to form, the “silent killer” of French capitalism struck a faux-naïf tone as he belittled his television assets and denied any political motive.

“I have no power to appoint people to these channels,” swore the 69-year-old when quizzed about his role in the many resignations and high-profile firings that have rattled the Canal+ media group since his takeover in 2015. The Breton tycoon, who also owns Paris Match magazine, a leading radio station and France's best-known Sunday newspaper, added: “Some journalists have left, others have returned. It’s like the ocean tide, back home in Brittany.”

French presidential election © France 24

Regarding CNews, dubbed the “French Fox News” due to its heated talk shows and heavy right-wing slant, Bolloré denied any “ideological agenda”. In a slip of the tongue widely shared on social media, he said of the channel’s former star pundit Eric Zemmour – now the French presidential election’s most talked-about candidate – that “no-one knew he would one day become president of the Republic (sic)”.

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“Not just yet,” answered Senator David Assouline, the committee’s rapporteur, who also stepped in when Bolloré professed his love of liberty and his Christian Democrat roots.

“Are racism and Holocaust denial Christian Democratic values?” asked the Socialist senator in a thinly veiled reference to Zemmour’s notorious revisionist claims about the wartime Vichy regime. “I don’t think they are.”

‘Ideological steamroller’

A prolific writer and advocate of the "Great Replacement" conspiracy theory, according to which liberal elites are plotting to replace French nationals of White stock with immigrants, Zemmour has dominated the early stages of the presidential campaign in the raucous, aggressive and iconoclastic manner of a Donald Trump – albeit with the veneer of cultured sophistication generally expected of a French presidential candidate.

Like the former US president, Zemmour has cast himself as a truth-teller unconstrained by political correctness. His background as a talk-show pundit also mirrors Trump’s former TV stardom. While Le Figaro, France’s traditional newspaper of the right, lent him credibility with a weekly column, it was Bolloré’s CNews that gave him a prime-time national audience – and a platform from which to lambast French elites and voice vitriolic comments about Muslims and immigrants.

Despite Bolloré’s claims to the contrary, CNews is “unquestionably an opinion channel rather than a news channel”, says Samuel Gontier, the self-styled “sofa journalist” whose Twitter feed and blog, hosted by the magazine Télérama, provide daily insight on France’s leading news networks.

He described the channel as an “ideological steamroller”, offering Zemmour a prime-time platform and backing him up with “an array of analysts and commentators who say much the same thing”.

Zemmour’s sulphureous statements have resulted in three convictions for inciting hate speech (he is appealing the third) and repeatedly landed CNews in hot water. France’s broadcast regulator, the CSA, has twice put the channel on formal notice over comments by the far-right pundit. Last year, in a first for a French news channel, it fined CNews €200,000 for speech inciting racial hatred. The regulator has also admonished the network for failing to ensure political balance in its broadcasting.

As talk of a possible presidential run by Zemmour gained traction over the summer, dominating the airwaves, the regulator took further action in September, ruling that the pundit should be considered a political actor and have his broadcast time limited as a result. In response, CNews said he would stop appearing on his daily programme, following up the announcement with hours of commentary and debate on whether Zemmour was being censored.

Zemmour, Le Pen battle for French far right

Marine Le Pen's meeting in Reims (on the left), Eric Zemmour's meeting in Lille (on the right) © France 24

Since then, however, Zemmour’s exposure on CNews and other networks has only increased. Between September and December 2022, talk of Zemmour soaked up 44 percent of the air time devoted to politics on Cyril Hanouna’s “Touche pas à mon poste”, an influential talk show hosted by another of Bolloré’s channels, C8, according to a study by media researcher Claire Sécail. The overall figure for the far right rose to 53 percent when counting other candidates, chief among them Marine Le Pen.

When Hanouna launched a new show in December dedicated to the election campaign, Zemmour was quite naturally his first guest. And when leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon was invited in January for a second instalment of “Face à Baba”, Zemmour was called back to play sparring partner.

Politically incorrect

CNews, which did not return FRANCE 24’s request for an interview, rose to prominence four years ago at a deeply turbulent time, with the country rattled by the Yellow Vest protests. It has positioned itself as a straight-talking alternative to mainstream media stifled by political correctness, claiming to serve the French public what it really wants: stories on crime, immigration and Islam.

“People were sick and tired of the politically correct, and, in France, for the past 30, 40 years, news was in the hands of newspapers, television and dailies that all said the same thing,” Serge Nedjar, the channel’s boss, told The New York Times in an interview last year.

Critics, however, say the channel has repeatedly violated the terms of a licensing agreement that applies to France’s four free-to-air news networks, requiring them to provide balanced coverage. “The charter states that they have to give voice to a plurality of opinions,” says Gontier. “But clearly they don’t.”

In a scathing op-ed published by Le Monde in December, Joseph Daniel, a former member of the CSA (now known as Arcom), said the regulator had repeatedly missed opportunities to flag and sanction the network’s failure to respect public broadcasting rules.

“It is one thing to have a guest say, during a debate, that social benefits should be given to French citizens only,” he wrote, citing one of Zemmour’s recurrent themes. “It is a whole different matter when the statement, along with countless others of the same type, is made by the channel’s star pundit.”

Daniel added: “By allowing CNews to become an opinion channel, a concept that contradicts the conditions set in its license, the CSA has not only contributed (…) to the polemicist’s overexposure. It has also opened a dangerous pandora’s box for news networks that are freely available to the public and constitute a key element of our democracy.”

The media’s candidate

Emmanuelle Walter, chief editor of media watchdog Arrêt sur image, says the focus on Bolloré’s channels conceals a broader rightward shift affecting swathes of the media establishment – and of which Zemmour’s overexposure is but a symptom.

“There has been a normalisation of the far right’s discourse on such topics as immigration, which is not backed up by any scientific evidence,” she explains. “Even well-meaning journalists often don’t realise that their own questions can be oriented, for instance when they touch on the ‘problem’ of immigration.”

According to the independent media observatory Acrimed, Zemmour’s overexposure is merely a symptom of this rightward drift.

In the latest edition of its quarterly magazine, Médiacritiques, Acrimed noted that CNews’ main rival, BFMTV, gave Zemmour just as much attention – if not more – in the run-up to his presidential candidacy. On September 9, the day Zemmour was taken off his show on CNews, BFMTV served up a full day of commentary on the far-right pundit, interrupting the marathon only to broadcast the funeral of beloved film icon Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Despite only entering the race on November 30, Zemmour was regularly tested by pollsters as a potential candidate from the start of July. Talk of his impending bid became an obsessive theme throughout the pre-election campaign. As Acrimed wrote, in the three months leading up to his declaration, French media “created the ‘Zemmour event’, turning this non-candidate into the political debate’s centre of gravity”.

In theory, rules governing French election coverage stipulate that all networks are required to give candidates equal airtime during campaigning. But the rules do not apply to pundits and commentators.

Another, unlawful way to get around neutrality rules, while giving the likes of Zemmour maximum exposure, is to cram other candidates into nighttime segments. Indeed, insomniacs chancing upon French news networks late at night could be forgiven for suspecting a left-wing bias.

Such ruses have been amply documented by Arrêt sur image. It found that over four nights in November 2020 a speech by the Green’s presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot, was replayed a staggering 31 times on news channel LCI, another of CNews' competitors. Between July and September of this year, Mélenchon’s left-wing La France insoumise (France unbowed) saw 45 percent of its dedicated air time on CNews packed into the midnight-to-6am segment.

In CNews’ case, much the same applies to the government’s allotted time. In fact, “the main characteristic of CNews’ nighttime broadcasts (…) is the multiple replay of endless speeches by Prime Minister Jean Castex”, Arrêt sur image reports. Thus, from October 19 to November 8 viewers were treated, “between two and five times per night”, to speeches by Castex on a host of topics including relations with the Vatican, health policy, support for winegrowers and boosting freight transport by rail.

‘Shock and generate a buzz’

In prime-time, on the other hand, Zemmour’s preferred topics – identity politics, crime, immigration and Islam – enjoy pride of place on CNews and BFMTV, the two news channels with the largest audiences, fuelling the heated studio debates between politicians, pundits and TV toutologues (experts in everything) that have come to define their brands.

“These networks produce very little actual news, hardly any investigation, and only a little reporting,” says Gontier. “They are first and foremost commentary channels, with a narrow focus on French politics – or rather French polemicising.”

The format tends to leave little scope for detailed analysis of candidates’ policy proposals, while the pressure to win audience shares and advertising ensures that the more explosive topics get the most coverage.

“Studio debates are both cheap to produce and conducive to clashes and provocative statements that can then be plugged ad nauseam on social media,” Gontier explains. “And generally speaking, the themes carried by the far right are more likely to shock and generate a buzz.”

According to his count, BFM posted an average of 15 tweets a day referencing Zemmour in the month of September. And in the first week of February, talk of Zemmour and Le Pen accounted for two thirds of all tweets posted by BFMTV and three-quarters of tweets by CNews.

The echo generated by social media is crucial to channels whose share of the audience is not always spectacular, adds Walter of Arrêt sur image. “What really makes them influential is the spread of short snippets – typically the most controversial statements – on social media,” she says. “News networks hide behind quotation marks to promote outrageous comments, in turn encouraging politicians to adopt the same language for greater impact.”

Generation Z: The French far-right youth group carrying Zemmour's message

While the rightward shift denounced by media watchdogs has been going on for years, its dramatic acceleration in the present campaign is serving as a wake-up call for parts of the industry.

At the end of its annual congress in October, France’s largest union of journalists, the SNJ, issued a statement denouncing the “Zemmourisation” of the presidential campaign. In parallel, 300 journalists signed an open letter denouncing the news organisations that “are all too eager to give voice to public figures who vent their hatred of others”. In another op-ed, dozens of independent news outlets slammed France’s “dominant media” for cozying up to the far-right pundit.

On February 16, the day Bolloré was meant to resign as chairman of his investment group, before backtracking at the 11th hour, a number of prominent journalists and intellectuals teamed up with unions and advocacy groups to launch a new initiative, dubbed “Stop Bolloré”, aimed at countering ideological shifts and increasing concentration in the industry.

In a media landscape dominated by “a handful of billionaires”, Bolloré has built “a sprawling media empire to serve his reactionary agenda”, the group said in its opening statement, before taking aim at CNews, “where political debate gives way to outrageous polemics, the choice of guests makes a mockery of pluralism, and the editorial line denotes an obsession with the topics of the far right.”

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