For a nation founded on the libertarian spirit, France’s media has traditionally kept a respectful distance when reporting on those in power. But recent high profile exposés are pushing the debate back into the spotlight.
A certain amount of nostalgia for the days of Nicolas Sarkozy seems to linger in the French media; his face and colourful life did no harm to the sales of newspapers and magazines. It may still be early days but many within the French press establishment believe his successor, François Hollande, has not yet shown the same flair for seducing the cameras.
The French media is known traditionally for respecting the private lives of public figures but it is clear old norms are being challenged. An array of new gossip magazines and lawyers are being kept busy as the French ruling class tries to keep the long lenses of the media at a safe distance. To get the bigger picture on France’s media evolution, Monocle met four leaders from the print, publishing and TV worlds, in Paris.
Editor-in-chief of Le Plus, the blogging platform of Le Nouvel Observateur. As well as writing for the weekly magazine and website, Baron regularly appears on French television on political debates.
Daily commentator, BFMTV, French news channel with the biggest domestic viewership. Hyman has spent his entire working life in Paris, starting in print before moving into radio and now television.
Franco-American author, journalist and former editorial director at France 24 (English service). Kaplan teaches journalism at the American University of Paris. Her latest book examines contemporary France and the French.
Editorial director, Paris Match. Royant has been with this – France’s most internationally recognisable magazine since 1985. Before taking up the top job, he was based in New York where he was Paris Match’s US correspondent.
Royant: There is a major expectation on François Hollande to have a very powerful message for the French people at the beginning of this mandate. This is not happening. So I think the press is right to be harsh on Hollande – he’s divisive. He has reignited a war: the poor versus the rich; something that goes back to the French Revolution of 1789. This is risky for France.
Hyman: Since Hollande got elected we have finally entered a full democracy. Until now there have only been two “alternances” in the Fifth Republic. Hollande could have played more of a technical game – a unifying game. But he decided instead to flirt with all this leftist stuff.
Kaplan: Flirting with leftist stuff, reigniting class warfare was almost a marketing choice. From the beginning Hollande wanted to be the anti-Sarkozy – “Monsieur Normale.” But the French public wants a paternal king figure.
Baron: One of Hollande’s major problems is that we don’t know who he is because his identity is “I’m not Sarkozy.” People don’t know what his goals are.
Royant: Sarkozy made newspapers and magazines sell. He was a seducer – he wanted the media to be his friend. Sarkozy would call the newspapers and the journalists. That was his way of operating. I once told him, “You are the president, why do you keep reading things about yourself? You don’t need to.”
Baron: Sarkozy created his own news, he was fascinating. When you write about François Hollande, people don’t really care. There are only two ministers people want to photograph – Arnaud Montebourg and [interior minister] Manuel Valls. They never talk about Hollande.
Kaplan: The media loved to hate Sarkozy. He fitted into the Zeitgeist of the appetite for mainstream celebrity culture. Audiences also loved to hate him and it added up to a lot of consumption of media.
Baron: There was a lot of mystery surrounding him. He was the first political guy who really brought communication onto the scene.
Royant: The guy behind the success of Hollande was Manuel Valls. He handled the campaign, he runs a perfect show in terms of communications.
Kaplan: Manuel Valls is a complicated star for the left wing in France. It’s deeply paradoxical, because security in almost any western democracy has been an issue for the right wing. And suddenly the left’s rising star is “Mr Security.” He has a tremendous amount of charisma and he’s fortunate to be in the right ministry at the right time. He has a personality that is colourful and extremely masculine – everything that Hollande is not.
Hyman: Valls steps right out of the 1930s. His poses, his expressions, his intensity is completely retro. But it’s so far retro that it’s new. He’s the new Clemenceau.
Kaplan: It’s a very small media world in France. It’s a pretty small media economy. It is, as the French say “a closed vase” with not a whole lot of fluidity. Even though the newspapers have tremendously strong identities that don’t particularly evolve much, there’s a lot of musical chairs between newspapers. The media has had a troubled relationship recently with the political class. Sarkozy did a lot to out that relationship. He made it clear how the political class had been pulling the strings, or striking tacit accords – back room deals with the media.
Royant: The Dominique Strauss-Kahn story was a major trauma and a point of introspection for the media. The taboos of privacy and money were broken with the dsk story and the Sarkozy presidency.
Kaplan: Culturally speaking there’s the notion that some kinds of information weren’t meant to be known. For example – and this is an old example – Mitterand’s health condition. Nobody knew he was dying when he was still in power. Because there’s a tremendous amount of respect for secrecy and privacy in France that you could never imagine in Anglo-Saxon cultures.
Royant: We are running around 40th in terms of press freedom in the world. This is a country that can’t see itself in the mirror. You can’t interview prisoners, you can’t go to hospitals and schools. If you see what we were able to show the French people in Paris Match during the 1950s and 60s – there are photos we wouldn’t be able to publish these days. We face the most stringent privacy laws in Europe. We are being condemned on a monthly basis for writing and publishing true stories and the French public is not paying much attention to the issue of liberty. The question is always, “Do we have the right to publish this information?”, but the answer should be, “let the people decide for themselves.”
Kaplan: I feel like in public opinion things are evolving a little bit. I think there’s not a sea-change but the beginning of a change in public opinion that you should not be exempt from the kind of scrutiny that public office brings upon you.
Baron: Regarding the internet, we have a huge advantage when it comes to transparency. We can publish as much as we like with fewer limits on the number of characters we use. We can publish documents, videos, screenshots, so when you are doing an investigation you can prove things. If you don’t prove everything you’re saying they want to know what your sources are. There’s huge competition and everything is a work in progress. Now with an investigation you’re almost never done because you always have new news.
Royant: I think we need to have a more open society in terms of data. We need ministers opening their books.
Hyman: It’s a fake open society. Image counts for so much, and you have to pretend you’re open. If you’re a politician, for anything that doesn’t fit your media plan there’s a tendency to beat it over the head and drag it through the courts. But there’s no real reason why you don’t see François Hollande in a bathing suit going to the beach. It’s the most normal thing in the world.
Baron: In France, we don’t break privacy laws when we are dealing with French personalities. You don’t touch the French. For foreigners we don’t care because we think they’ll never sue us. The rule is not “is it moral or not?” The question is “is it legal or not?”
Royant: Carla Bruni would make a point of not showing her baby – the first baby born in the Élysée Palace in the time of the Fifth Republic. It became an important debate: just showing the face of the baby. There is a class, a ruling class, and the photo of the baby can only be shared with the aristocratic ruling class, but with the French people? Forget it.
Kaplan: French journalists are a somewhat privileged bunch. A press card is not just a way to get access to press conferences, it’s actually a badge of distinction. Whether as a tacit exchange for those privileges there’s meant to be respect for the institutions is a good question.
Hyman: A lot of politicians think that journalists are either with them or against them. When they take them for lunches and give them little titbits – and they’re doing less and less of this – they expect the journalists to be loyal in return.