A mini media revolution took place in French television this September when France 24 was broadcast for the first time on digital terrestrial carrier tnt. It was a big step for the sole global French news channel: the Gallic rival to the likes of the bbc and Al Jazeera that is now available in 178 countries. It means that more French people will have free access to the news channel 24 hours a day, as will the rest of the world. The station also used the occasion for a thorough – and much needed – refresh at its Paris base in the media suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux.
The site also accommodates the production facilities of tf1, Canal Plus and France 5.François Picard, Vanessa Burggraf and Taoufik Mjaied are the stars of the relaunched, rebranded, rethought channel. This trio host the daily news and debates plus their own flagship shows in their respective languages of English, French and Arabic, each of which have their own channel under the France 24 umbrella.
Walking through the sleek offices and studios – all blue-grey shades and glass-and-steel sets emblazoned with the network’s reworked logo – anyone with eyes will clock who the on-screen staff are: they’re a toothsome bunch. Is an appreciation of the aesthetic more important on this channel compared to others? The large state-of-the-art make-up facilities certainly ensure impeccable brushing, trimming and hair-spraying for all concerned. “We are making TV,” says chief executive Marc Saikali. “We have to be presentable when we go into someone’s house.” Good answer.
Today, French-American presenter Picard is preparing to host a debate about the October attack by a gunman in the Canadian parliament. Working at France 24 since its 2006 launch, Picard says that the channel is in his dna and talks about a “silent revolution” in France. “When I arrived in France in the 1990s there were very few English speakers in the conference room. I’ve always known that the best way to defend the Francophone is to speak English,” he says.
What about the international nature of the newsroom? “We don’t have the same financial resources as Al Jazeera but our power consists of having three nationalities sitting next to each other at the office,” says Picard. “Five minutes ago I didn’t know if we had to say djihadistes or salafistes in Tunisia but I asked my Arabic colleague next to me and had an answer in a second.”
France 24 was created to give the nation an international news dimension and perform a few steps of the soft-power shuffle. Nicknamed “cnn à la Française”, it is the legacy of then French president Jacques Chirac. In 2002 he decried France’s continuous shortcomings in the international news arena. He also talked broodingly of “the battle of image and airwaves”.
“It was absurd to be the fifth strongest world power and embarrassed not to have our own channel like the US, the UK or Germany,” says Saikali. “The other good idea was to make it a public channel financed by taxpayers.”
Born from a political will and conceived as a start-up, France 24 has grown up fast. “When I joined the group with Marie-Christine Saragosse [head of France Médias Monde], France 24 was seven years old and had reached l’âge de raison, which means it was big enough to take decisions and to grow: we had to move forward!” says Saikali.
From his desk up on the executive floor of France 24’s offices, French-Lebanese Saikali muses on the aims of the channel. “We are focused on French values,” he says, “which means human rights, equality, secularism and tolerance, and the rejection of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.” It’s quite a list. “Of course we are very open to the French lumières, too: the intellectual, critical spirit. These are the French values we are supporting at France 24.”
When Saikali joined France 24 after having spent 25 years at national broadcaster France Télévisions, the channel needed a judicious rethink after its initial direction had become overcomplicated. Commentators felt the voice of France sounded weak while sackings, strike threats and a battle for supremacy at the top of the channel made media headlines. A new level of organisation and energy needed to be found.
The fresh editorial direction has come from embracing the fact that Francophone audiences often don’t share the same interests as English or Arabic speakers. Three different programme schedules have been created with an editor in chief for each language and each output.
“I’m calling this building the Tower of Babel,” says Marie-Christine Saragosse. “With 35 nationalities in the group, we’ve all had to adapt.” Citing an example, Saragosse remembers how she once asked for the translation of laïcité – the perhaps specifically French concept of keeping religion out of government affairs – in English and Arabic. The English speaker translated it as “secularism” while the Arabic speaker said “atheism”; a misinterpretation. In a features meeting, this misunderstanding might cause a polite cough of dissent but on live TV it could be more akin to an international incident.
But that Babel-ish quality at France 24, a channel finely tuned to international subtleties, is what attracts both audiences and guests. It shouldn’t be unusual for a channel to talk with complete religious freedom but perception is all; perhaps it just seems easier for Arab commentators, for example, to express themselves on France 24. “We’re telling the world’s news to the Arab world, not only Arab news to the Arab world,” says Saragosse. “It makes a big difference.”
While the debate on same-sex marriage was heating up in France, France 24 invited a group of gay Arabs into the studio to talk about their lives. It’s an example of the network trying to change attitudes and develop a strong editoriallead. Indeed, some new shows have an unmistakably pedagogic edge. It might be a TV station funded by the French taxpayer but it exists in a competitive international marketplace where guest bookings, format ideas and the strength of its editorial punch will be sampled in production offices and TV studios from Berlin to New York.
Abroad, “the channel which gives the news from the perspective of Paris” has a good reputation but it doesn’t choose sides, so where does this leave its soft power credentials? Although we could imagine France 24 was created to be a compact Quai d’Orsay, its key staffers disagree.
“We are very free; we belong to the public but we are free,” says Saikali.What about the notion of currying foreign favour: diplomatie d’influence? Despite being in the country that invented the concept with their lycées and their Alliances Françaises in the 19th century, France 24 chooses not to cosy up to the state or government. “I don’t really like this phrase in English or in French,” says Saikali.
“It would be like turning our back on French values if we were doing this at France 24. We are France – but the people, not the state.” Soon the formerly fledgling outlet will win new territories in Asia, North America and Latin America. With a budget of €240m to share with France Médias Monde’s other channels, France 24 has enough argent de poche to become a major player – and maybe think about a fourth language in the future.