It was meant to be a new face for France in the world – a multilingual rolling news channel to compete with CNN and the BBC. But five years since its launch, France 24 is limping along, shamed by a chaotic feud between its two top managers that drove its number two, Christine Ockrent, to quit last week.
The rivalry of Ockrent, 67, a formidable former news anchor, and Alain de Pouzilhac, 65, the tough executive appointed to launch the state enterprise, broke out into war last summer. There were sackings, counter-sackings and allegations of spying. “It was an absolutely absurd situation. They were like children in the playground,” says Virginie Herz, head of the Société des Journalistes, a staff ombudsman at France 24.
Pouzilhac brought legal action alleging that company emails had been hacked. Ockrent, sidelined as editorial boss, sued for constructive dismissal. Now she has left the post – but has not formally resigned, maintaining her grievance. “I’m breaking free to defend myself and restore my honour and reputation,” Ockrent told Le Figaro, complaining that she had been “prevented from doing my job and paid to do nothing for months.”
Some see the infighting as part of wider score-settling in the interwoven, intermarrying worlds of French journalism and politics. “I am sure it is a conspiracy, or at least connivance,” says Ockrent’s partner Bernard Kouchner, who was fired as foreign minister by Nicolas Sarkozy in November. “It’s deeply disgusting what is happening to her.”
Ockrent’s departure ends the managerial deadlock at the head of AEF, the state body set up by Sarkozy to manage France 24, Radio France International (RFI) and French news channel TV5. But it has not settled the dogfight between two powerful media figures battling for their reputations. Nor has it clarified France 24’s future. Results of a state audit and a parliamentary inquiry into its health are due in the coming months and a merger with RFI is under discussion.
The allegations of spying, which did not implicate Ockrent, involved hacked emails that reportedly showed the company was going to the wall. So why did the government-controlled board let the feud drag on?
“There were political stakes on both sides,” says Herz. “They had each received certain assurances. AEF involves the presidency, the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry, and none of these authorities wanted to make a decision. But now the management can focus on the channel’s future and not on the war of the bosses.”
For obscure reasons, “Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t want to choose between her [Ockrent] and Alain de Pouzilhac,” wrote Emmanuel Berretta, media correspondent for Le Point magazine. “The personal quarrels are ended. Now it’s a matter of moving forward to make the big AEF mess competitive overseas.”