BOB GARFIELD: Last Friday, French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced an approximate 780-million-dollar aid package to help the country’s ailing newspaper industry. He said it was the state’s responsibility to ensure a free and independent press. Maybe. Critics say that Sarkozy may be angling to be the next Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media mogul turned prime minister, who kept an iron grip on his press. And a recent report for the Association of European Journalists claims that 57 percent of the French believe their media isn't independent, although for 18-year-olds it will be literally free. As part of Sarkozy’s aid package, citizens will receive a free subscription to the newspaper of their choice on their 18th birthday. Angelique Chrisafis, the Paris correspondent for The Guardian, says that the gift subscriptions are meant to hook young people on the printed word, although so far they've been able to resist the habit.
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: I think the President’s idea is to ensnare young readers at a very early age and hope that they'll carry on because, of course, the youth market is the hardest market to get at the moment.
BOB GARFIELD: The press has long been subsidized in France, no?
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: Well, yes. If you go back to the Second World War in France, obviously, the country was occupied by the Nazis. And after the Second World War, about 90 percent of the newspapers were scrapped, simply because they'd been seen to be collaborating. And what the state decided to do was just rebuild the whole newspaper industry. And so, for the past 50 years we've really seen a lot of state funding, direct and indirect, into the way papers are run, printed and distributed.
BOB GARFIELD: That said, if this new initiative takes place, the subsidy will increase like ninefold.
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: What the President wants is the press to modernize. The press in France has a lot of the same problems that we see in the U.S., that we see in Britain. Newspapers are in debt and ad revenues are in trouble. Now, the problem is specifically acute in France, because as well as those real major headaches for the press, you have a Communist union totally in charge of the printing presses here, which means that producing a newspaper in France is about twice the cost as it is in Britain. So really, these are issues to do with printing and distribution which are causing a real headache for the French press, beyond the problem of falling readership.
BOB GARFIELD: But what then about the notion that a direct subsidy to newspapers creates a less than arm’s-length relationship between the state and the press?
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: There is a real issue at the moment in France with state intervention in the media, and it goes back to the fact that we have a lot of people in France, big business leaders who own newspapers. Now, those people, those media barons, happen to be very good friends with the President. We're talking about arms manufacturers, for example, Serge Dassault, who owns the Figaro, a big right-wing paper. There’s also an arms manufacturing group, Lagardere, which has a big stake in Le Monde. There are construction groups which own private television. And these are people that are so close to the President that they - some of them refer to him as “my brother.” Now, the question is, if you have people who are running your business that close to the President, are some of the journalists self-censoring because they think, ah, I'd better not publish this story, the boss won't like it, therefore, the President won't like it?
BOB GARFIELD: And, in fact, that’s not speculation. There was a gossipy little story around the time of the election when Sarkozy, in fact, became president that never showed up in the newspapers.
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: During the election campaign Nicholas Sarkozy, of course, had a very tumultuous relationship with his wife, Cecilia Sarkozy. Now, at the time of the French election, some journalists discovered that Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of the President, had simply not gone out to vote on the day of the election, [BOB LAUGHS] which is quite easy to find, because in France you have to sign your name on a register. So this was really big news, because Sarkozy was trying to prove to the world that he was very happily married and then his wife wasn't even voting. Now, this story was supposed to go in the Sunday paper, the Journal du Dimanche, which is owned by Arnaud Lagardere who, again, is an arms manufacturer very close to Nicholas Sarkozy. Now, the story didn't go in. But France has a very good range of websites at the moment and they claim that they break news that the papers might be afraid to break, and they broke the story themselves.
BOB GARFIELD: It just so happens that I had dinner last weekend with a French couple, and they were saying that in France newspapers do not have nearly as developed an Internet presence as they have here. Is that true?
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: Yes and no. I mean, let's not forget that France has the biggest blogosphere in Europe. French people absolutely love blogging. This is a country of political arguments, and that is very much going online. Now, newspapers, you could say, have been slower than British papers, for example, and probably American papers, in setting up their online presence, but that is starting to change.
BOB GARFIELD: So like almost everywhere else, the media landscape is roiling in France, and apart from the problems with newspapers, there’s a big controversy going on with state TV.
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: That’s true. Basically there’s one big private channel in France. It’s the most watched channel, and, surprise, surprise, it’s owned by the President’s best friend. Now, apart from that, you have about four state TV channels. And Nicholas Sarkozy is causing huge controversy at the moment in France, and we've seen days on end of strikes by TV journalists, where simply the news is not on air for the reason being that he’s changing the law so that he can directly appoint the head of state TV. And he’s also decided to scrap advertising on state TV. What this will do is two things. It will mean that those television channels will be more dependent on the government, but it also means that all this advertising will have to go somewhere else, straight into the pockets of his friends in private TV. So, of course, unions here are very, very angry, and really there’s a real mood on the media landscape in France that the President is taking much more of an interest than anyone else in 50 years in television and in the press, and that moves have to be made to make sure that he doesn't damage the independence of the media in this country.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you've got to hand it to him on one thing. Unlike Berlusconi, he doesn't actually own the private TV channel that the money will go flooding into, so that’s something.
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: The Berlusconi comparison, of course, is very powerful in Europe, because Berlusconi tends to be seen in Europe as a real laughingstock but also dangerous, especially by people on the left. So the more comparisons to Berlusconi, the more annoying and worrying that is to people in France, I think.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Angelique, thank you so much.
ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS: Thanks very much.
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BOB GARFIELD: Angelique Chrisafis is the Paris correspondent for The Guardian.
"Tired of Fighting"
by The Menahan Street Band