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OPINION: Macron must stand up to 'France's Rupert Murdoch'

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron must stand up to 'France's Rupert Murdoch'
French businessman and media tycoon Vincent Bollore. Photo by Fred TANNEAU / AFP

A long-running strike at France's only stand-alone Sunday newspaper has highlighted the reach of the French media tycoon Vincent Bolloré - an influence that John Lichfield argues the government must do more to curb.


Strikes on matters of principle are rare. Principled strikes which go on for four weeks and counting are almost unknown.

All credit therefore to the staff of France’s only stand-alone, national Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche. They have been on strike since June 22nd to block the imposition of a new editor, a young man (aged 34) known only for publishing far-right propaganda.

The newspaper has failed to appear on each of the last four Sundays. It will probably be absent from the shops and news kiosks again this weekend.

Can the journalists and other staff win their battle? At first, it seemed that they were doomed to fail. Their chief opponent is a tyrant with long pockets; the government seemed scared of him and said little.


In recent days, there have been a couple of straws in the wind to suggest that the Journal du Dimanche strike might succeed, at least partially.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. Anglophones need only look at what Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has wrought in Britain and the US to know what populist, post-truth newspapers and TV can achieve.

The would-be Gallic Murdoch is Vincent Bolloré, a Breton billionaire. I met him very briefly once. He had a grey suit and matching grey complexion. No one would accuse Rupert Murdoch of being grey.

The two men are also different in other ways.

Murdoch made his fortune from newspapers and TV. He has extreme conservative and populist views but money-making comes first. Whenever the two clash, the money wins.

Bolloré, 71, made his fortune from transport and logistics, partly in Africa. In recent years, he has built a considerable French media empire: Canal Plus, C-News 24-hour-TV, Europe 1 radio and now the Hachette group, including Paris Match and Le Journal du Dimanche.

Almost without fail, Bolloré’s media investments have turned sharply to the Right and lost money. He does not appear to care. The chief exception is C-News, the 24-hour TV “views” channel which has become a kind of French Fox News, increasing its viewership month on month without achieving anything like the reach of Murdoch’s flagship in the United States.

Unlike Rupert Murdoch, Bolloré is a sincere conservative, a devout Catholic traditionalist with rigid views on politics and morality. His media empire is a crusade of old age. He nominally passed control of his businesses to his children several years ago.

The Journal du Dimanche (JDD) is his latest victim, even though he does not, properly speaking, own it yet. His Vivendi group has purchased the biggest share of Hachette, the publishing and magazine group which owns, inter alia, the JDD and Paris Match.


The sale has been blocked by the European Commission until October on competition grounds. It can only go ahead when Vivendi has sold off Gala magazine, a rival to Match.

Bolloré denies that he is already calling the shots at Hachette (which could cause Brussels to withdraw its provisional approval).

But the events at JDD have Bolloré finger-prints all over them. Last month it was announced that the newspaper would have a new editor - Geoffroy Lejeune, who had just been fired from the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles for taking the magazine too far to the right.

There is no possible editorial or commercial logic in such an appointment. Lejeune has no experience and no known talent as a news journalist. As editor of Valeurs Actuelles he was a mendacious propagandist for far-right views. He is close to the pundit-turned-politician Eric Zemmour, who has been convicted three times of spreading racial hatred.

The JDD is the most mainstream of mainstream newspapers. It is one of the only French national titles which is neither clearly Right nor clearly Left. It is sometimes dull, sometimes stimulating. It often obtains scoop interviews because of its status as the only national Sunday newspaper not attached to a daily-title.


The French newspaper world is already pretty narrow. JDD is an institution which would be missed – which has already been missed in the last four weeks.

To appoint Geoffroy Lejeune as editor of JDD is like something out of Evelyn Waugh’s great comic novel Scoop about Fleet Street in the 1930s. In Scoop, Lord Copper, the bullying proprietor of the Daily Beast, appoints a trick-cyclist as sports editor. The sports pages are then turned over to reports on trick cycling.

Whatever Lejeune plans to do with the JDD it is unlikely to have much to do with objective reporting or careful analysis. His appointment is a deliberate statement of contempt for balanced journalism.

Until last week, it only seemed like a matter of time before the JDD staff were starved into submission. The government was mostly silent, fearing that Bolloré would turn on them. President Emmanuel Macron said nothing.

Then the education minister, Pap Ndiaye, already a bugbear of the hard and far-right partly because he is black, spoke out against the JDD being handed to a far-right editor. He also criticised C-News and other Bolloré outlets.

An avalanche of personal invective fell on Ndiaye’s head from Bolloré group “journalists” – in exactly the manner that Murdoch outlets like Fox News try to bully their detractors. The government, at first, said nothing. Ndiaye is, it is said, likely to lose his job (for other reasons) in a reshuffle this week.

Finally, the Elysée Palace this week let it be known that President Macron agreed with Ndiaye. It was also announced that a long delayed government conference on the future of journalism – Les Etats généraux de l’information – would take place in September.


One of its organisers will be the arch-Bolloré critic, Christophe Deloire, secrétaire general of Reporters sans frontières. He said earlier this month: “Wherever Bolloré arrives, journalism departs.”

What could the pompously named government conference on journalism achieve? One idea has already been suggested by 15 left and centrist deputies: a law to allow editorial staff to vote on the appointment of editors of all newspapers subsidised by public funds (as JDD and most others in France are).

It is unlikely that Bolloré would care about losing the state subsidies; he must already know that Lejeune’s appointment will lose JDD readers and advertisers.

All the same, someone in the Bolloré empire seems to be having second thoughts. Hachette (still nominally independent) has suggested delaying Lejeune’s arrival to allow journalists and other staff to go back to work. The JDD staff, suspecting a trick, has refused.

If Hachette/Bolloré were to delay the appointment until after September’s conference, there might be scope for at least a provisional deal.

Time is, in any case, long overdue for President Macron and the government to get involved. Why should they run scared of a ramshackle Bolloré media empire, which systematically mocks and misrepresents them already?


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Wm Adams 2023/07/25 17:22
Well said. Agree wholeheartedly. The damage that Murdoch has wrought - Trump, Brexit, resistance to addressing climate change - is astonishing.
Anonymous 2023/07/19 18:14
The suggestion that the government should intervene to seek to influence the editorial policy of a newspaper is, frankly, shocking. While French government meddling with labor matters is commonplace, the possibility that such an intervention should be made for the purpose sought is antithetical to the notion of a free press and to the private ownership and control of publishing. Such a suggestion in the UK would bring howls of protest from every corner, and in the US it would consign the proponent to the lunatic fringe. If you don't think there's enough liberal press in France, your remedy is to start your own newspaper and compete in the free marketplace of ideas. If there isn't a sufficient market for a new entrant, then that's your answer. Phooey.

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