Written by Hannah Schädlich

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  • Area: 543,965 square kilometres
  • Population: 66,6 million
  • Capital: Paris
  • State form: parliamentary presidential democracy
  • Official language: French
  • Religion: Roman Catholic (61 per cent)

  • Flag of France

    Even if the French press is labelled as free and independent, France reached the worst score in the press freedom rankings of the NGOs Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders in 2016. Together with Greece, Spain and Italy, Hallin and Mancini (2005: 220) sorted France into the Polarized Pluralist Model by. Especially the state intervention in the media sector via laws and financial subsidies and thus political parallelism are typical for the French media system. The constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, but only as an individual right and not as a right for the media in general. That means a limitation of medias’ independence and journalists’ autonomy (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 43). Other challenges for journalists are the dependence on relationships to other fields of the public and the big impact of their social backgrounds on professional success. In France, the elite is small but well-connected and rules all of the important political, economic and media-related fields (Marchetti, 2009: 372). Regarding the media market, the strong involvement of investors from other branches like the aerospace or building industries is a special French feature (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 25-30). For that reason and because of active and intensive state efforts to influence the media system, we sorted France amongst Cartelism in our typology.
    Communication policy and regulations

    In comparison to other western democracies, France has a very complex regulation of the media system. The main goal of this interference is to protect pluralism (Puustinen, 2007: 12). The first regulation concerning freedom of expression is the Declaration of Human and Civic Rights of 1789. Article 11 gives every citizen the right to “speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law” (Conseil Constitutionnel, 1789). Nevertheless, this right just refers to individuals, not to the media. That means, the freedom of the press is an individual right but there is no constitutionally guaranteed media freedom in France. Therefore, journalists’ autonomy is somehow limited (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 43). As France signed the Declaration of Human Rights, Article 10 and 11 of this declaration set the foundation of press freedom and freedom of opinion. Between 1981 and 2009 several media regulating laws and dozens of amendments have been pushed trough by the legislative power. The main assumption of laws regarding the press is that the freedom of distribution enables freedom of expression. That’s why every publisher must have the same possibilities to distribute his products to the public (Almiron-Roig, 2010: 473-475).

    Concerning the press, the most important law is from 1881 and declares freedom of speech, print and publication by stopping censorship. In addition, there are the law about moral protection of the youth (1949) and the law permitting the denial of the Holocaust from 1990 (Miège, 2009: 309-310). To ensure diversity, the French government supports the press via state subsidies, which refer to registered publications in French language that appear at least five days a week. Without those subsidies the French print sector would have suffered much more (Almiron-Roig, 2010: 475; Puustinen, 2007: 14). For example, the state gave about €16 million each to the major newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde in 2013. Comparable to Italy, the freedom of the French media is mainly restricted by laws, which punish the defamation of politicians and other public officials (Freedom House, 2016a).

    Regarding the broadcasting sector, a law from 1986 is very important, which allowed the takeover of state-owned channels by private financiers and therefore liberalised the television landscape (Miège, 2009: 313). Before this law, the media were much more influenced and instrumentalized by politics. As France is a democracy, this interference of politics in the media is very uncommon, especially in comparison to other western democracies (Almiron-Roig, 2010: 474). Besides the opening of the broadcasting sector for private investors, this 1986 law limits the number of licenses and the share of ownership. For example, “a shareholder cannot own, directly or indirectly, more than 49% of the capital or the voting rights” (Almiron-Roig, 2010: 477). Additionally, there is a rule about ‘two out of three’ that allows the impact of owners in just two out of the three media sectors print, radio and television (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 61). A law that forbids advertising on television during prime time caused new challenges for the broadcasters because, as a consequence, they had to face struggles concerning their financing (Freedom House, 2016a).

    As a consequence of several attacks on press freedom by the IS and other terroristic groups, an antiterrorism law has been passed in 2014. Now, websites with terroristic content can be blocked and online speech promoting terrorism is punishable by fines up to 75,000€ and five years in jail. To identify extremists faster, the government also enacted a surveillance law (Loi Relatif au Renseignement) in 2015. Therefore, the secret service doesn’t need special permissions to supervise potentially suspects, anymore. That means, the monitoring of private data and people’s homes got a lot easier (Freedom House, 2016b).

    For the observance of the laws, there are two authorities: the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), which exists since 1989 and the Competition Authority of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. The CSA is responsible for licensing. Its main aims are to obtain diversity and protect pluralism. Failures of complying can be punished with penalties or suspension of the broadcasting or publishing (Almiron-Roig, 2010: 478). Critics of the CSA claim it to be political parallelised because of the composition of its leadership, which is appointed by the French state president, the president of the National Assembly and the president of the senate (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 71). Another kind of observance happens through the DCRI (Direction central du renseignement intérieur), which is something like a secret service that can observe people of the religious, economic, social and political public. Media actors obviously belong to this group and are therefore restricted in their activities (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 52).

    Political parallelism
    Political parallelism is not uncommon in the French press. As a result, the readership expects clear positions and commentary, especially in the newspapers. Thus, the main newspapers can be assigned to different political camps. “Centrists of the right read Figaro or France Soir. Moderate leftists pick up Le Matin, leaving Libération for nondoctrinaire radicals and l’Humanité for members of France’s rather stodgy Communist party. Le Monde’s readers defy easy categories, since the world’s weightiest daily may be bought for snob appeal or special articles, as well as for its lightly socialist stance on most issues” (Eisendrath, 1979: 59). As in Italy, there is a clear process of medialization of politics with a big coverage of election campaigns, especially on TV. However, while in Italy this process was mainly encouraged by Berlusconi, it started earlier (in the 1960s) in France. Especially Nicolas Sarkozy and his election campaign team perceived the importance of the media and popularity during elections. In this regard, his relationship to media owners and journalists as well as the mediation of information played a big role to achieve political aims. Even if Sarkozy has never been an owner of any media outlet, critics call this development the ‘Berlusconization’ or at least ‘americanization’ of the French media system because the personalities of politicians come to the fore (Campus, 2010: 228, 229). The term ‘medialization’ suggests a political system following the media logic (Meyen et al., 2014), in France vice versa the media have to follow the political logic because the executive is more powerful. Nevertheless, this process is challenging for politicians as well because of the constant pressure to provide information and personal features for the press. Therefore, politicians always have to take into account, which information they want to supply next and how this data will be perceived in the public. Besides the organizational effort they also have to invest more financial, personnel and temporal resources (Kuhn, 2013: 124-127).

    France in the media freedom rankings
    In the 2016 index of Reporters Without Borders, France was ranked 45 out of 180 countries. With seven positions worse than in 2015, this is the worst score in the ranking since its beginning in 2002. One main reason for this loss is the terroristic attack against the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, when twelve people were killed in January 2015. Furthermore, RWB explains this position with economic and political pressure that derives from market structures. The owners of media outlets are often groups, who come from the industry and use the media for their purposes or at least set other priorities than journalists’ autonomy (Reporters Without Borders, 2016a). According to Freedom House, France has a “free” press. In 2016 the score fell to 28 from 23 in 2015 (with 0 as the best and 100 as the worst score). This is also the worst score since the start of the elevation in 2002. The NGO explains this score with two major reasons. First, after the attack at Charlie Hebdo, “the government pushed trough legislation allowing mass surveillance of personal communications with little judicial oversight” (Freedom House, 2016a). Second, the still existing defamation laws are often used to put journalists under pressure and can be punished with up to 45,000€. Even one of the biggest newspapers, Le Monde, was accused because of defamation (Freedom House, 2016a). Of course, the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 was a harsh attack on press freedom. As insider informants of the Committee to Protect Journalists explain, journalists need much more courage to do their job, because some of them have to live under steady police protection, nowadays (Radsch, 2016).
    Media offers

    Media offers
    France has a quite diverse media landscape. For example, in the press sector one can differentiate between the national and regional daily newspapers, magazines, trade press and free papers (Miège, 2009: 312). In general, the French daily press has to face several problems related to decreasing circulation rates and sales figures. The two major dailies are Le Figaro with a circulation rate of 313,020 and Le Monde with 284,106 sold copies in 2016 (L’Alliance pour les chiffres de la presse et des médias, 2016). There are two main reasons for this development. First, the major newspapers started their editorial, technical and economic modernisation rather late. Second, the traditional press got new competitors in the free weekly papers, which exist since 2002 and are primarily financed through advertisers (Miège, 2009: 310).

    The broadcasting sector is organised in a dual system consisting of state-owned and private channels. Since the Second World War, the state holds the monopole and several efforts to limit this monopoly failed. Only with the end of the 1980s, more and more private channels entered the market and the control of the state declined. Nowadays, the broadcasting offers are more diverse and reach from national terrestrial channels like TF 1, France 2, France 3 and Arte to 120 special interest channels, terrestrial channels and digital terrestrial channels to ADSL programs. Since 2006, France also holds an international news broadcaster (France24), which is owned in equal shares by the public France Télévision and the private TF 1. Additionally, the number of pay-TV offers increases (Miège, 2009: 312-314). In France, there are no public, but state-owned broadcasters, which are financed by a tax of 120€ a year applied to every occupier of an apartment, called Contribution à l’audiovisuel public (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 76). As the French broadcasting sector, the radio is also divided in a dual system of private and state-owned channels. NRJ, RTL and Chérie are the main radio channels with NRJ being the most popular one reaching an audience of nearly one third of all listeners (Puustinen, 2007: 16).

    Regarding ownership, there are just three important corporations, who own the major traditional media offers: Bouygues, Lagardère and Bolloré. Bouygues, which also owns the big mobile network Bouygues Telecom, has its origin in the construction industry (e.g. responsible for the tunnel through the English Channel). Lagardère is a corporation from the arms and aerospace industry and Bolloré as a conglomerate has holdings in the production of batteries, plastic and cigarette paper. While Bouygues and Lagardère have a more direct influence on the media, Bolloré’s role is more the one of a mediator between the media and the industry. Those three groups have in common that their media are just a secondary business. For that reason, they can influence other media by being their major advertisers (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 25-30).

    A specificity of the French media landscape is the high concentration of media company’s domiciles in Paris. Therefore, the national press, all broadcasters and the main magazines are based in a very small region, where about 18 per cent of the French live and about 80 per cent of all French journalists have their workplaces (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 19). Furthermore, France has a small but well-connected elite with many relationships between industry and politics. The big companies, which are the main players in the media at the same time, therefore depend on the goodwill of the government to have the best odds for their business. Even if it is not clear whether the state or the economy has the bigger influence, one can conclude, that the power of the media is the weakest in this constellation and the independence of journalists suffers from those blending (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 33).

    Media usage
    Since the 1980s, especially the national French daily press has to face a huge decrease of its readership, but also the circulation rates of regional newspapers are falling. About eight million Frenchmen don’t read newspapers at all (Miège, 2009: 312). “Daily newspaper sales have long been low by the standards of many western democracies, with a total circulation for paid-for newsprint titles (national and regional dailies combined) of just 7,5 million in 2010” (Kuhn, 2013: 128). Those small circulation rates make it hard for the press to be agenda setters or watchdogs of the government. In France, as in many other countries, the media usage depends on education and socialisation. While educated people working in well-paid positions use the daily newspapers as first source of information, most from the low-level working class prefer TV-shows (Santos-Sainz, 2013: 146, 147). In general, because of its wide range of offers, television is the major mass medium – (Miège, 2009: 314). Because of the emerging digital television offers, private and state-owned broadcasters reach a comparatively small audience share of 70 per cent (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 25).

    According to Freedom House (2016b), France had an internet penetration rate of 84 per cent in Paris and about 65 per cent in smaller regions in 2015. Till 2025, to continuously simplify the access, universal coverage and high-speed broadband were promised by the government (Freedom House, 2016b).

    The innovation of the internet is a challenge for traditional media in France as well as in other countries. Especially, the print sector suffers from the huge range of information accessible via the internet and therefore has to face problems concerning its financing model. However, for the political marginal groups, the internet offers an opportunity to be heard and to gain regard. “Political blogs (by citizens, journalists and organized activists as well as professional politicians), user-generated political content, independent news websites and online peer cooperation in political web communities are all part of a newly emerging political communication system where the established rules and norms of top-down agenda building largely controlled by elite political actors are being called into question” (Kuhn, 2013: 131). The number of blogs is very high in the worldwide comparison (nine million bloggers) and also the content seems to be more political and serious than for example in Germany (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 146). Nevertheless, the usage of information from niche websites is not that high to query the monopole of established media because they still have a reliable reputation. That means, even if the relationships between journalists and politicians is not as far-reaching on the net as in the traditional media, established structures still have major impact on opinion making in the public (Kuhn, 2013: 132).
    Journalists' autonomy

    Journalists’ education and working conditions
    France is characterised by a strong, very small elite of actors from industry, politics and the media, that continuously reproduces itself. It is very difficult to become part of this elite by social rise. However, for those who try it, the name of their university is more important than the subject. In turn, the possibility of studying at the right university depends on the previous graduation at the right secondary school (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 34-36). According to Gaunt (1988), there are 14 journalism schools in France with L’Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme de Lille and the Centre de Formation des Journalistes in Paris being the major ones. Those schools train only 50 to 100 well selected students a year and have many of the best known French journalists as their graduates. Other prestigious schools of journalism are the Centre Universitaire d’Enseignement du Journalisme Strasbourg III and L’Institut Universitaire de Technologie de Bordeaux. All those schools have in common that they offer programs, which are closely linked to the demands of the industry. Those programs include “editorial and lay-out skills”, a “course on broadcast and news agency journalism” and an “internship with a local newspaper” (Gaunt, 1988: 584, 585). However, many young journalists struggle to find a workplace after graduation. Permanent employment is very seldom, which is why they are lucky to get a quarterly contract with a salary of about 1,500€ a month. This underlines the importance of good family relationships (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 157). As Koc-Michalska and Vedel (2013: 51) explain in their report on French media, there are only “a few high-ranked journalists with great expertise and a unique personal style, whose names might even become a brand”, while “the majority of ‘blue-collar’ underpaid journalists, [is] performing routine tasks and feeding the machine”.

    To work as a journalist and be permitted to take part in press conferences, one needs a special identification card assigned by the CCPJ (Commission de la carte d’identité des journalistes professionnels), called ‘Carte d’identité journalists professionals’. The conditions to get this card seem a bit confusing because it is assigned to everyone, who works in communications or the media and receives at least half of his earnings from working as a journalist. In short, that means, a journalist is somebody who works as a journalist (Wrobel-Leipold, 2010: 88). Additionally, according to a law of 2004, “online journalists are considered as professional journalists with the same status as those employed in the print and audio-visual broadcasting media” (Koc-Michalska & Vedel, 2013: 98). Regarding working conditions, journalists working for the press have to face new difficulties since the audio-visual media emerged. TV and radio dictate the speed for news production and information flow. That means, the press has to expedite its working process and journalists often “work on several affairs at once” (Marchetti, 2009: 377). Especially in the field of investigative journalism, those working conditions seem to contradict the professions’ perception.

    Self-identity and role perceptions
    According to Santos-Sainz (2013: 143), the habitus and imaginary of a student influence the type of journalist he or she becomes. So for example, journalism students with parents working in the same profession have another habitus and other goals than students, whose family backgrounds are in the working class. In many cases, they worked harder at school to gain their professional imaginaries. The social background also influences the self-identity of young journalists. Students without family linkages to the field of journalism tend to choose this profession because of good reputation, proper salaries and a possibility to achieve their life-goals. Contrary, a student with rich parents states that his field of vision was limited because she has “always been in private schools, in a closed universe, all people there do the same” (Santos-Sainz, 2013: 145). These findings indicate that the profession of journalism is not homogeneous. Even if many schools of journalism seem to enable students from the working class to achieve their goals, most young journalists still come from the upper class and elite (Santos-Sainz, 2013: 143-147).

    The profession of journalism has to face a loss of credibility in France because there seems to be a kind of agreement between reporters, political powers and economic financiers (Santos-Sainz, 2013: 140). This somehow contradicts the self-perception of young journalists, who consider freedom and autonomy in their work as very important standards. Furthermore, many students are willing to accept bad working conditions and low salaries because they consider journalism to be a highly regarded profession with a good social status (Santos-Sainz, 2013: 148). Those motivations fit their commonly self-identities as “observer and narrator of events (…), as a professional research (…) and as a historian of the contemporary world who analyses and puts the events into perspective” (Santos-Sainz, 2013: 150). Nevertheless, there is much criticism on so-called ‘specialist journalists’ from inside and outside the profession. Those journalists focus on one special topic and are therefore limited to their sources, which is why their articles seem to serve their relationships to experts except the general audience (Marchetti, 2009: 381). Additionally, the difference in role perceptions between the press sector and broadcasting media has to be mentioned. As Kuhn (2013: 130) describes, journalists working for newspapers are more offensive against the government while reporters working for French broadcasters tend to hesitate criticising and offending politicians.

    Limitations of journalists’ autonomy and interference in freedom of expression
    As a survey of Mendénez Alarcón (2010: 407) suggests, the freedom of expression in France suffers from economic pressure and the recipients’ expectations. According to this, sensationalism is one problem. An interviewee working for Le Figaro states in the survey, “If the topic is conflictive and creates debate, it is a major consideration for us to decide to cover it” (Mendénez Alarcón, 2010: 407). In many cases, journalists depend on their connections to the political power because lots of scandals take place in this sector (Marchetti, 2009: 371; Koc-Michalska & Vedel, 2013: 53). Furthermore, the difference between the need of being popular to gain readership and the aim to be quality press is very challenging for the major newspapers (Mendénez Alarcón, 2010: 409). For that reason, the readerships’ interests lead to the coverage of events, which are important for French and European inhabitants, while other topics are not mentioned. As a journalist working for Le Figaro states in an interview within Mendénez Alarcón’s (2010: 410) research, sometimes even French politicians tell the press which events to cover and which information to hand to the public. This is a quite typical feature of the French investigative journalism as Marchetti (2009: 372) shows. He states that research doesn’t play a big role in the field of investigative journalism because it is a common incident, that reporters receive material and documents from people who just need something like a spokesperson for their interests. That means the access to exclusive material strongly depends on connections. This dependence on relationships to other social sectors clearly limits journalists’ autonomy. The findings on investigative journalism fit the “strong tradition of political engagement and interpretative journalism, especially in national newspapers and magazines, where commentary and opinion have often been more highly prized than factual accuracy and objectivity” as described by Kuhn (2013: 129, 130).

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    Recommended citation form
    Hannah Schädlich: France. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date).

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