The anti-media discourse in the French presidential election.

Booed, banned and vilified: Marine Le Pen, Francois Fillon and Jean-Luc Melenchon use confrontation with media to appear ‘anti-system’.

The ‘system’. It is around this notion, as vague as it is obsessive, that the presidential campaign seems framed. In an uncertain political climate, marked by a rejection of the status quo, there is a strong attraction towards candidates claiming to be outside the system. This anti-system posturing has led to confrontations with the media, some systematic, others sporadic, intense or soft.

There are many examples; the journalists who are cat-called, booed, and told to ‘shut their mouths’, as happened to some at Fillon’s mass rally in Paris earlier this month.  Those who find themselves being lectured to by politicians, as happened at Macron’s program launch. Or the journalists barred from National Front public meetings, like those of Mediapart and Yann Barthes of Quotidien.

Even the ex-Prime Minister Maneul Valls, in mid-December last year, pointed his finger of blame at the media, ‘It is you who are trapped in the system, it is you that represent the system, which the French people no longer want’.

The lines have shifted

Have French politicians become Trump-like; identifying the media as a hostile force, as the American president does, and creating this confrontation?

Of course it is more nuanced.  Yet there are many journalists who sense that the lines have shifted during this election. ‘The Fillon and Valls incidents are striking, as they came from establishment parties, who traditionally do not criticize the media’.‘A sort of curse has descended’, agrees Jean-Marc Four, head editor for FranceInter, a prominent national radio station.

Putting the media in the firing line has been an aspect of Francois Fillon’s campaign since the primaries. A notable incident occurred during one of the televised debates, where he scolded David Pujadas (the presenter), ‘the whole problem with these debates is your conception of them thinks only about the spectacle and not the substance’.

This move by Fillon was anything but improvised, as his campaign director conceded. ‘For the televised debates, we advised him to go after the journalists, because we believed it was an act that would be greeted favorably among right-wing voters’. This logic is shared by Fillon’s communications team, who are determined to present Fillon as an anti-system candidate, in order to make Emmanuel Macron out to be the real establishment candidate.

 Fillon denounces the ‘media tribunal’.

The revelations of the Canard Enchainé regarding the fake employment Fillon gave to his wife and children, further provoked Fillon’s anti-media line. He’s adapted a riposte strategy; denouncing a conspiracy and blaming a ‘media tribunal’. Jean- Marc Four recalls that such a reaction isn’t new. Every moment the press investigates, particularly during election campaigns, we again hear this ‘media tribunal’ trope.

In early February, Fillon attacked the press, claiming 90% of them were out to ‘lynch, and politically assassinate him’. Strong words. They were carefully chosen by the candidate. ‘He wanted a confrontation with the journalists, as they were presuming to act as a sort of judicial court’, explained his campaign team. The episode reminded some of Sarkozy’s treatment of the media back in 2012.

Canard Enchaine
Le Canard enchaîné’s  revelations about the bogus employment Fillon gave to his wife Penelope have totally derailed his campaign.

For the National Front, this anti-media discourse has for a long time been a powerful tool. Despite affirming, that ‘without press freedom, there would be no freedom of opinion or expression, in other words; no democracy’, Le Pen misses no opportunity at denouncing the journalists, who according to her, side with their ‘foal’ Emmanuel Macron, and lead the campaign to hysteria.

An integral part of the political struggle

Particularly targeted among the media is Le Monde, ‘a weapon of war opposed to the candidature that I represent’, according to Le Pen, and from whom a columnist, Pierre Berge recently gave his official support to Macron. The other is BFMTV RMC, a prominent tv and radio network. This confrontation is on occasions physical. Recently a journalist from the Quotidien was expelled by a group of National Front men at a Le Pen rally.

The other long-standing critic of the media is Jean-Luc Melenchon. It is common to hear Melenchon railing against this ‘media caste’ that he regularly attacks on his blog and elsewhere.‘The personal mud-slinging is nowhere better seen than by the missiles launched by FranceInter’s breakfast show, the parochial Libération, the laughable Petit journal, and in a general way from the political cliques, infested with the spin-doctors of the Socialist Party, and those who arrogantly presume that only journalists are immune to the rot in French politics’, wrote Melenchon.

To this long list one can add Le Monde, with whom Melenchon has blown hot and cold for years.To assume these statement are simply the result of an eruptive character, would be a mistake. For the candidate of La France Insoumise (We refuse to submit!), journalists are not neutral, and the confrontational dynamic he has with them is an important part of his political crusade.

Defiance of the French

Melenchon’s former right hand-man, Francois Delapierre, argued that political journalists,  ‘serve only to reinforce the dominant ideology that wants to make people believe that individual profit is the sole motivation possible within a society’. Melenchon often adapts this argument, asserting the media to be ‘the second skin of the system’.

Such discourse reflects the defiance shown by French people toward the media. A survey in February by the daily La Croix showed that anti-media sentiment is higher than it has been in 15 years. And as politicians face rejection, they are trying to re-position themselves so as to hold appeal in light of this resurging anti-media sentiment. It is all just posturing. One journalist criticizes the hypocrisy of politicians, who in front of the cameras adapt an attitude that masks the mainly cordial relationship between media and politicians, which exist away from the cameras.

In contrast to Fillon and Le Pen, Macron has defended the media on several occasions. ‘Every day we debate the legitimacy of the media, booing and hissing what is in fact a necessary counter-balance in a democracy’, complained the ex-Minister.Yet in fact, Macron holds an ambiguous relationship with the media; normally appearing calm and open armed, but this attitude isn’t constant: when Macron launched his program, he scolded a journalist for having described his candidacy as that of the ‘financial oligarchy’. Macron criticized the journalist for playing into the hands of his rival Le Pen. ‘I was surprised. I had never seen a candidate so suddenly turn a press conference into such a fiery confrontation’, remarked an observer

An explosion of sources

In addition, Macron supporters don’t hesitate to use social media as a platform from which to criticize journalists. In Mid-February, a spokesperson for En Marche! (Forward!) used Twitter to accuse an editor of Libération of ‘panurgisme’ (band-wagonning, pot-stirring, etc.), claiming that he wasn’t objective.

‘A climate has descended in which politicians are no longer willing to submit themselves to questioning and scrutiny from journalists,’ claims a staff member of Quotidien. Patrick Eveno, a media historian argues these developments are explained by the explosion in media sources.  Nowadays politicians find it difficult to cope with the constant bombardment in the media arena. They try and compensate for their slowness, by refusing to acknowledge journalists as agents invested with a responsibility to inform the public, as they had been in the past.

Benoit Hamon reflected this trend when he gave rough, insincere praise to Le Canard Enchaîné, for its revelations concerning Fillon. But he exhibited clear annoyance and hostility toward the satirical paper, going on to demand that they reveal all their scandals, so that France can get back to real politics as soon as possible. He went on to throw a few punches at certain journalists, reproaching the editorials for having failed to predict his win in the primary, or Fillon’s win in the right-wing primary, or Trump, or Brexit.

What’s more, Hamon is proposing to place a 40% cap on how much ownership an industrial group can have within the media industry. This ‘anti-concentration’ desire – which is shared by Melenchon and Le Pen – implies that private investors such as Patrick Drahi, or the industrialist Vincent Bolloré are seen as a threat to the independence of the media.

Borolli et Drahi
Vincent Bollore (left), head of the family owned Bollore Group, which has total ownership of Direct Matin, a free daily paper. Patrick Drahi (right), owner of the telephone network SFR, has a 49% stake in NextRadioTV, the parent company of several radio and TV stations.

Bypassing Scrutiny

‘There is more mistrust, as well as indifference toward the pronouncements of traditional media organs. ‘There are two spheres’, explains a Quotidian journalist. People are creating their own news networks, notably with social media. Within the pro-Fillon crowd that rallied at Trocadero, supporters were heard exchanging their advice about alternative media, ‘for the US, try Breitbart. For France, TV Libertés, it’s the best’.

Anti-media sentiment is hardly united, but can be selective and remain partisan. Geoffroy Lejeune, head-editor of Valeurs Actuelles, recalls having no problems at Trocadero, but contrarily was greeted warmly by those who recognized him from television. This experience strongly contrasts to another journalist’s experience at Trocadero, ‘We were insulted. Treated like salesmen for fake news. We were hassled and abused for being partisan. With this anti-media sentiment, candidates are seizing the opportunity to present their own narratives, and bypass the media, as Trump has done with Twitter.

Fillon Trocadero Mars 2017
Some journalists claimed to have been the targets of hostility, during Fillon’s mass rally at Trocadero, Paris, earlier this month.

So in 2016, Melenchon’s media strategy turned a corner by creating his own internet media: inspired by the Spanish Podemos, the European deputy firstly launched a web-series, ‘Unseen on T.V.’, in which he hosts guests of his own choice, who question him in length, before going on to reviewing the week -all this on his YouTube channel, with some succes, and little cost.

‘A Trump Effect’

The National Front has a similar response. ‘(The media) has lost the confidence of the people, who rightly turn toward the internet for information’, claims Le Pen. For several weeks, the circle of FN leaders haven’t missed a chance to react, via Le Pen’s website, presenting her as an alternative source of information.

‘There’s an increasingly Trump-like tendency…’ believes the head-editor of BFMTV, ‘shown not only by the accusations levelled against the media, but also by shameless attempts at spreading fake news’. A reference to Fillon’s derision of TV channels, when he suggested the media would happily disregard the truth and announce the suicide of his wife, if they thought it worthwhile.

These tensions disparage journalists, but do not hinder politicians’ ability to benefit from media coverage for electoral purposes, or from being invited onto prime time television, or from protesting against the slightest bias shown against them.

Pas Vue Sur Tele
Melenchon’s web episode ‘Pas Vu a la téle’

The present climate of anti-media discourse, and increased ability to bypass media scrutiny, may be a temporary by-product of an election season, but is nonetheless an issue of concern within the media profession. ‘The defiance toward the press isn’t only the tactic of politicians, if this were so it wouldn’t work’, points out Grégoire Biseau, joint editor in chief of Libération. ‘The problem is far more profound than the posturing of politicians trying to win votes’.

The hostility expressed on social networks toward traditional TV commentary, illustrates that ‘people want to see the media revitalized, and not just politicians. This is the ‘dégagisme’ that Melenchon is talking about’, explains a prominent TV journalist. Yet for all this, the effects of these changed attitudes remain to be seen.



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