Country report: France

(September 2014)

Introduction

The implementation of the MPM2014 for France shows a low/medium risk for media pluralism in the country. In general, the risks to media pluralism in France are divided as follows: 15% (5) of the indicators fall within the zone of high risk; 26% (9) indicate medium risk, and 59 % (20) refer to low risk.

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Graph 11: Average level of risk for each type of indicator – France

 

Legal Type of Indicators Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

Overall, the legal risks to media pluralism are low in France. Existing laws and regulations comply with major safeguards that are measured by the legal indicators: freedom of expression, right to information, recognition of media pluralism, and independence of regulatory agencies, concentration limitation. France’s government is developing policies for media literacy, net neutrality, and open data.

An important trend (not captured by the MPM’s indicators, since it is a change over time) should be noticed regarding the balance between privacy protection and freedom of expression/right to information. Traditionally, France has strong legislation to protect individual privacy. However, since 2008, under the influence of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, French courts take the general interest – and the right of people to be informed on important matters – when judging defamation cases and breaches into privacy, into account more than they used to do.

There are some MPM indicators that show high risks. Indicators 7 Regulatory safeguards for access to airtime on PSM by the various cultural and social groups and 8 Regulatory safeguards for minority and community media demonstrate high risk. The reason for this is the so-called “Republican model” (as opposed to the Communitarianist model) that the French constitution and legal practice have established: French law does not recognise ethnic origins, national minorities, or some other communities. Special safeguards thus do not exist in regard to those groups. It would be appropriate to introduce into the MPM a second level measurement, in order to examine the actual risk to pluralism relating to minority groups under the principles of the Republican model.

There is high risk related to indicator 16 Regulatory safeguards against excessive ownership and/or control of mainstream media by politicians. This high risk is due to the lack of legislation, but does not necessarily means that there is an excessive politicisation of French media. This indicator needs to be examined together with the socio-political indicators that are related to this risk, which do not demonstrate high risk.

Regarding concentration of ownership (indicator 12 Regulatory safeguards against high concentration of ownership and/or control in media and indicator, 13 Regulatory safeguards against high degree of cross ownership between television and other media), there is a complex set of legal safeguards to prevent too much concentration in all platforms, but for internet service providers. However, the effective implementation of these safeguards can be questioned, given the insufficient legislation on financial transparency (indicator 14 Regulatory safeguards for transparency of ownership and/or control), which does not guarantee easy access to financial information.

Indicator 4 Regulatory safeguards for the journalistic profession shows low risks for the safeguards for the journalist profession. Yet, the legal situation for journalists in France is not fully satisfactory. There is no deontological code that is recognised by law, and no press council to monitor deontological breaches. The legislation on the confidentiality of sources has improved, but a law reinforcing the protection of journalists is still under discussion. This indicator should thus be looked at in the context of other measurements and the MPM’s indicators.

Finally, it should be noted that the legislation against terrorism (which is currently being increased) might affect freedom of expression over the internet. Around the ban on the burqa (law of 10th October, 2010) – which was also upheld by the European Court of Human Rights on 2nd July 2014, there has also been a debate in France about the freedom of religious expression (which France traditionally limits to within the private sphere).

 

Economic Type of Indicators Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

Overall, according to MPM’s indicators (21 Media ownership concentration, 22 Media audience and readership concentration and 23 Number of sectors in which top 8 firms/owners are active), the French media system exhibits a moderate to high level of concentration. However, this general assessment will be nuanced when we get into the details of the media system.

Regarding newspapers, we must differentiate between national and regional newspapers. Four groups (Le Monde, Figaro, Les Echos, Le Parisien) dominate the national newspapers market and the number of national titles has been declining over time (France Soir, which used to be one of the major French dailies, disappeared in 2011; La Tribune moved to an online only edition; there are current difficulties for Libération).

On the regional newspaper market, there are around 60 major titles and, nationwide, the market appears to be moderately concentrated. There is no single group dominating the regional dailies market and the biggest groups have a market share that is below 18%. Yet, in any particular French region, a single newspaper title frequently enjoys a de facto monopoly position with, at best, some competition from smaller local papers, the national dailies and, in the larger towns, local editions of free newspapers.

In the broadcasting sector, there is reasonable diversity of ownership at both national and sub-national levels. Besides the public company, Radio France, four commercial groups dominate radio nationwide: the RTL group, the NRJ group, Lagardère and Next Radio (a newcomer which has been steadily developing over the last ten years). In addition to national networks, there are several hundreds of local radio stations (some of them being grouped in an independent network). In the larger French cities, more than 15 radio stations are typically available. However, local radio stations generally devote little airtime to news and current affairs, and the pluralism of information is mainly ensured by national radio networks.

In television, there are four dominant players: TF1 owned by the Bouygues group, the public company France Télévisions (with two over the air channels: France, especially France 2 and France 3), the M6 group (Bertelsmann), and the Canal Plus group (which operates a pay TV channel over the air). It was hoped that the shift to Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) would lead to a reduction in ownership concentration in the television sector. While some new players did enter the market, notably BFM (Next radio) and NRJ, two groups coming from the radio market, and some other minor groups, new channels have been mainly allocated to the traditional TV groups, including Canal Plus, which now has a nationwide free TV station (D8).

It should be noted that, with the development of DTT, the supply of TV news is now particularly strong in France. In addition to the news editions offered by the traditional channels, two 24-hour news channels (BFM, i-télé) are freely available. There are also the two so-called Parliament channels (LCP and Public Sénat), which provide news editions and magazines (with independent teams of journalists).

Cross media ownership and vertical integration are low in the French media system. French media groups tend to operate on one market only, with a few exceptions. There is virtually no cross-ownership between news dailies and television, and only some limited cross-ownership between regional dailies and local radio stations. Only one group is significantly present in both radio and print media (Lagardère), and there is only one group (RTL group) that is significantly present in both radio and television (NRJ, an important player for radio, is only a minor player for television). In comparison with other major EU countries, France has no equivalent of a company on the scale of News Corporation in the UK, Bertelsmann in Germany, or Mediaset in Italy, which all have extensive cross-media activities.

Finally, the French media system is mainly operated by domestic firms. However, there are some foreign companies that operate media ventures, notably in the print magazine sector where the German Prisma group (Bertelsmann), the British EMAP, the Italian Mondadori and, more recently, the Belgium Roularta group, hold significant positions. In the broadcasting sector, Bertelsmann is also significantly present through the M6 Company (the second commercial TV group) and RTL (the first radio network).

A peculiar feature of the French media system is that media ventures are not purely media players but are often part of larger commercial and industrial conglomerates. Again, this makes France different from the UK, Germany and Italy, where the major media companies are almost exclusively focused on media-related activities. Moreover, these industrial conglomerates often bid for state contracts in France (e.g., Dassault in military aircraft production and sales, and Bouygues in construction), or their interests are subject to state regulation (for instance, Bouygues and telecommunications). This situation has been criticised, since it creates a sort of conflict of interests between the French state and some conglomerates. It has been feared that these conglomerates might be tempted to obtain state support that is beneficial to their industrial activities by providing a good media coverage of government activities. However, this aspect of the market needs to be measured by additional socio-political types of indicators that tap into the political dependencies of the media.

On the internet access market, there are five dominant players: Orange, SFR, Bouygues, Numéricable and Free. Over the last 15 years, the latter has developed an aggressive rates policy – with a typical subscription rate of 30 euros/month for broadband access through fixed lines – which has contributed to an enlargement of the base number of internet users (currently around the 75% of French population).

 

Socio-political Type of Indicators Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

The MPM’s indicators show low to moderate socio-political risks to media pluralism. French people enjoy an excellent, nation-wide access to French media outlets (indicator 28 Guarantees for universal coverage of PSM and broadband networks regarding geographic coverage). Through a mutualised (though very costly) distribution system, print media are available throughout French territory. In all regions, all major television and radio networks are accessible. There are a few so-called dark zones, where terrestrial reception is difficult due to geographical constraints, but they represent less than 0.5% of the French population. Access to the internet with sufficient speed (at least 2 Megabits) is problematic in some rural zones and this may become a political issue in the near future, as some reports estimate that only 77% of the French population is well covered by ADSL.

Indicators 30 Political control over media and distribution networks ownership and 31 Political control over media funding by advertising show that there is no excessive politicisation of the French media system. No major daily newspaper and no broadcaster is either owned by, or has close links with, a political party or another political organisation. In 2001, L’Humanité, once the official daily of the Communist party (PCF), was officially separated from the PCF, and its ownership was opened up to new stakeholders, including 20% by a holding in which the Lagardère group and TF1 had stakes.

In terms of content and editorial line, French newspapers rarely identify too closely with a particular political party or ideology. This is most apparent in regional newspapers. Due to the dominant position they occupy in their markets, they tend to avoid too marked political stances, which could upset sections of their wide readership. They devote to politics only a tiny proportion of their content, and they adopt so-called legitimist editorial lines, which focus on institutionalised politics and elected officials’ activities. National dailies and news magazines are more politicised. They are supportive of peculiar values or policies, which makes them more in-line with the external pluralism model.

Political pluralism in broadcasting is mostly based on the so-called principle of reference, and is monitored by the CSA. Outside of electoral campaigns, politicians from the parliamentary opposition should receive at least half the time given to government and politicians from the parliamentary majority combined. In 2009, the interventions of the President that are linked to domestic politics were included in the government share of their output. However, this approach was criticised for being too quantitative. More importantly, there is no obligation in regard to political parties and organisations, which are not represented in Parliament. About a decade ago this was an issue with respect to the National Front (extreme right), which, compared to its electoral results, had been under-represented in French media. However, French media have now adjusted to the reality of the National Front, and they provide an accurate coverage in quantitative terms (although not necessarily in qualitative terms). Whether the National Front is a “regular” party or should be treated in a specific way due to its populist nature (and some would add its xenophobic stand), is a matter for debate in France (as it is in other European countries in which there are similar parties).

During electoral campaigns, candidates must first be covered in an equitable way (i.e., in proportion to their importance in public opinion and the importance of their campaign activities), then in an equal fashion during the last part of the campaign (usually two weeks before Election Day). Thanks to these regulations, but also to the professionalisation of French journalism, the coverage of French politics does not show any outstanding political bias (indicator 29 Representation of political views in the media). Reports by the CSA show that broadcaster airtime is devoted according to regulations (with some occasional deviations, generally not in the same direction through time), but since it is different to the reference values of the MPM, indicator 29 scores medium risk. The content analysis performed for the MPM shows that the portrayal of political actors is generally neutral or ambivalent.

Graph 12: Level of risk for each risk domain – France

 

 

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Graph 12: Level of risk for each risk domain – France