At Agence France-Presse, the French state plays a heavy hand

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Emmanuel Hoog was hoping to secure a fresh term as the head of Agence France-Presse last Wednesday. Then he received an unwelcome phone call. Hoog, who’d served as AFP’s chairman and CEO since 2010, was about to go up against challenger Fabrice Fries in a board of directors vote when the French government called—hours before the vote was scheduled to take place—to say it wouldn’t be supporting him. Hoog quickly stepped aside.

While the French state only controls three of the 18 seats on AFP’s board, it’s all but impossible for a CEO to operate without its confidence. AFP may be the third-biggest news agency in the world (after Reuters and AP)—with operations in multiple languages and 151 countries—but it gets up to about 40 percent of its funding from its home government. In recent years, the sustainability of that funding has been called into question. Observers say the French state wants AFP to stand on its own feet, and that Hoog failed to advance its agenda fast enough. Its pick to run the agency is, therefore, a political one.

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AFP staffers called for the vote to be abandoned and rerun with two or more candidates at a later date, thus ensuring a choice between different visions of AFP’s future. But the board decided to let Fries, who has spent most of his career in the private sector, go forward unopposed. During his confirmation vote the day after Hoog’s withdrawal, staffers temporarily stopped working in protest—dropping their coverage of a televised interview with French President Emmanuel Macron as a result.

On Monday, the drama continued. Three AFP directors—who serve on the board as independent experts—addressed an open letter to the French Minister of Culture, criticizing the last-minute jettisoning of Hoog. “The election wasn’t done in a good way, because in the end there was only one candidate put forward,” one of the signatories, economist Julia Cagé, tells CJR. “We considered it our duty to denounce what happened….so that in future there’s a change in the way the agency is governed.”

The letter’s signatories stressed that their gripe was procedural, not a personal affront to Fries. And even though the board of directors contains representatives of employees, public broadcasters, and regional and national press, it’s not unusual for the French state to flex its muscles when it comes to selecting a CEO for the agency. Its rejection of Hoog last week may have lacked class, but it was really just a case of swings and roundabouts: According to Le Monde, Hoog himself was only pulled into contention through government support prior to taking the job in 2010.

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His ouster nonetheless compounds a moment of uncertainty for AFP. Under old statutes guaranteeing its independence from both public and private sector interference, it has operated in a gray area—not exactly a state agency, nor quite a private company. But changes in recent years have opened it to more commercial imperatives. The European Union handed down a competition ruling in 2014 allowing AFP to keep its public funding, at least for the time being. But that ruling also effectively compelled the French state to reevaluate the legal basis for its contribution to the agency, and the funding might have to be scrapped down the line.

“It’s a bit awkward at a company like AFP—which is a big French media house in a complex environment and with tough challenges in front of it—that we’re being forced to vote for one guy,” says François Morinière, a businessman and board member who also signed the open letter. “I don’t think that’s the right way to nominate someone or to elect a CEO. It’s not good for him, it’s not good for us, it’s not good for the people at the company, for journalists….It’s a signal that ‘We, the state, decide at the last minute, and you just have to follow us.’”

Although editorial firewalls mean the state can’t touch AFP’s news output, the CEO sets the direction of the company as a whole, giving the position wide-ranging power at times of strategic reevaluation. Hoog aggressively pushed a pivot to video in recent years, and had asked the state for close to €60 million to invest (at least in part) in repositioning AFP output before he stepped aside. Fries won’t necessarily depart sharply from that strategy—according to Morinière and others, his plans aren’t set in stone. But Fries promised to lead a leaner, more commercially savvy operation in his proposal to the board and, controversially, left the door open to private funding for the agency.

 

“It’s not good for him, it’s not good for us, it’s not good for people at the company, for journalists.”

 

Responding to a request for comment, an AFP official says that while the agency needs to invest in its development one or way another, any injection of outside capital would have to guarantee AFP’s editorial independence—pointing out that this independence isn’t just part of the company’s DNA, but a major source of its value in a muddied media landscape. Fries, for his part, has said opening up AFP to private funding is not an immediate priority for him. (The French Culture Ministry, Fries, and Hoog did not provide comment by time of publication.)

But Fries’s stated future openness to the strategy has spooked unions that represent AFP staffers, which only just concluded a contentious long-term renegotiation of pay and conditions with management. Union reps, as well as media observers, say that by pushing out Hoog in favor of Fries, the French government has shown that, at the very least, it supports Fries’s vision of a trimmer, more profit-oriented agency.

AFP hasn’t always proved adept at making money—it lost nearly €5 million last year after a court ordered it to honor years’ worth of unpaid staff salary increases. “[AFP] often has deficits that aren’t enormous but that do make things difficult,” says Patrick Eveno, a French media expert and academic. “And because media companies have less and less money to pay news agencies, subscriptions have gone down.”

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Its quest to turn things around comes against the backdrop of energetic public sector reform in France, as President Macron tries to open state-backed properties, like the French lottery, to private investors. There’s been no suggestion thus far that Macron’s administration has plans to restructure AFP in this way—and in any case, existing statutes don’t allow for privatization. “I think the government and Emmanuel Macron do want to change the direction of AFP,” says Eveno. “But at the same time, the government has very little power over AFP.”

That said, lawmakers could try to change that legal underpinning. And the 2014 EU judgment continues to be an elephant in the room, casting doubt over AFP’s long-term access to state funding. “In the next seven years, how do we replace that 40 percent of our budget with private funding?” asks Richard Lein, a union rep who works on AFP’s English language desk.

It’s not yet clear, even to officials, how Fries will reform AFP, how he’ll manage a potential budgetary shortfall, and what the state’s response will be to his leadership. But the way the Hoog–Fries selection process was handled has only amped-up that uncertainty—raising at least a specter of worrisome government intentions, and leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some employees and board members.

Whatever Fries does next, Lein and others say privatization is not the path he should pursue. “It’s the complete antithesis of AFP’s public interest mission,” Lein says. “It would be an abandonment of everything the statute stands for.”

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify that in Fabrice Fries’s proposal to the AFP board, he did not specifically talk about opening the door to a potential privatization, but rather to “capitalisation,” or the introduction of private funding.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.