The Media Today

A newspaper hired a hard-right editor. Its staff walked out for forty days.

August 8, 2023
The JDD, Journal du dimanche, returns to newsstands on Sunday August 6, 2023. A surprise publication after a 40-day strike within the editorial staff, linked to the arrival of the new managing editor, Geoffroy Lejeune. Photo by Tomas Stevens/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Two months ago, I wrote in this newsletter about a tumultuous episode at Valeurs Actuelles, a hard-right magazine in France. The owners reportedly felt that the publication had drifted too far to the right under the leadership of Geoffroy Lejeune, its thirty-four-year-old top editor—in particular in its closeness to Eric Zemmour, a far-right commentator who finished fourth in last year’s French presidential election. (Indeed, some years earlier, Lejeune had written a novel about a fictional Zemmour tilt at the presidency.) In 2021, Valeurs Actuelles was found liable under racism laws after running a cartoon depicting Danièle Obono, a left-wing lawmaker who was born in Gabon, as a slave with an iron chain around her neck. When I wrote in June, Lejeune was in the process of losing his job following a reported blowup with management.

The following week, in a major shock, Lejeune was named the new top editor at Le Journal du Dimanche, France’s sole Sunday newspaper, which has a reputation for political centrism—if anything to a fault. (Picture Tucker Carlson taking over as moderator of Meet the Press.) The current owner of the JDD, a group led by the wealthy businessman Arnaud Lagardère, insisted that he alone decided on Lejeune’s appointment. Staffers and outside observers, however, instantly suspected the hidden hand of Vincent Bolloré, a billionaire whose Vivendi group is in the process of finalizing a takeover of Lagardère’s titles, and whose existing media assets have been accused of lurching significantly to the right under Bolloré’s control—most significantly CNews, a network that has been likened to the French Fox, where Lejeune is a regular pundit. (If Bolloré did indeed influence Lejeune’s hiring, he may have gained an illicit jump start on his takeover of Lagardère. European Union regulators are investigating, and could levy a fine.)

Staffers at the JDD learned of Lejeune’s impending appointment from an article in Le Monde. By the time the day was out, they had voted overwhelmingly to go on strike. The following Sunday, the paper failed to come out for the first time since 2016, when employees walked out in protest of cost-cutting measures. It would fail to appear the following Sunday, and then the Sunday after that as staffers kept voting, with near unanimity, to reauthorize the strike. Lagardère decried the walkout as unreasonable, insisting that there would be no far-right drift and that he had hired Lejeune for economic reasons, but staffers didn’t buy this argument; sales at Valeurs Actuelles declined toward the end of Lejeune’s tenure and the JDD’s advertisers may not look kindly on his politics. The staffers insisted that they would stay on strike until Lejeune’s hiring was canceled and they received assurances about their editorial independence. (The sight of Lejeune dancing with Champagne at a Lagardère Group party likely strengthened their resolve.)

The strike became the longest in the history of the JDD and at any French publication since staffers at a newspaper in Paris walked out for twenty-eight months in the seventies, amid a production dispute. Still, the JDD strike has had more recent antecedents. Earlier this year, staffers at Les Echos, a business daily, walked out in protest of perceived editorial meddling by Bernard Arnault, who owns the paper through his LVMH luxury conglomerate. And the JDD action echoed a lengthy walkout at CNews a few years ago, following its takeover by Bolloré. (The network was then known as iTélé.) In 2021, staffers at Europe 1, a radio station that has also been owned by Lagardère, went on strike amid growing influence on the part of Bolloré. (Louis de Raguenel, another exile from Valeurs Actuelles, took a top post there in 2020.)

In the end, both CNews and Europe 1 saw mass departures. Last week, Lejeune finally took the reins at the JDD and staffers voted to end their strike after forty days. “He will enter an empty newsroom,” the association representing staffers wrote, adding that many of them would simply now quit. According to Le Monde, at least sixty employees had already set their exits in motion as of the weekend. “To leave is to say goodbye to a title that, for many of us, became a second family,” the staff association said, but “to stay is to go back to work in a newsroom that has been denatured.” Lejeune has already started to bring in former colleagues from Valeurs Actuelles

The end of the strike was not the end of the staffers’ resistance. Their walkout has renewed a debate about media regulation in France. Other newsrooms expressed solidarity with the strikers’ cause, as did intellectuals and celebrities, four hundred of whom warned, in an open letter, that Lejeune would be the first far-right personality to lead a major national outlet since France was liberated from the Nazis. Reporters Without Borders organized a soiree in support of the JDD at a Paris theater, with Christophe Deloire, the group’s director general, rallying the crowd against “an ogre [Bolloré] who is devouring journalism.” In an editorial, Le Monde decried Lejeune’s appointment and invoked the twin specters of Donald Trump and Fox News.

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Politicians, too, have rushed to the JDD’s defense, particularly on the French left; various figures associated with President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government, including his culture minister, have also expressed concern, while insisting that it isn’t their place to block a lawful appointment by a private company. A not insignificant tranche of lawmakers think that it should be their place—since Lejeune’s appointment, several of them have proposed new laws that would boost journalists’ rights, including by conditioning state aid to news outlets on their staffers’ having a say in picking their editors. (Some French journalists already enjoy independence guarantees, including at Le Monde, as I wrote in 2019.) These proposals and others could soon be considered by a long-awaited independent commission on media and information in which Deloire is set to play a prominent role. (Maria Ressa will be a consultant.) 

The staffers who went on strike at the JDD have vowed to continue to fight for regulatory reform. Any new laws, however, will clearly come too late to save them from Lejeune. On Sunday, the first edition of his tenure came out (with a reduced page count) after outside allies, including prominent figures from the Bolloré extended universe, pitched in to help. It instantly proved controversial: the main story—about a teenager who was recently stabbed to death, whose case the mainstream media has been accused of neglecting—was illustrated with a photo paying tribute to a different victim, with the same first name, who was killed in a road accident (the JDD called the photo choice “symbolic”); meanwhile, an open letter to Macron signed by the families of murder victims was reportedly first drafted by JDD editors. And left-wing critics panned Lejeune’s first issue for pushing right-wing talking points. Alexis Lévrier, a French media historian, told me that the issue “confirmed that the JDD will be a paper version of CNews,” pushing the same themes of “immigration, violence, identity, and critiques of leftist media.”

The issue also featured an interview with Sabrina Agresti-Roubache, a minister in Macron’s government. Left-wing lawmakers blasted her for “normalizing” Lejeune’s tenure, and her decision to talk reportedly sat poorly with some of her colleagues; one unnamed Macron ally told Le Monde that they were “ashamed” of the interview. And yet it fit with a broader pattern that I identified in my earlier newsletter on Lejeune and Valeurs Actuelles—government ministers have increasingly engaged with that publication, too, most notably Macron himself.

According to Le Monde, Macron may be amenable to some type of regulatory reform in response to the Bolloré phenomenon. But it’s not yet clear what that might look like. And if it will come too late for the JDD, the same can be said of the broader normalization of far-right ideas in France. While voices on the left and in the center of the French political spectrum criticized the JDD for hiring Lejeune, many politicians on the right have praised the appointment. Zemmour has been particularly effusive. On Sunday, he tweeted a picture of himself reading Lejeune’s first edition of the paper, with a broad smile on his face.

Other notable stories:

  • Earlier this year, a jury in New York found Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming the advice columnist E. Jean Carroll. After Carroll continued to accuse Trump of rape—a finding that the jury did not reach—Trump countersued her for defamation, but yesterday a judge dismissed that suit, ruling that Carroll’s remarks were “substantially true” according to the common understanding of rape (if not the legal one).
  • Nicholas Fandos, of the New York Times, obtained a trove of messages showing that Madeline Cuomo, the sister of the disgraced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, coordinated with grassroots pro-Cuomo activists to smear women who came forward to the media with claims of sexual misconduct against her brother. Madeline Cuomo and the activists eventually fell out, including over the terms of a documentary project. 
  • Researchers at Media Matters for America, a watchdog group, examined cable-news coverage of recent labor strikes, finding that the Hollywood actors’ walkout got almost as much airtime in its first eight days as the twenty-one biggest strikes in the first half of the year combined. Media Matters found that MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News collectively covered only five of those strikes, and scarcely mentioned union-busting efforts. 
  • In an analysis piece for Haaretz, Alon Pinkas assessed why Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, keeps giving interviews to US networks even as he barely talks to domestic ones. His “image in America is far more important to him,” Pinkas argues; additionally, “he believes that whatever he says there will reverberate in Israel” and “feels he can comfortably manipulate American interviewers with immunity and impunity.”  
  • And for Popula, Kate Harloe asks whether libraries might represent the future of media. “Across the country, a variety of newsroom-library partnerships and experiments have sprung up in recent years,” Harloe writes. More broadly, “libraries are evidence that when you make a public good truly public—when you make it owned, structurally, by everyone—people actually like that, a lot. Why not build on what’s already working?” 

ICYMI: The dualities of Trump coverage

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.