The Media Today

Veni, vidi, Vincent

March 19, 2024
Vivendi Chairman Vincent Bollore attends a hearing of a parliamentary inquiry commission at the National Assembly, in Paris, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Every so often, the French newspaper Le Monde goes through its archives to find the first time that a currently newsworthy person or thing appeared in its pages. Ten days ago, the subject of the feature was Vincent Bolloré, a media mogul who was about to be called before a committee of France’s parliament. Le Monde first mentioned Bolloré in 1985, when he was the “young president” of a family business with interests in capacitors and cigarette papers, among other things. Over the years, as his public persona evolved, his name recurred in the paper’s pages next to less neutral epithets. By 1988, he was “the little prince of cash-flow”; by 1998, “the blond angel.” Even then, he was viewed as a ruthless operator; by 2013, he was feared as a “predator.” Late last year, Le Monde described Bolloré as an ideologue intent on defending traditional Western values and “pulling the strings” of France’s next presidential election.

Since then, by my count, Le Monde has mentioned Bolloré in at least fifty-seven more stories. Many of them are revealing of his still-growing influence over the French media and political landscape, both of which he has helped tug toward the political right. I also wrote about this phenomenon back in August, after Le Journal du Dimanche, a decidedly mainstream Sunday newspaper, moved to install a hard-right commentator as its editor, leading to a backlash among its staff including a strike that lasted forty days. At the time, Bolloré’s group did not yet own the paper—but it was in the process of acquiring its parent company, and many observers, both internally and externally, suspected Bolloré’s hidden hand in its change of direction. (The paper’s then-owner, the industrialist Arnaud Lagardère, denied that Bolloré played any role.)  

In November, Bolloré’s company finalized its takeover of Lagardère’s. Recently, a similar controversy to that at the JDD has played out at Hachette, one of the world’s biggest publishing companies, which Bolloré’s group now owns. A month ago, Hachette hired Lise Boëll, an editor who, among other right-wing authors, has worked on books by Eric Zemmour, a far-right commentator and star of the Bolloré media universe who ran for president in 2022. Suggestions that she would be taking control of Fayard, a leading Hachette brand, were played down, as was the notion that her arrival signaled any rightward shift. (The company reportedly pointed to the breadth of her publishing portfolio, including her success with Dora the Explorer.) It soon emerged, however, that Boëll was being hired to run a new entity partially under the Fayard brand, with the power to publish political titles. The existing head of Fayard reportedly refused to authorize this arrangement, and is now in the process of being fired

In December, meanwhile, newsroom representatives at the magazine Paris Match, another Bolloré acquisition as part of the Lagardère takeover, complained to management after a photo of a Christmas nativity scene appeared on the front page. The photo in question was taken in a building that Bolloré owns; in a statement, the newsroom representatives expressed concerns that it reflected a broader “new editorial line” at the magazine, one informed more by religious conviction than reporting, and demanded answers. In January, the newsroom organization that made the complaint was disbanded after its leaders resigned. Around the same time, the equivalent body at the JDD, which helped coordinate the strike there, was dissolved as well.

If Bolloré’s recent spell in the headlines creates the impression that he is eating his way across the French media world, it has also pointed to signs of friction—most notably a ruling by a powerful administrative council ordering a broadcast regulator to investigate the perceived right-wing biases of a Bolloré TV station. The ruling was triggered by a complaint from the press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders, whose leader, Christophe Deloire, has said that Bolloré “is devouring journalism.” Deloire called the ruling “historic” for French democracy and journalism. Whether it—or anything else—can actually slow Bolloré down, however, is an open question. 

Bolloré took over his family company in the early eighties, but he didn’t become a major player in the media business until much later. As Valentine Faure wrote for Nieman Reports in January, his “modus operandi, now taught in business schools across France, consists of taking very small stakes in companies and increasing them until a stock market raid is triggered, enabling him to be the largest shareholder.” This strategy enabled him to take control of the TV behemoth Canal+, the radio station Europe 1, and the print media company Prisma even before he finalized his acquisition of Lagardère’s media assets last year. His group also has interests in cinema, music, and video games, among other things. It all adds up to an “extraordinarily vast” media empire, the historian Alexis Lévrier told me—the likes of which France “has never known.”

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Julia Cagé, a French economist, told Faure that Bolloré is similar to the Koch brothers in the US, in that both employ “a strategy that amounts to influencing all forms of thought production.” Unsurprisingly, Bolloré has also been likened to Rupert Murdoch—a comparison Lévrier sees as fair, even if Murdoch has a greater international reach and may be subtler in his dealings with his company’s journalists. (Among the other similarities: Bolloré, like Murdoch, is now officially retired from the family business, leaving formal control to his sons. As with Murdoch, no one seems to believe that stepping back marked the end of his influence.)

If Bolloré is (sort of) a French analogue to Murdoch, then he (sort of) owns a French analogue to Fox: CNews, a network that Bolloré’s company acquired, then rebranded in 2017. (It was previously known as iTélé.) As would subsequently happen at the JDD, staffers at the channel went on a prolonged strike following Bolloré’s acquisition; since then, his company has been accused of driving the network hard toward the political right. (Among other far-right figures, it provided a significant platform for Zemmour ahead of his presidential bid.) CNews has been in the headlines recently, as well, after a Sunday show produced in partnership with a Catholic publication flashed up a graphic referring to abortion (the right to which France recently enshrined in its constitution) as the leading cause of mortality worldwide. Bosses at the channel apologized, blaming a production error. (The same program has reportedly featured exorcists and at least one person who claims to have been possessed by the devil.)

CNews may not have a huge viewership, but it, and other Bolloré properties, seem to have helped popularize hard-right ideas across the French media landscape, a dynamic I’ve written about before. One identitarian intellectual recently described Bolloré’s properties as the “missing link” between explicitly radical media and the mainstream. A similar dynamic has played out in the political sphere. Last year, two ministers in the (putatively centrist) government of President Emmanuel Macron vocally challenged what they saw as the corrosive influence of Bolloré; since then, both have been shuffled out of their posts—for various reasons, but without being replaced by similarly skeptical voices. And officials from Macron on down have engaged with right-wing publications and figures. Last year, when a minister did an interview for the first edition of the JDD under its new hard-right editor, some of her allies called her out. Now senior ministers and Macron allies appear in the paper every weekend.

Bolloré and his media properties, of course, are far from solely responsible for the rightward tilt of French politics—that’s a much broader, more complicated phenomenon. But Le Monde has reported that Bolloré is trying to steer it. Before Christmas, the paper wrote that he may be attempting to shape an alliance between the far right, led by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party, and more traditional conservatives ahead of the next presidential election, scheduled for 2027. Bolloré reportedly dislikes Le Pen, whose family name is widely perceived as toxic in France even as her vote share has grown. But he may be better disposed toward Jordan Bardella, a twenty-eight-year-old Le Pen protégé who is surging in popularity in France. 

Recently, reports have circulated that Bardella is working on a book and that he would like it to be published by a prestigious brand like Fayard—the sort of mainstream imprimatur that has long eluded Le Pen. Initially, his overtures reportedly went nowhere. But Fayard is now under new ownership. 

Last year, following the chaos at the JDD, lawmakers, including from Macron’s party, suggested passing legislation that would give journalists more of a say in who their bosses are. But that legislation has not yet gone anywhere. The recent administrative ruling triggered by the Reporters Without Borders complaint could prove a more potent remedy. Under its terms, France’s broadcast regulator has been ordered to more strictly police the pluralism obligations of CNews, in particular, under French law—including by starting to regulate the amount of airtime that the network gives to voices from different parts of the political spectrum.

As Deloire, Cagé, and others have noted, this is a significant change that will affect not only CNews but all French news channels; the balance of on-air voices was regulated already, but only among figures considered to be active politicians, as opposed to pundits. CNews seems outraged about the ruling, if its on-air commentary is any guide. But it’s not yet clear how it will be enforced. Cagé has proposed some standards by which the alignment of a given pundit might be measured. But this task, clearly, is contentious.

The regulator will soon also have to reassign terrestrial broadcast frequencies that are public property in France—meaning, in effect, that the rights of CNews and other Bolloré channels to broadcast are up for renewal, along with those of other channels. (It was in this context that Bolloré appeared before parliament recently.) In theory, these rights can be revoked for breaches of pluralism or other rules, or be renewed under certain conditions. But Lévrier, for one, is skeptical that strong action will be taken in this domain, either. And on the whole, he argues, the French political elite appears scared of standing too firmly in his way. 

If the domestic constraints on Bolloré feel insufficient to stop his march, those emanating from the European Union might be more concrete. Already, EU antitrust regulators acted to slow his takeover of the Lagardère group, forcing him, in the process, to sell off a gossip magazine (deemed a competitor to Paris Match) and a publishing house (a rival to Hachette) that he then owned. Recently, Bolloré entered into talks to sell Paris Match as well, to the luxury conglomerate LVMH—a possible bid to stave off a European fine, per one account

Whatever happens next, for Lévrier, France is still in the midst of a “showdown” between Bolloré’s company and the bodies trying to constrain it. Not that Bolloré himself would recognize such framing. When he appeared before the parliamentary committee recently, he insisted that he does not meddle with the editorial stances of his properties. “I have no ideological project,” he said. “I am very gentle and good-natured. Not at all an Attila.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Israeli forces in Gaza detained Ismail Al-Ghoul, a journalist from Al Jazeera, and several of his colleagues, for nearly twelve hours; Al-Ghoul said afterward that Israeli soldiers assaulted him and his colleagues, forced them to strip naked, and kept them blindfolded and handcuffed, as well as destroying their equipment. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more. In other news about the war and the media, journalists from the Associated Press embedded with US military pilots conducting an aid drop over Gaza, and observed that they “could hardly spot a single building left untouched by six months of brutal war.” And WBUR’s Robin Young spoke with Declan Walsh and Mona Boshnaq, of the New York Times, about haunting photos that the paper recently published from Gaza, and how it decided to print them. 
  • For CJR, Joel Simon explores whether AI tools can be sued for defaming people (which they do often). Eugene Volokh, a noted First Amendment scholar, believes that the companies that make AI machines are liable for the content they produce—a notion, Simon writes, that “could have broad implications for how people get their news.” Meanwhile, in other news about AI and journalism, The Markup’s Jon Keegan reflected on using ChatGPT as a reporting assistant—an experience that did not go well. “I spent a LOT of time chatting with ChatGPT as part of this exercise and, frankly, sometimes it was exhausting,” Keegan writes. “At times I was able to get the chat agent to give me what I wanted, but I had to be very specific and I often had to scold it.”
  • In media-business news, the company that owns the Sports Illustrated brand struck a licensing deal with Minute Media, a sports-focused publisher that also owns the Players’ Tribune; Minute Media will run Sports Illustrated for at least a decade, wresting control away from Arena Group, which recently laid off many staffers and threatened to end the print edition amid a dispute with the brand owner. Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal profiled Jimmy Pitaro, the head of ESPN, and his “chaotic race” to remake the company. And the Houston Landing, a nonprofit that controversially fired its top editor earlier this year, tapped Manny García and Angel Rodríguez to lead the newsroom going forward.
  • The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr profiled the Fox News host Steve Doocy, who has recently emerged as “a rare member of the Fox News opinion wing who is challenging conventional Republican wisdom on a regular basis.” Doocy “gets to express some skepticism about the narratives that are being pushed on his show that you don’t get from anyone else,” Daniel Cassino, an academic who has written a book about Fox, told Barr. “He’s not there as part of the ideological project. He’s there as an affable morning TV host.” (Mark Oppenheimer wrote about the “Doociness of America” for CJR in 2020.)
  • And yesterday, the US gossip site TMZ and the British tabloids The Sun and the Mail published images purporting to show Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, on a recent shopping trip—the first time that Kate has been photographed in public since a doctored photo of her and her children stoked online speculation as to her well-being (as I wrote in this newsletter last week). As various royal-watchers noted, it seems likely that the British titles published the images with the knowledge of Kensington Palace.

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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.