The Media Today

Demystifying France’s ‘political miracle’

July 8, 2024
Far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen answers reporters after the second round of the legislative election, Sunday, July 7, 2024 at the party election night headquarters in Paris. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)

A week ago—after Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN, or “National Rally” in English) and its allies won the first round of snap legislative elections in France—the world’s press treated it as a seismic development, and with no little angst. Front pages the world over splashed images of a smiling Le Pen, describing her party, variously, as “so close to power” and having achieved a “prelude” to its “triumph”; one Italian newspaper mocked her up as Napoleon. (“NapoLe Pen.”) In the pages of the Washington Post, Emmanuel Macron—the putatively centrist president, who called the snap elections as a sort of challenge to surging far-right support—was also compared to Napoleon, albeit in the context of the latter’s disastrous attempt to invade Russia in 1812; other papers emphasized the low score of Macron’s parliamentary allies. (One christened him “Micron.”) The Spanish Diari de Tarragona filled its front page with a dejected-looking drawing of Obelix, the French comic-book character, and a headline calling the French “crazy.” “French democracy speaks,” a Swiss paper wrote, “and it’s frightening.”

This morning, the headlines look very different: The second round of the elections took place yesterday, and delivered a huge surprise. A coalition of left-wing parties won the most seats in the National Assembly, albeit falling well short of a governing majority; Macron’s allies (who Politico confidently predicted would finish third “at best”) lost dozens of seats but still came in second ahead of Le Pen and her allies. French TV footage (which quickly went viral online) showed far-right supporters eagerly awaiting the results, then looking stunned and crestfallen when they came through; one network, France 24, imposed the shock results on a diagram of the Assembly that erroneously showed the far right with the biggest seat share. Semafor’s Ben Smith asked Pierre Haski, a veteran French commentator, how the media had failed to see the results coming. He replied that journalists had become “obsessed” with the far right after its first-round victory and that pollsters had been confused by the “uncharted territory,” but that even left-wing leaders were surprised. He added, “it’s a political miracle.”

The whiplash-inducing headlines offer globally relevant lessons about the folly of journalists assuming the popular will ahead of its expression. But the surprising topline results risk masking a much more complicated ongoing story. For starters (and as many headlines did also attest overnight) it’s highly uncertain what will happen next: no party or bloc has a legislative majority, leaving the identity of the next prime minister unclear and elevating the odds of long-term chaos. (Macron is slated to remain president through 2027 whatever happens, but the new legislative arithmetic could significantly erode his power and force him to “cohabit” with a prime minister from a rival party.) Nor should the underperformance of the far right obscure the extent to which it has already eaten its way to the heart of French public life—not least in the media arena. The election campaign offered further evidence of this trend, even if many voters ultimately said no.

In the end, the far right finished third in terms of seats, despite clearly winning the first round of the elections, because what the French call the “republican front” stood in its way—in many districts, candidates who qualified for the second round got out of the race to allow a rival to take on the far right alone, even in cases where they had huge political differences. The broader instinct to keep the far right from holding institutional power at all costs held for decades, not only in French partisan politics but in other spheres of society, including the media. In some places, something like it holds still. Ahead of the first round, more than a hundred news outlets signed an open letter calling for a journalistic “common front” against the far right and warning that its arrival in power would constitute a mortal threat to press freedom; the letter was signed by progressive and alternative publishers, but also by five staffers from the public broadcaster. (As a result, they were taken off campaign-related coverage.) Hundreds of online creators also called for a mobilization against the far right, calling themselves “the popular Stream.”

On the whole, however, this instinct has grown weaker in recent years—and, as I’ve reported on numerous occasions, the media has been a key site of this dynamic. Many mainstream outlets have increasingly normalized hard-right themes and figures; in some cases, they’ve been taken over by them. Most notably, the family business of Vincent Bolloré, a conservative billionaire, has snapped up important properties in print, TV, and radio, and been widely accused of dragging them toward the political right, a process sometimes referred to as Bollorisation. (He has denied editorial meddling at his properties, saying this year that he is not “an Attila.”)

Bolloré and his properties were at the heart of controversy again during the recent campaign. As it got underway, Le Monde reported that Eric Ciotti, the leader of France’s traditional conservative party, personally consulted with Bolloré before announcing that he would form an electoral alliance with Le Pen, alienating many of his co-partisans and triggering no little drama in the process. Then, right at the end of the campaign, Le Journal du Dimanchea once-staid paper that hired a hard-right editor while being acquired by Bolloré’s group last yearreported that Macron’s government was planning to loosen immigration restrictions. Macron allies furiously denied the story, accusing the paper of “Trumpist methods” and of complicity with Le Pen’s party. One official said that he would file a legal complaint on the grounds of “fake news.”

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There were campaign-related tensions beyond the Bolloré universe, too. Ahead of the first round, a senior editor at Le Figaro, a traditional conservative newspaper, went on Europe 1 (a radio station that Bolloré owns) and made remarks that some of his staff perceived as supportive of the alliance between Ciotti and Le Pen’s party; the editor said he was only offering his “analysis” and that Le Figaro would not back Le Pen, but ahead of the second round, dozens of staffers were reportedly up in arms again after he suggested in an editorial that, while the far-right program was “worrying” in many respects, the far left posed a bigger threat. (He reportedly denied again that the paper was moving to the far right.) Elsewhere, staffers at Marianne, a magazine currently owned by the controversial Czech billionaire Daniel Křetínský, went on strike after Le Monde reported that a businessman interested in buying the publication has ties to Le Pen and her allies. (The status of his bid now appears to be in limbo.)

As indicated by these developments and the election-time letter, French journalists have not all watched quietly as parts of their industry have moved in a rightward direction. (The letter warned explicitly that the media has been “favored terrain” in the far right’s strategy of “conquest.”) And as I wrote in March, this dynamic has faced other forms of friction, including an official order for France’s broadcast regulator to more strictly police the pluralism obligations of a Bolloré-owned TV channel, and an ongoing process by which the regulator will decide which channels get to make use of terrestrial frequencies that are owned by the state; starting today, the regulator will hear applications from existing and interested channels, a process that is likely to bring additional scrutiny to Bolloré’s properties and could even see them lose out. But Alexis Lévrier, a media historian, told me in March that he thinks the regulator is unlikely to take such strong action and that, in general, the political elite appears scared of standing in Bolloré’s way.

Yesterday, the French electorate did stand in the way of Le Pen and her allies, at least in terms of allowing them to enter government. The “republican front” held. To the extent that sympathizers of her project and others like it have indeed made the media their “favored terrain,” it’s tempting to argue that they have failed, at least for now; as another media historian, Claire Sécail, put it ahead of the first round of the elections, “French society, in its plurality and complexity, is not what the polarized Bolloré ecosystem wants to present it as.” (Respecting such complexity is itself a globally relevant media lesson.) For her part, Le Pen suggested yesterday that “the press” had helped to block her party from power, accusing it of “clearly taking part” in the election on behalf of a coalition spanning the French political landscape.

If this was—at least—a grotesque overgeneralization, Le Pen had a point when she also noted that the party made significant gains in terms of its number of seats yesterday, despite its perceived underperformance. “The tide is rising,” she told an interviewer from TF1. “It didn’t rise high enough this time, but it’s still rising. Our victory is only delayed.” Time will tell if she’s right about that. For now, those covering French politics should not overstate the health of the “republican front,” nor take their eyes off the progress the far right has made to this point. This morning, parts of the international press kept their eyes on the ball. “France and Europe can breathe a sigh of relief,” the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet wrote. But “the election results don’t signify that the Rassemblement National is finished. Quite the opposite.”

Other notable stories: 

  • The Washington Post’s Janay Kingsberry profiled The Shade Room—a “burgeoning Black media empire” that has gone from an Instagram page offering biting commentary and celebrity gossip to covering Biden as part of the White House press pool. “The growth signals how much the platform has become a cultural force in the Black community, wielding enough power to not only cover culture but also to shape it,” Kingsberry writes. The site “has often faced accusations of spreading misinformation,” but “as Black Americans increasingly turn to social media for political engagement, TSR remains a target for elected officials, including Barack Obama, Biden and [Kamala] Harris, who have stepped ‘into The Shade Room’ to address issues affecting the Black community.”
  • And WNYC, the New York public radio station, turns a hundred today. To mark the anniversary, hosts Brian Lehrer, Michael Hill, and Brooke Gladstone have recorded special announcements for the city’s subway system, whose riders will also hear “tidbits of New York and WNYC history,” including old coverage of a Yankees World Series win and an interview with a fish from a Staten Island zoo. WNYC is also hosting a “re-imagining” of its first broadcast, while the Empire State Building will be lit in its honor.

ICYMI: What does the Washington Post newsroom want?

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.