#RadioLondres. Foreign observers, including news outlets, have been known to use this hashtag—named for the service that broadcast from London to Nazi-occupied France during World War II—to share partial returns, projections, and rumors as election day unfolds in France. So it was again yesterday, with early indicators leaking out via French-speaking Belgium, in particular. Outlets inside France were banned from covering any of this until 8pm local time, when the last polls close; when I started watching France 2, a public-TV channel, at 7:30, they were killing some time by reliving the moments at which various past elections had been called. At 8, we finally got an estimation—based on data samples, historically highly accurate, analyzed by polling institutes—of the result, which showed Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent, beating Marine Le Pen, his far-right challenger, with 58.2 percent of the vote. The result was very quickly officialized—“French elections are a joy from a data journalism standpoint,” one Financial Times editor noted—and Macron’s score only ticked upward, confirming that France will get five more years of him, and we will get five more years of US TV anchors pronouncing his name “Mah-crone.”
The result quickly unleashed a torrent of takes across the world’s media and political spheres, some good, some very bad; many observers expressed relief at Macron’s bigger-than-expected win, while others stressed that a far-right candidate scoring more than forty percent of the vote in a major democracy is nothing to celebrate. (Le Pen got thirty-four percent in 2017, when, like this year, she lost to Macron in a runoff.) In France, yesterday capped a long campaign, the coverage of which was dominated by far-right themes and personalities—not least the journalist-bashing journalist Eric Zemmour, who ran to the right of Le Pen, hoovered up disproportionate media attention that might have been better expended on her, then flopped—when it cut through at all. The runup to the first round of the election two weeks ago was overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Macron refused to engage his rivals in a debate or do much campaigning. “What really sets the 2022 presidential campaign apart… is that it never really existed,” Abel Mestre, a political journalist at Le Monde, said on the eve of the first round. “It was always secondary in the news cycle.” When Macron did finally debate Le Pen on TV last week, the ratings were the lowest ever for such a broadcast.
As people voted yesterday, news outlets, including in France, were able to report on one official datapoint—voter turnout—and many did so prominently. That figure was slightly higher than its first-round equivalent by midday but slightly lower by 5pm; the final tally of seventy-two percent was the lowest for a runoff in more than fifty years. In a global context, this is still high—turnout for the US presidential election of 2020, which set a recent record for that country, was lower—but the decline is still consequential: more people abstained yesterday than voted for Le Pen, and Macron did not come close to winning a majority of eligible voters.
Altering the way we relate topline election scores to account for abstention would be a radical, not to mention confusing, change. Still, the clock striking 8 yesterday seemed to relegate turnout to a mere afterthought in much coverage, and that’s jarring. Declining political participation is a major part of the global story about the erosion of democracy. In this particular election, it’s notable not only that a far-right candidate got more than forty percent of the vote, but that even more people than that saw a far-right candidate on the ballot and didn’t vote at all.
On France 2, after the results came in, a panel of high-level politicians from across the spectrum broke it down, in between reports from correspondents at the election-night parties. A cameraman riding alongside Macron’s motorcade en route to a celebration in front of the Eiffel Tower captured him cracking open his car window and waving; after Macron gave his victory speech, a reporter snatched an interview with his wife, Brigitte, who spoke of her honor as she retreated behind a wall of security guards. (The reporter at least remembered to turn on their microphone, unlike another journalist—who definitely isn’t me—when he grabbed Emmanuel Macron for a reluctant, thirty-second student-radio interview ahead of the 2017 election. But I digress.)
Macron has long been accused of a high-handed attitude toward the press; writing for CJR in 2017, shortly after his first victory, Jeff Israely compared him to Trump, arguing that while Macron “would never incite violence against reporters or shout ‘fake news’ at articles he doesn’t like,” he was “actively keeping his distance from the press in ways his immediate predecessors haven’t.” Early in his tenure, Macron moved to hand-pick which reporters would accompany him on trips, and skipped interviews, bailing on one traditional press conference because, in the words of an adviser, his thought processes were too “complex” for the format; his government’s intelligence services have since called journalists in for questioning over sensitive stories, while public prosecutors attempted to raid a newsroom in connection with its coverage of a political scandal. In 2020, Macron griped to Ben Smith, then the media columnist at the New York Times, about Anglophone-media coverage of Islamist terrorist attacks in France, decrying what he saw as apologism; around the same time, his party tried to push through a bill making it harder to share images of police officers online. During the campaign, he not only skipped a first-round debate but also a one-on-one interview on France 2. He blamed his schedule, but journalists at the channel sensed a snub.
In his first campaign appearance this year, Macron pledged to do away with a “license fee” contribution by which many taxpayers currently fund public broadcasting in France, a position already advocated by Le Pen and Zemmour. (“The way he’s copying my manifesto,” Zemmour said, “he’ll soon be suggesting ending immigration.”) Unlike the latter candidates, Macron insisted that he does not want to privatize public media or, as critics charged, undermine its financial independence; last week, he proposed replacing the license fee with a budget fixed several years in advance. As one observer noted to Le Monde last week, beyond public broadcasting, neither Macron nor Le Pen’s election manifestos mentioned the words “press” or “media,” though Macron pledged that he would launch an expert debate around regulating a public right to “free and independent information” by “protecting informational spaces,” online and off. We’ll have to wait to see what this might entail, as well as Macron’s broader intentions vis-à-vis the press as he enters his second term. If further aloofness, and perhaps worse, seems a safe bet, the French press has not this morning been plunged into the uncertain world of life under Le Pen, a regular critic of journalists who would likely have moved not only to undermine French public media but to reshape the country’s whole institutional culture.
Not that she, or the French far right, is going away with Macron’s win. The challenge for international media, now, will be to continue to cover them, and not take Macron’s bigger-than-expected victory margin as a cue to look away until 2027. The challenge for French media will be to continue its coverage, which certainly won’t wait until 2027, without letting far-right themes hijack the national discourse again. The abstention story will continue to matter to all of us, even if, in its multifaceted absence of intention, it’s harder to pin down.
Below, more on France and elections:
- Voting while incarcerated: Last night, Daniel Nichanian, the editor in chief of Bolts, drew attention to “another, neglected angle on the election”: the fact that many incarcerated French people are permitted to vote, and that “a ton of advocacy and legal work in the past work made it much easier for them to cast a ballot.” Cole Stangler recently reported for Bolts that “turnout among people in prison soared north of 12,500” in the first round of the election two weeks ago, up from barely a thousand in 2017. Macron had since “endorsed the push to improve ballot access for incarcerated people.”
- Editorial interference?: Last week, journalists at Marianne, a French political magazine, alleged that Daniel Křetínský—its billionaire Czech owner, who claims to be a Europhile democrat—demanded that a pre-election front page be changed to more strongly endorse voting for Macron. (The planned headline read “Anger or chaos?”; the published version read “Despite anger, avoid chaos.”) The journalists complained that their independence had been compromised; Marianne’s top editor said that the newsroom alone makes editorial decisions, but acknowledged being “attentive” to the owner’s desire that the magazine’s position not be ambiguous. (In 2020, I interviewed Jérôme Lefilliâtre, who wrote a book on Křetínský, about Křetínský’s growing influence.)
- Meanwhile, also in Europe: Voters in Slovenia also went to the polls yesterday, handing a heavy defeat to the party of Janez Janša, the incumbent prime minister. During his tenure, Janša, an ally of Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, repeatedly demonized reporters as “presstitutes,” with RSF noting that he also “took tentative institutional steps to undermine the editorial and financial independence of the public TV broadcaster and the national press agency.” Pro-Janša outlets are already claiming that Russia interfered in the election due to Slovenia’s support for Ukraine.
Other notable stories:
- Friday was Earth Day—an opportunity, as Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope wrote for our Covering Climate Now initiative, for media outlets to apply a high level of “journalistic attention and judgment to the climate crisis,” rooted in a point of view that favors “defusing this catastrophic threat to our planetary home.” Houston Public Media took last week as an opportunity to launch a series on “the future of energy” in “partnership” with the oil giant Chevron; HPR said that Chevron had no “editorial oversight” of the series, but suspended it anyway in response to public criticism. Earther’s Molly Taft has more. Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion activists in New York used Earth Day to block the entryway of the Times’s printing plant, in protest of that paper’s ad deals with fossil-fuel companies, among other things. (ICYMI, I wrote about XR’s media strategy last year.)
- Ten days ago, Twitter adopted a “poison pill” plan in an apparent move to block Elon Musk—who had offered to buy the company a day earlier after weeks of corporate maneuvers—from completing a hostile takeover. However, the Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo and Dana Cimilluca now report that Twitter is in talks with Musk and that a deal could happen as soon as this week (though there’s no guarantee that it will). After Musk “disclosed that he has $46.5 billion in financing and the stock market swooned, Twitter changed its posture and opened the door to negotiations,” Lombardo and Cimilluca write. (ICYMI, my colleague Mathew Ingram wrote about Musk’s bid on Friday.)
- For the Times, John Koblin, Michael M. Grynbaum, and Benjamin Mullin have more on the implosion of CNN+, the CNN streaming service that was killed last week less than a month after it launched. Bosses at Discovery, which took over CNN’s parent company in between times, had longstanding concerns about CNN+ but felt legally constrained from sharing them with network management pre-merger. As soon as the merger closed, they requested data on the service’s early performance and “did not like what they saw.”
- This month, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire reported on many newsrooms’ unwillingness to engage with a diversity survey coordinated by the News Leaders Association. Last week, dozens of journalism organizations asked the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes to incentivize newsrooms to participate in the survey, or otherwise disclose their internal diversity data, by making it a condition of consideration for an award. Scire has more.
- Margaret Sullivan, the former Times public editor who is now at the Post, shared her hopes for her old paper under the leadership of Joe Kahn, its incoming executive editor. In her experience, Sullivan writes, Kahn is genuinely “open to criticism” and thus as likely as anyone to act on complaints that the Times’s political coverage is too timid, even if he won’t reinstate the public-editor role. (CJR’s Kyle Pope assessed the hire last week.)
- In January, a court in Tennessee sentenced Pamela Moses to six years in prison on the grounds that she tried to register to vote despite knowing that she was on felony probation and thus ineligible, but evidence that was subsequently obtained by The Guardian’s Sam Levine undermined that rationale, and a judge ordered a new trial. Now, Levine reports, prosecutors have dropped all criminal charges against Moses.
- Craig Mauger, of the Detroit News, listened back to the radio show of “Trucker Randy” Bishop—a host who is running for Michigan’s state Senate as a Democrat despite a history of right-wing positions, including pushing for a so-called “audit” of the 2020 election. Mauger unearthed a recent episode in which Bishop accused the media of trying to destroy the “nuclear family,” which he believes should be all-white.
- In the UK, the Mail was widely blasted for sexism after relaying Conservative lawmakers’ supposed claims that Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the opposition, likes to distract Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament by crossing and uncrossing her legs in a “Basic Instinct ploy.” The chair of Parliament’s women and equalities committee suggested that Glen Owen, who wrote the Mail story, could have his press pass revoked.
- And after Johnson allies dismissed his fine for attending a lockdown-breaking party as being no worse than a parking ticket, Dylan Jones, the former editor of British GQ, claimed that Johnson accumulated thousands of dollars worth of those when he worked as the magazine’s car correspondent in his past life as a journalist. Jones also suggested that Johnson may never have driven many of the cars he was assigned to write about.
TOP IMAGE: Macron's supporters gathered in front of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate French President Emmanuel Macron second term on Sunday. Macron won with 58.5% of the vote against far-right Marine le Pen. He was cheered by his supporters waving French and EU flags. (Photo by Siavosh Hosseini / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)