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France: Media Regulations Are Few, But Negative Stereotypes Of Press Abound

Prague, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In France for the past century-and-a-half, both governments and newspaper readers have tended to see the press as corrupt, venal, politically partisan and, therefore, pliant, unreliable and disreputable. So much so that, in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the very word "journalist" served at least much as a cynical term of contempt as a description of a profession.

Journalists were perceived, accurately in many cases, as being in the pockets of politicians, who rewarded them and their bosses with payoffs, favors and subsidies. The notorious politico-financial "Stavisky scandal" of the 1930s, which served to overthrow a government and cost some citizens their life savings, was a major case in point.

Things began to improve at the end of World War Two, when a defeated France sought to rebuild its institutions. General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the wartime Free French and its first postwar prime minister, decided to close many papers that had actively supported the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Instead of the discredited national daily Le Temps, for example, de Gaulle chose to create Le Monde, which, like most other papers allowed to publish, continued to receive major government subsidies, both direct and indirect (notably, lower print and postage charges). That Le Monde, founded by Christian Socialists, quickly took a Left-of-Center stance and opposed conservative de Gaulle, was an irony that the General himself was the first to acknowledge. In 1945, de Gaulle famously told Le Monde founder Hubert Beauve-Mery: "When I read your paper (on internal government matters), I laugh, I laugh, I laugh (je ris, je ris, je ris)."

All was not a laughing matter, however. Even after the war, many journalists' objectivity was mortgaged to liberal tax benefits provided by the government -- notably, outsized deductibility allowances and a straightforward large (close to $10,000) exemption for supposed further unusual expenses. The result was to help perpetuate the long-time French tradition of journalistic sycophancy and discourage the adversarial journalism that began to characterize much of Anglo-Saxon journalism during the same period. As important instances, take the French press' treatment of the three post-de Gaulle presidents. The General's immediate successor, George Pompidou (1969-74), was widely known to be suffering from a debilitating mortal disease for at least the last two years of his presidency. Not a word about it was printed in the French press until mpidou's demise (while still in office), even though the Washington Post revealed the illness to the world months before.

Pompidou's successor, Centrist Valery Giscard d'estaing, himself independently wealthy, was for years the subject of numerous rumors of having accepted expensive gifts, notably valuable diamonds, from Francophone Central African dictator Jean Bokassa. Nothing was published on the subject -- until Le Canard echaine, the satirical weekly that is also France's only truly investigative journal, broke the story some months before "Giscard" ran for re-election. Its revelation played no small part in Giscard's defeat in 1981.

The man who beat Giscard, Socialist Francois Mitterrand (1981-95), was diagnosed as suffering from prostate cancer only months after he took office. Many French journalists knew this, but none published it -- except for the popular weekly Paris Match, which did so only very indirectly. A decade later, in 1991, Mitterrand's first of two operations for the malignancy forced the story out.

Not all the French press' postwar record has been that inglorious. Notable exceptions include the then Left weekly L'Express revelation in the 1950s of the French army's systematic use of torture in Algeria's eight-year war (1954-62) for independence, eventually lost by France.

What's more, French journalists have now even begun to lose their awe of their presidents. During the European Union summit on launching the euro early this month, the French reporters attending openly, and astoundingly, jeered at President Jacques Chirac during a post-summit briefing.

Chirac was attempting to persuade them that there had been no political deal cooked to split the presidency of the coming European Central Bank between a Dutch candidate approved by all other 14 EU members and Chirac's own candidate, a Frenchman. His remarks were met by reporters' hoots. "Don't laugh," said Chirac, perhaps not realizing he was living through a minor French press revolution.

As for the French press policing itself, there has been very little of that in a country where other journalists are most often referred to as "confreres," a warmer version of the English word "colleagues." Few papers -- Le Monde is one them -- have adopted the Anglo-Saxon practice of ombudsmen to evaluate their own performance. One great exception was the "mea culpas" heard from all segments of the press in 1990 after French journalists admitted they had been "manipulated" and "intoxicated" en masse by post-Ceaucescu communists on the both the nature and the extent of Romania's December 1989 uprising. Even so, few of them asked themselves the core question: Why hadn't they themselves gone out and verified, or disproved, the information provided by the post-Ceausescu regime?

So it's probably not to France that reforming Eastern nations should look in seeking to create better relations between the press and the government, and among the media itself. That is, unless they are looking to learn from other countries' failings.