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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 May, 2005, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
French media in referendum 'bias' row
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

In the fraught, passionate and sometimes frenzied debate in France over the referendum on the European Constitution, the spotlight has now been turned full beam onto the role and conduct of the media.

French woman in front of EU Constitution posters
Some journalists have launched a petition for fairer coverage
The debate over the benefits and the drawbacks of the treaty has not only divided France, it has also bitterly split France's journalists over the nature of their coverage.

A group of journalists from French state TV and radio are so angered by what they see as one-sided propaganda campaign being broadcast on the airwaves on behalf of the government and the "Yes" campaign that they have set up an online petition, signed by more than 15,000 people since 1 May.

They presented it to President Jacques Chirac, the heads of French TV and radio and to the director of the CSA French broadcasting standards authority, Dominique Baudis.

"This is a grotesque situation," says Jacques Cotta, a well-known TV correspondent for France 2 who is one of the leaders of the campaign for fair coverage in the lead-up to the referendum.

"Publicly-owned media in France are broadcasting sheer propaganda to the public, and this absence of any pluralism or any attempt to represent and discuss the point of view of those who want to vote 'No' to the Treaty is profoundly undemocratic"

'Correction'

He and his colleague Jean-Marc Surcin, a documentary-maker for France 2, agree that French newspapers have been no different, with most overtly supporting the "Yes" campaign.

However, it is the role of publicly-funded and publicly-accountable state broadcasters which angers them most.

"These are broadcasters paid for by the public, and they should be reflecting both sides of the debate fairly," Jean-Marc Surcin tells me.

Young socialists campaign for a Yes vote in France
Both centre-right ruling party and Socialists are for a Yes vote
They were granted a lengthy meeting with Mr Baudis, in which the journalists pointed out that according to their figures, French TV and radio had given 71% of its time to the "Yes" campaigners, and devoted a mere 29% to the "No" campaign between 1 January and 31 March.

However, his response was not encouraging.

He said that according to his figures, any possible bias had since been corrected - with 57% of airtime given to the "Yes", and 43% for the "No" between 4 April and 13 May, with strict regulations in place since the start of the official campaigning last Monday to ensure that each party is given airtime for campaign ads according to the strength of its vote in the last elections.

'Biased synopsis'

That, however, is yet another source of controversy.

Because both the centre-right ruling UMP and the opposition Socialist party are campaigning for a "yes" vote, their dissident MPs have no official party platform for their campaigns against the constitution from which to explain why they believe the Treaty is flawed.

The unofficial No campaigns are being led by disparate and very different political groups - from Gaullist MPs such as Jacques Myard and Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, who say it will take too much power away from France, to those on the left and far left, who suspect that the Treaty is a charter for big business and internal EU competition. MPs from other parties who are campaigning for a "No" say they, too, have been discriminated against.

Italian poster urges French to vote Yes in the Constitution referendum
Italy's Olive Tree coalition is all in favour of the EU constitution
France's best-known Eurosceptic MP, Philippe de Villiers, has warned his supporters that they face what he called an "incredible bludgeoning" by the political and media elite.

"On the radio, in the newspapers, on the television channels, there is just one single editorial voice: in favour of the 'Yes'," Mr de Villiers told one rally.

He brandished a copy of the draft constitution which has been posted to every single household in France, along with an explanatory leaflet. That leaflet, say "No" campaigners, is deeply biased in favour of the treaty.

Mr de Villiers suspects a plot. "It's unreadable, in tiny print, and that's not an accident. People are going to say, 'I can't read this, I'll just read the helpful synopsis'. It's a trick worthy of Fidel Castro," he claims.

So instead - with accusations of media bias springing up daily on all sides - the "No" campaigners are using the web as never before.

This is the first major campaign in France in which the internet has become a key weapon, with bloggers and internet-users becoming the "No" campaign's front-line troops - not just in terms of influencing public opinion but also in rallying the French public to attend its campaign events.

The Socialist MP Jack Lang - spokesman for the left's official "Yes" campaign - has already warned that his side is in danger of losing the "cyber-debate" because of the strength of the "No" campaign on the web.

Editorial battles

In cyberspace, a whole range of opinions - individual or on behalf of trade unions and anti-globalists group such as ATTAC - can be freely accessed, while "No" campaigners appear much more at ease with the Internet than the traditional party campaigners.

With an estimated 24 million internet users in France (out of a population of 60 million), it is an increasingly powerful tool.

Stanislas Magniant, at Publicis Consultants Net Intelligenz told one newspaper that in this campaign, France was seeing the beginning of real grass-roots militancy on the Internet.

Some say the government's synopsis of the charter was biased
In response, the "Yes" campaign has started its own internet sites, but they are a lot more official and rather less imaginitive, though some MPs have now started their own blogs.

Back at the traditional news-stands, individual French newspapers and magazines continue to agonise about their role.

At the political weekly magazine Marianne, journalists held their own internal referendum on the Constitution, coming up with 60% against and just 40% of journalists in favour of the Treaty - even though their editor is a supporter of the "Yes" vote.

At the tabloid Le Parisien, which had been engulfed by a fierce debate between its journalists and editorial director, a code of ethics on coverage of the Constitution has now been set up to resolve the tensions.

And at Le Figaro, the centre-right newspaper owned by defence and media magnate Serge Dassault - a close friend of President Chirac - the editorial management was forced to withdraw its plan to appeal to the French to vote "yes", which it had hoped its journalists would disseminate as an official editorial line.

The leftist Liberation admits that its own internal debates on how to cover the referendum have also been extremely lively - more so than at any time since the first Gulf War - but that in the end it decided to let readers make up their own minds, even though almost all the editorial writers there are in favour of a "Yes" vote.

The venerable centrist newspaper Le Monde has resolved the issue by publishing an editorial supporting the "Yes" vote, while attempting to offer space to voices from both sides.

Whatever the result of the referendum on 29 May, the discussion and sheer passion unleashed by this Constitution is sure to continue.




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