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French media reforms spark controversy

By Lucy Gill
BBC Monitoring

Major changes are under way in the French media - from the funding of public broadcasting to the faces presenting the evening news.

Nicolas Sarkozy aon television
Mr Sarkozy has been criticised for being too close to media executives

Some commentators have denounced these developments as an assault on media independence by President Nicolas Sarkozy while others say the suspicions are groundless.

Mr Sarkozy plans to nominate the new head of the public broadcasting network France Televisions, subject to the approval of parliament and the broadcasting regulator, Le Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA).

Previously, the head had been selected by the CSA itself.

French Culture Minister Christine Albanel has said that the head of French public radio will also be appointed along the same lines.

Parliament has passed constitutional reforms enshrining the right of MPs to veto presidential appointments.

But still, the idea of the president nominating the head of an editorially independent media network has triggered an outcry in some sections of the press.

'Hyperpresident'

Newspaper Liberation dubbed the reforms "France Sarkovision," with journalist Laurent Joffrin warning that: "The hyperpresident is putting the public sector under his direct control".

Protests at the planned reforms
Many who work in French broadcasting are not pleased at the reforms

Weekly news magazine Le Point's columnist Nicolas Bavarez acknowledges that the rise of the internet and the fragmentation of audiences means that the sector needs an overhaul, but adds that "all this has nothing to do with the reforms".

He said that the "intervention of political power in the media" remains a sad "French exception".

Ms Albanel countered these criticisms, insisting that the plans contained enough checks and balances to ward off allegations of government control.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the procedure of appointment at France Televisions "has never been independent or autonomous".

'Courageous plans'

The plans also include the phased withdrawal of advertising from public channels, starting from January 2009.

Under the plans, the loss of revenue for France Televisions will be offset by a 0.9% levy on the turnover of mobile and fixed-line phone operators and internet service providers.

Mr Sarkozy said the withdrawal of advertising will end "the tyranny of ratings" and drive up standards.

Among those expected to benefit from the reforms are the privately-owned terrestrial channels, TF1 and M6, which will be in a position to absorb the advertising revenues transferred away from France Televisions.

The government also plans to extend the duration of advertising breaks on channels TF1, M6 and Canal Plus.

Nicolas de Tavernost, chairman of M6, said the plans were "courageous", stressing that the benefits will be felt across the media, not just at the private TV channels.

Nevertheless, the perception among some commentators that the private channels are benefiting at the expense of their rivals has led to accusations that the president is too close to the owners of France's privately-owned media outlets.

'Back-scratching'

In L'Express weekly magazine, writer Reynaud Revel described Martin Bouygues - the owner of TF1 and a personal friend of the president - as the "inspiration behind presidential thinking on audiovisual reform".

However, Le Figaro's Etienne Mougeotte said that the withdrawal of advertising from public TV was just plain "common sense" and something that Mr Sarkozy's opponents have long campaigned for.

But accusations of mutual back-scratching between the president and TF1 persisted with the replacement in July of TF1 evening news anchor Patrick Poivre d'Arvor with Laurence Ferrari.

Mr Poivre d'Arvor is alleged to have annoyed Mr Sarkozy by comparing him to an excited little boy at the G8 summit last year. Mr Revel suggested that Mr Poivre d'Arvor was "paying notably for his irreverence".

We have the lowest circulation of newspapers in the world. If that's not a problem, then tell me what is?
Nicolas Sarkozy

TF1 has denied any political influence was involved in the decision.

Frederic Lefebvre, an MP for Mr Sarkozy's governing UMP party, was quoted in Le Point as observing that "those who say the promotion of Laurence Ferrari is proof of the influence of Nicolas Sarkozy on TF1 were saying not very long ago that Patrick Poivre d'Arvor was a sell-out to the Elysee Palace".

Nevertheless, Mr Sarkozy's alleged tetchiness towards media irreverence appears to have caught the attention of the wider public, many of whom rushed to watch online off-air footage of him admonishing a technician at the public channel France 3.

Apparently irritated at the failure of the technician to reciprocate his greeting, Mr Sarkozy said: "When you're a guest, the least you can expect is for people to say hello.

"Unbelievable. And appalling. Things are going to change," he added in footage leaked to the web-based news blog Rue89.

The debate over the president's plans for the media may take on yet another dimension.

In an interview in Le Monde, he confirmed that he will call a major conference on the written press.

"We have the lowest circulation of newspapers in the world. If that's not a problem, then tell me what is?" he said.



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