France’s Murdoch? Right-wing media swoop threatens ‘pillar of French democracy’

The shock appointment of a far-right editor to run one of France’s best-known mainstream newspapers has sparked calls for urgent steps to protect the pluralism and independence of the French press, while underscoring a sharp rightwards shift of the country’s media landscape under billionaire Vincent Bolloré.

Since June 22, journalists at the Journal du Dimanche – known as the JDD – have voted daily to down tools in an unprecedented strike action that has kept France’s best-known Sunday paper off the shelves for the first time in its 75-year history.

The walkout by more than 95% of staff followed the shock appointment of Geoffroy Lejeune, the former editor-in-chief of a far-right magazine that was convicted of publishing racist hate speech under his tenure.

Lejeune, 34, was officially tapped by the JDD’s owner Arnaud Lagardère, though his nomination is widely seen as the work of billionaire Vincent Bolloré, France’s most dreaded corporate raider, whose takeover of the Lagardère Group won the conditional support of EU regulators in June.

Following the appointment, eight former editors of the JDD wrote a letter blasting a “provocation and proof that the far right is taking hold in the media”. They expressed outrage that the identity of the paper was being “erased” by Bolloré, who has a track record of gutting staff and overhauling the editorial line at the news outlets he has purchased in recent years.

Almost three weeks into the strike, the beleaguered newsroom has appealed to President Emmanuel Macron to take a stand, framing the tussle at the JDD as part of a wider battle for press freedom.

“When the JDD, the newspaper of temperance and balance, goes on strike, it means the situation is truly bleak,” they wrote in a letter to Macron on Saturday, pleading with the government not to let their paper “die in silence”.

They added: “Beyond the JDD, what is at stake is the independence of the press and the journalists who produce it – a pillar of democracy.”

‘Hateful attacks and fake news’

Staff at the JDD have described Lejeune’s appointment as a negation of the paper’s values of moderation and journalistic rigour, pointing to his close ties with far-right political figures and his record at the helm of the arch-conservative weekly Valeurs Actuelles.

“Under Geoffroy Lejeune, Valeurs Actuelles spread hateful attacks and fake news,” the paper’s union of journalists wrote in a statement at the start of the strike. “We refuse to let the JDD follow this path.”


Staff at the Journal du Dimanche stand outside the newspaper’s building in Paris on July 5, 2023, the 13th day of their strike. © Alain Jocard, AFP


In his press release announcing Lejeune’s appointment on June 23, Lagardère praised a “raw talent of French journalism (…) with a mission to embody journalistic excellence: namely facts, investigation and the duty to inform” – a description labelled an “oxymoron” by French daily Le Monde, which argued that the young editor had “taken radical opinion journalism to the extreme”.

During his time at Valeurs Actuelles, Lejeune boosted the weekly’s notoriety by pushing provocative headlines and caustic attacks on politicians and intellectuals. In 2021, the magazine was found guilty of racist hate speech after it published a fictional story and cartoons depicting a Black MP as a slave in chains.

The paper’s staples are immigration, crime, Islamism and the plight of white males. Its preferred targets include “woke” teachers, liberal elites and the likes of Jewish financier George Soros.

In the run up to last year’s presidential election, Lejeune endorsed the extreme-right candidate Eric Zemmour, formerly a star pundit at Bolloré’s television channels.  He is also a close friend of Marion Maréchal, the niece of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who ditched her aunt’s National Rally party last year to support Zemmour’s presidential run instead.

All of which makes him anathema to the JDD’s striking newsroom, which noted that Valeurs Actuelles’ own shareholders had described Lejeune as “too pro-Zemmour” upon firing him last month.

“Our newspaper has always strived to remain impartial and apolitical, offering a platform to both left and right,” said Bertrand Gréco, a JDD journalist for the past 26 years and a union representative.

“This nomination implies a radical change of editorial line,” Gréco added. “It means a newspaper recognised for its informative content will become an opinion paper – and one that spreads not just any opinion, since Lejeune is a champion of the far right.”

The Murdoch parallel

The JDD’s weekly sales of around 140,000 belie an outsize influence in a country where few newspapers top the 100,000 mark.

The title’s prime position as the only nationwide Sunday paper has long made it the go-to outlet for politicians eager to tout a new policy, bill or election run. It also makes it a prize catch for Bolloré, a corporate raider whose transport, media and advertising empire stretches across Europe and Africa.

A deeply conservative Catholic from Brittany, in western France, Bolloré has been gradually expanding his media assets to take in TV channels, the magazine Paris Match, radio station Europe 1 and latterly the JDD.

After acquiring news channel iTélé, part of the Canal+ group, he provoked a record strike of 31 days in 2016, got rid of most of the staff and turned it into a conservative platform that critics have dubbed “France’s Fox News”.

That platform, renamed CNews, “is no longer a news channel – it’s an opinion channel”, said Pauline Ades-Mevel, chief editor at the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who previously worked for iTélé.

“What we’re seeing at the JDD right now is an aftershock of what has already happened at the other media organisations taken over by Bolloré,” she added.

Read morePushing far-right agenda, French news networks shape election debate

Bolloré’s aggressive expansion into media has prompted comparisons with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose myriad news outlets in Australia, Britain and the United States have fundamentally altered the media and political landscapes of those countries.

Historian David Colon, a professor at Sciences-Po Paris who has written a book about Murdoch’s media empire, pointed to parallels between the tycoons’ respective holdings, most notably in the synergy between publishing houses, newspapers, radio stations and television networks.

“When it comes to media concentration, the key factor is not the number of titles you own or the size of their readership, but rather the diversity of the mediums,” he explained. “It’s this cross-ownership that allows you to set the agenda and rapidly influence public debate.”

In both cases, Colon pointed to a clear intent to push the debate in a socially conservative direction. Unlike Bolloré, however, Murdoch “would never allow his personal convictions to take precedence over the commercial success of his ventures”, Colon cautioned – whereas the losses posted by the French tycoon’s media assets suggest their motive is primarily ideological.

‘Concerns us all’

The tycoon’s purported ideological objectives have prompted mounting alarm among academics, politicians and other public figures, many of whom have voiced support for the strike action at France’s flagship Sunday paper.

“For the first time in France since the (post-war) liberation, a large national media will be run by a far-right personality. This is a dangerous precedent which concerns us all,” said an open-letter to Le Monde signed by hundreds of figures including actor Mathieu Amalric, writer Leïla Slimani, rapper and producer JoeyStarr and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Lejeune’s appointment “heralds the kind of forced transformation that Bolloré is accustomed to”, the letter added, citing the “brutal measures” enacted at his other media assets.

Alone among Macron’s ministers, Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak voiced her concern at the nomination in a tweet posted shortly after his appointment, which prompted a flurry of racist slurs levelled at the French-Lebanese dual national.

“Legally speaking, the JDD can become what it wants, as long as it respects the law,” she wrote. “But for our republic’s values, how can you not be alarmed?”



The fact that shareholders can “legally” impose their choice of editors is at the very heart of the problem, according to Daphné Ronfard of the media advocacy group Un Bout des Médias. She blamed a lax legal framework, the bulk of which dates back to 1986, for allowing the likes of Bolloré to concentrate media resources and dictate their will.

“We need a new framework that can limit concentration and guarantee the independence of journalists, which is crucial to democracy,” Ronfard explained. “Editorial content should not be shaped by shareholders with political motives – which, in Bolloré’s case, are all too obvious.”

Her association has come up with a series of proposals designed to ensure journalists have their say on the appointment of editors, which it hopes to push once the government convenes long-awaited consultations on freedom of information in France – a pledge from Macron’s re-election campaign last year.

Pandora’s box

In the run-up to the 2022 presidential race, the French Senate played host to a circus of billionaires appearing in turn to deny the obvious: that ownership of France’s main private media outlets buys them influence and protects their interests.

Bolloré was the first to testify before a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating concentration in the media. True to form, the “silent killer” of French capitalism struck a faux-naïf tone as he belittled his television assets and denied any political motive behind his multiple purchases in the media.

“I have no power to appoint people to these channels,” he swore when quizzed about his role in the many resignations and high-profile firings that rattled the Canal+ media group following his takeover in 2015. He added: “Some journalists have left, others have returned. It’s like the ocean tide, back home in Brittany.”

Regarding CNews and its rolling coverage of Zemmour’s presidential run, Bolloré flatly denied it pursued any “ideological agenda”.


Eric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and former presidential candidate, dominated media coverage in the run-up to the 2022 campaign.
Eric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and former presidential candidate, dominated media coverage in the run-up to the 2022 campaign. © Thomas Samson, AFP


Much like Valeurs Actuelles, CNews has positioned itself as a straight-talking alternative to mainstream media stifled by political correctness, claiming to serve the French public what it really wants: stories on crime, immigration and Islam. Critics, however, say the channel has repeatedly violated the terms of a licensing agreement that applies to France’s four free-to-air news networks, requiring them to provide balanced coverage.

Zemmour’s sulphurous statements have resulted in multiple convictions for inciting hate speech and repeatedly landed CNews in hot water. In 2021, France’s broadcast regulator fined CNews €200,000 for speech inciting racial hatred after Zemmour branded child migrants “thieves, murderers and rapists”. Arcom, the regulator, has also admonished the network for failing to ensure political balance in its broadcasting.

The punishment amounted to too little too late, according to former Arcom member Joseph Daniel, who argued in a scathing op-ed that the regulator had repeatedly missed opportunities to flag and sanction the network’s failure to respect public broadcasting rules.

By allowing CNews to become an “opinion channel”, Daniel wrote at the time, “(Arcom) opened a dangerous pandora’s box for news networks that are freely available to the public and constitute a key element of our democracy.”

‘Hurting democracy’

Arcom’s failure to crack down hard on CNews mirrors a wider complacency by French authorities regarding media regulations, said Sciences-Po’s Colon, who voiced dismay at the government’s reluctance to wade into the battle for the JDD.

He pointed to a French specificity in the provision of public subsidies for newspapers, a long-established tradition intended to safeguard the democratic role of a vibrant press. Those subsidies, he argued, give the French state a certain leverage to ensure press freedom is preserved.

“The state would be perfectly entitled to make public subsidies conditional on compliance with a certain number of basic principles of journalistic ethics and deontology,” he explained, adding that shareholders “should not be allowed to impose an editor who is rejected by 97% of staff”.

“We’re talking about public money: Should it be used to serve the political whims of a billionaire or to defend quality journalism in the service of the general interest?” he asked. “The answer to that question is of fundamental importance to our democracy.”

On Sunday, Macron’s Education Minister Pap Ndiaye stepped into the fray by stating his support for the JDD strikers and arguing that a “manifest far-right bias” at CNews was “hurting democracy”. That in turn triggered a barrage of criticism from the right and far-right, which accused the minister of undermining media pluralism and being out of touch with a public that has itself shifted to the right.

The latter argument is missing the point of the dispute roiling the Journal du Dimanche, said Ades-Mevel of Reporters Without Borders.

“Of course all political stripes should be represented in the media, but that is not what Bolloré is up to. He is taking over mainstream publications to use them as channels for his agenda,” she explained.

“We’re not arguing that the far right is not entitled to a newspaper,” added the JDD’s Gréco. “What we’re saying is that they shouldn’t come grab an existing paper that has its own history, journalists and values.”

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