Saturday, March 13, 2004

...can't believe the news to-day

Tomorrow's edition of Le Monde, which hit the streets this evening, contains the following editorial on the recent purchase of one of France's largest media groups by one its largest defense contractors.
Le Monde Editorial

The French Exception
LE MONDE | 13.03.04 | 11h32
Do we have any idea what the reactions would be in the United States if the Washington Post were purchased by Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-16? In France, Dassault announced on Thursday, March 11, that it would buy up the remaining shares in Socpresse [a newspaper group that owns numerous French papers] owned by the heirs of Robert Hersant and take its ownership of Socpresse from 30% to 80%.

Not only has Le Figaro fallen into the hands of the company that manufactures the Mirage, but with it, L'Express, L'Etudiant, Le Progrès, Le Dauphiné libéré, La Voix du Nord.... Seventy publications in all. Curiously, this maneuver has not caused national upset over the future of the press and its independence from the economic and political powers. When one adds that groupe Lagardère, formerly Matra, owns the Hachette empire, one can calculate that in all 70% of national newspapers are the property of two weapons manufacturers. At the very least, this ought make one think.

France has also entered into the grand movement that is concentrating the world press, with smaller newspapers being absorbed into big corporations. The reasons are the same for the press as they are for other industries: a need for internationalization and greater reach. But France adds other incentives for concentration by imposing very poor general conditions on its press groups. That French newspapers should be reduced to throwing themselves at the feet of companies in other industries (weapons, in this instance, but also construction for Bouygues [a telecoms giant] or luxury goods for LVMH and Pinault) speaks volumes about the many difficulties: want for capital, inflated printing costs, distribution hurt by a dramatic reduction in the number of points of sale. The handicaps are legion against those who would survive in the information business. The government should be alarmed by this French exception, a deplorable one, and consider it relevant to democracy.

The things at stake here are at the heart of causes taken up by Le Monde, be they editorial or economic. It is in response tot this that our newspaper has sought to join with others in a group predicated on independence from the political and economical powers. In so doing, our desire is to help better the structures of a sector that is ill and frail.

Therefore we must hope that the arrival of Dassault won't mean a return to the days when the press danced for billionaires. We must also hope that it doesn't see the media come under political influence. Suspicion may be heightened by the friendship that exists between Jacques Chirac, president of the Republic, and Serge Dassault, the CEO of the family business, who was also a regional advisor to the Rally for the Republic [France's governing party] and mayor of Corbeil-Essones. A suspicion that can grow still further, given the direct dependence of the very same groupe Dassault on State contracts for its fighter planes.

One would want to think that a reversion to the customs that once existed between the power and the press is impossible, Today they are forgotten. The journalists of every editorial board, including those in the Socpresse group, know the price of independence: the credibility of their newspapers depends on it. Yet Italy shows us that there is still a vivid temptation for the power to take the media in hand.

Anti-corruption crusader and former investigating magistrate Eva Joly (previously discussed here, here and here) writes in her memoires (pp. 274-75):
Of the 16 largest companies in France, 11 are active in an area where the practice of high corruption is common: Total, Vivendi environnement, Bouygues, Vinci, Airbus... [based on 2002 figures, see here for 2003 figures]. But this fact is rarely mentioned; above all because most of the national media belong to these groups, which encourages neither to curiosity nor to debate. [The TV station] TF1 belongs to the Bouygues group [NB: Bouygues was part of the consortium involved in building Osirak], Le Figaro and L'Express are controlled by the Dassault group. [Radio station] Europe 1, Paris Match and the majority of publishing belong to Lagardère.
Joly doesn't take the time to lay the full extent of Lagardère's presence in the publishing, broadcast and advertising industries. Separate from its defense activites, Largardère Media is has considerable operations in four areas: publishing, print media, distribution and broadcast. The site reads that "Hachette Filipacchi Médias, a Lagardère Media subsidiary, is the world’s top publisher of magazines. Its 238 titles in 36 countries total over one billion copies and more than 130,000 pages of paid advertising annually. HFM has turnover of 2.2 billion euros, 54% of it generated abroad." Tenth largest publisher in the world, Lagardère also owns 40% of Editis (formerly Vivendi Universal Publishing).

Relative to Dassault's relationship to the government, page 70 of Notre allié Saddam (a book I have discussed here and here) gives us an illustrative anecdote:
In February of 1991, Olivier Dassault, RPR member of the Assemblée Nationale and son of Serge, president of the group, revealed one aspect of these ambiguous relations: "I chose to sanction Michel Rocard (this was a censure motion at the Assemblée Nationale). So my father, who thinks that one does not vote against a government to which one is selling planes, pulled me from my position as head of planning for his factories, a position I'd been in for six months [Paris Match, 14 mars 1991].
Just to give you an idea of what exactly we're talking about, let's consider one example of how the French defense industry reacts when people get too close to sensitive matters. On pages 70-1 of her book, Joly writes:
Such a threatening reality sometimes becomes hazy in my mind. I learn to live without thinking about it. But the backlash is hard. As was the very high-ranking French general with star-spangled epaulettes whose acquaintance I made during an impromptu cocktail party at an embassy. We engaged in light conversation for a few moments. Then suddenly he put his blue eyes right in mine.

"I imagine it must not be much fun for you everyday, ma'am. Such agitiation, the pressure, the threats. But I'll think you'll make it in the end."

I didn't answer. He paused for two seconds. I started to smile in thanks. Then he continued, coldly.

"It'd be another matter if you left the petroleum business to look at weapons sales. With us, there's no warning. If you start an investigation, I'll give you 48 hours..."

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