Billionaire conservative Vincent Bolloré tightens his grip on French media

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When reporters from the French weekly Journal du Dimanche gathered at an editorial meeting to discuss the brutal ousting of headline editor Hervé Gattegno this week, the atmosphere was mournful.

Many in attendance feared that Vincent Bolloré, the conservative billionaire who controls media group Vivendi, would leave his mark on the newspaper even before his imminent takeover of his parent company Lagardère was finalized.

They had reason to worry: Bolloré, who made his fortune in logistics and transport in Africa and thanks to shrewd corporate raids, has a habit of overhauling the staff, style and content of his acquisitions. media. The tycoon, who comes from a family of traditional Catholics in Brittany, has long believed that the French media were too left-wing and sought to build a counterweight, according to people close to his thought.

At Vivendi, he tamed the irreverent satirical shows of the pay-TV operator Canal Plus and then fired its CEO. He used a month-long strike on the I-Télé news channel to eliminate a third of the newsroom, paving the way for a new image of CNews, a news and opinion channel. inspired by the American champion of right-wing questions Fox News.

The changes made to the Europe 1 radio station in Lagardère during the summer caused a strike and a massive departure of journalists. As Lagardère’s largest shareholder, Vivendi has parachuted into the stars of CNews to replace several veteran animators from the once mainstream store. He also ordered that CNews be broadcast directly on the station’s airwaves on weekend mornings.

“We share an office building with Europe 1, so we all know what happened there,” said a JDD reporter who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “People are very concerned that the editorial line will change, as has been the case in other media which have become the property of Bolloré.”

As France prepares for the presidential elections next April, the changes at Lagardère have taken on increased importance.

The company’s media, including the company magazine Paris Match as well as the JDD and Europe 1, are closely followed by the economic and political elite and are considered influential in shaping public opinion.

Emmanuel Macron appeared on the cover of Paris Match eight times during his long-term candidacy for the presidency in 2017, and his ministers frequently cover the JDD on Sundays to make announcements that set the week’s political agenda.

“The JDD is one of the most powerful tools of political power in France, so it is no coincidence that these changes are happening just before the elections,” said a former employee.

The newspaper has a circulation of around 150,000 copies but exceeds its weight in terms of influence, while Paris Match sells around 550,000 copies per week.

Bolloré’s growing influence in the media could influence the conduct of the next elections by highlighting cultural and identity issues rather than topics such as the economy or the environment, analysts said. CNews has already helped launch one of its star hosts, the far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour, into politics.

Presidents and potential presidential candidates have all made the cover of the influential company magazine Paris Match, one of the titles of the Lagardère team.

Marrying an anti-immigration agenda and lamenting what he sees as France’s decline, Zemmour has come out of nowhere since the summer to vote second behind Macron as a potential presidential candidate and pushed the far-right candidate established Marine Le Pen in third place.

Bolloré, who has traditionally supported center-right causes and is close to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has not publicly supported Zemmour but would have appreciated many of his ideas, including on crime, according to people close to him. her thought.

“Bolloré has taken step by step to provide the radical right with a place of expression, and they now have access to mainstream media,” said Virginie Martin, professor of political science at Kedge Business School in Paris. “They had never had this before and it maintained a glass ceiling on far-right politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen.”

If the regulators approve Vivendi’s offer for Lagardère, Bolloré will de facto control the largest French pay-TV operator, Canal Plus; its largest publisher of books, Hachette; the widely watched 24-hour news channel CNews; Radio Europe 1; JDD; Paris Match ; and a dozen other magazines.

Academics and historians have expressed concern about the concentration of media ownership in France, not only in the hands of Bolloré but also those of other wealthy owners. The Bouygues family owns the largest private broadcaster TF1 and is seeking permission to buy its little rival M6. Telecoms tycoons Patrick Drahi and Xavier Niel, and LVMH boss Bernard Arnault, also have key outlets.

“Bolloré is not the first rich person to invest in the press, but it stands out for its weight on the editorial line of its media,” said media historian Christian Delporte. “There is a political project behind all of this.

Officially, the departure this week of Gattegno, editor-in-chief of the JDD and of Paris Match, was decided by the CEO of Lagardère, Arnaud Lagardère, and the head of information, Constance Benqué. But several people in the group said Bolloré pushed for change.

Vivendi and Lagardère declined to comment.

Gattegno was replaced by Patrick Mahé at Paris Match and Jérôme Bellay at JDD, both appointed general managers. Two assistants have been promoted to editors.

People who know Gattegno describe him as a controversial but brilliant editor, known for defending Sarkozy in his legal issues and taking a hard line against the normalization of the far right in France.

No reason has been given publicly for his departure. But some have speculated that among the factors was his criticism in an editorial of Zemmour as a “doom prophet” and the decision to put the 63-year-old married father-of-three on the cover of Paris Match last month. kissing her 28 years old. campaign advisor Sarah Knafo.

“Bolloré wanted his head,” said a business executive. “And he got it.”

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain

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