French President Sarkozy Tightens Grip on State TV

22 December 2008

PARIS: The makings of a major political combat passionné loom over the Elysée Palace as the January 1 deadline nears for the phase-out of advertising on the four channels of French state-owned broadcaster France Télévisions.

According to his legion of critics, the nation's trendy rightist President Nicolas Sarkozy (pictured above), who heads the ruling UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) party, is on course to seize control of the nation's airwaves.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, calls it a "veritable cultural revolution" which he claims will restore quality to public networks that have increasingly had to compete with the often dumbed-down output of private channels.

The president's office claims that the reform amounts to a lifeline to France's commercial TV companies as recession erodes ad revenues.

But it is less the issue of advertising that alarms Sarkozy's critics, than the scope of the legislation employed to remove the ads.

Among the edict's many provisions is one that allows Sarkozy to select the head of France Télévisions – a move many see as a throwback to the days when the nation's TV was an instrument of the presidency.

According to socialist politician Didier Mathus, who has campaigned against  the legislation: "The ultimate goal is nothing more than to put public television on a leash to prepare for the 2012 presidential elections."

Other critics suggest that Sarkozy's move will allow the nation's commercial TV broadcasters to rake-in the ad revenues that would formerly have gone to France Télévisions.

In particular they point to TF1, which is owned by the president's close friend for the past three decades, Martin Bouygues.

Political foes also accuse the French head of state of being too close to the nation's media tycoons since his election in May 2007.

Says Sorbonne University media sociology professor Divina Frau-Meigs: "Even if Sarkozy has no such evil intentions the suspicion is there."

While another academic, University of Paris media lecturer Michael Palmer, observes: "If you are reforming France, as Sarkozy says he is, you reform broadcasting; [but] the way it's been done gives credence to the idea that it has been inspired by people who are close to the private-sector TV channels."

Data sourced from International Herald-Tribune; additional content by WARC staff