When journalists at French weekly broadsheet Journal du Dimanche huddled at a newsroom meeting to discuss the sudden ousting of the title’s editor Hervé Gattegno this week, the atmosphere was funereal.
Many of those present feared that Vincent Bolloré, the conservative billionaire who controls media group Vivendi, was putting his imprint on the newspaper even before his pending takeover of its parent company Lagardère had been finalised.
They had reason to be worried: Bolloré, who made much of his fortune in logistics and transport in Africa and through savvy corporate raids, has a record of overhauling the staff, style and content of his media acquisitions. The tycoon, who comes from a family of traditional Catholics from Brittany, has long believed the French media is too leftwing and has sought to build a counterweight, according to people familiar with his thinking.
At Vivendi, he tamed the irreverent satirical shows of pay-TV operator Canal Plus and then fired its CEO. He used a month-long strike at news channel I-Télé to cull one-third of the newsroom, paving the way to rebrand it as CNews, a news and opinion channel inspired by the US champion of rightwing issues Fox News.
Changes at Lagardère’s Europe 1 radio station over the summer prompted a strike and mass departure of journalists. As Lagardère’s biggest shareholder, Vivendi parachuted in CNews stars to replace several veteran hosts at the once mainstream outlet. 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 under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “People are very worried that the editorial line will change, just as it has at other media that have gone under ownership of Bolloré.”
Coming as France gears up for next April’s presidential elections, the changes at Lagardère have taken on increased importance.
The company’s media outlets — which include society magazine Paris Match as well as JDD and Europe 1 — are closely followed by the business and political elite and are seen as influential in shaping public opinion.
Emmanuel Macron appeared on the cover of Paris Match eight times during his long-shot bid for the presidency in 2017, and his ministers frequently grace the cover of JDD on Sundays to make announcements that set the political agenda for the week.
“The JDD is one of the strongest tools of political power in France, so it is no accident that these changes are happening just before the elections,” said one former employee.
The paper has a circulation of about 150,000 but punches above its weight in terms of its influence, while Paris Match sells about 550,000 copies a week.
Bolloré’s growing influence in the media could influence the course of the next election by showcasing cultural and identity issues rather than topics like the economy or environment, analysts say. CNews has already helped launch one of its star presenters, the far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour, into politics.
Espousing an anti-immigration agenda and lamenting what he sees as France’s decline, Zemmour has come from nowhere since summer to poll in second place in behind Macron as a potential presidential candidate and pushed established far-right contender Marine Le Pen into third place.
Bolloré, who has traditionally supported centre-right causes and is close to former president Nicolas Sarkozy, has not publicly backed Zemmour but is said to appreciate many of his ideas, including on crime, according to people familiar with his thinking.
“Bolloré has gone step by step to furnish the radical right a place to express themselves, and they now have access to mainstream media outlets,” said Virginie Martin, a political-science professor at Kedge Business School in Paris. “They never had that before and that kept a glass ceiling over far-right politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen.”
If regulators approve Vivendi’s bid for Lagardère, Bolloré will in effect control France’s biggest pay-TV operator, Canal Plus; its biggest book publisher, Hachette; the widely watched 24-hour news channel CNews; Europe 1 radio; 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 Bolloré’s hands but also those of other wealthy proprietors. The Bouygues family own the biggest private broadcaster TF1 and are seeking approval to buy smaller rival M6. Telecom tycoons Patrick Drahi and Xavier Niel, and LVMH boss Bernard Arnault, also own key outlets.
“Bolloré is not the first rich person to invest in the press but he stands apart for how he weighs on the editorial line of his outlets,” said media historian Christian Delporte. “There is a political project behind all this.”
Officially the departure this week of Gattegno, who was editor of both JDD and Paris Match, was decided by Lagardère CEO Arnaud Lagardère, and the head of the news, Constance Benqué. But several people inside the group said Bolloré pushed for the change.
Vivendi and Lagardère declined to comment.
Gattegno was replaced by Patrick Mahé at Paris Match and Jerome Bellay at JDD, both of whom were named as general managers. Two deputies were promoted to editor in chief.
People who know Gattegno describe him as a controversial but brilliant editor known for defending Sarkozy in his legal woes and taking a hard line against normalising the far-right in France.
No reasons were given publicly for his departure. But some speculated that among the factors were his critique in an editorial of Zemmour as a “prophet of doom” and the decision to put the 63-year-old married father of three on the cover of Paris Match last month embracing his 28-year campaign adviser Sarah Knafo.
“Bolloré wanted his head,” said one company executive. “And he got it.”
Additional reporting by Domitille Alain
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