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Sarkozy's tight circle of media friends

A bid by one of French President Sarkozy's best friends to take over a prominent newspaper has journalists pushing for regulations to protect their independence.

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 26, 2007


Even under the hot lights of the French media's scrutiny, it sometimes seems that President Nicolas Sarkozy gets by with a little help from his friends.

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The concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few well-connected industrialists has been building for years. But the circles of influence, wealth, and political power have converged to an unusual degree in Mr. Sarkozy's France. This month, the country's richest man, who was also the best man at the president's wedding 11 years ago, is negotiating to buy France's leading financial newspaper, Les Échos.

Some of the conservative new president's closest pals already own the country's largest national newspapers and television stations – a cozy relationship that many journalists consider a threat to their independence.

Photos embarrassing to Sarkozy have been suppressed, and unflattering articles pulled before publication. Sarkozy has denied meddling, but whether they were prompted by direct interference from above or self-censorship on the part of overly cautious editors, the incidents have set off newsroom protests.

Yet many journalists have turned to Sarkozy to safeguard their freedoms to write and report what they want. Journalists see their demands for legal regulations on influence-peddling in the media as a test for their new president's commitment to journalistic integrity.

"Rarely in the course of the last decades has the media risked becoming so much the instrument of a single mind-set, and yet at the same time so scorned by people in power," says a coalition of six French journalist unions in a statement published last week.

Politicians have always sought to control the news, says François Malye, the coalition president and an investigative reporter for Le Point magazine. "But we're talking about the guarantees under European law for press freedom," he adds. "So we're addressing ourselves to the person responsible in France for respecting this law."

Journalists push for legal rights

The group wants newsroom representatives to have legal standing so they can veto the hiring of top editors. It also wants a journalistic code of ethics enacted into law that includes protections for reporters' notes and sources.

And it wants a law giving journalists the right to sue a media owner for any alleged violation of ethical or professional standards. One impetus for the journalists' demands, says Mr. Malye, is that the number of media jobs is shrinking.

"That way, if you are asked to do something that is ethically aberrant, you could go to court," says Malye of the proposed new rules. "Now if I complain my boss can say, 'Fine, goodbye.' I could just go to another paper before. There was a natural equilibrium. But now there are no other papers."

Among Sarkozy's intimates is Serge Dassault, owner of the historically conservative Le Figaro newspaper and a senator from the president's right-wing party. Martin Bouygues, godfather to Sarkozy's youngest son, controls the biggest French television channel, TF1. A string of media properties is also owned by Arnaud Lagardère, an aerospace company chairman who once said he and Sarkozy were as close as brothers. Journalists at his publications have repeatedly accused Mr. Lagardère of politically motivated interference.

The latest focus of journalists' suspicion is Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. The prospect of him controlling Les Échos is causing as much journalistic angst here as Rupert Murdoch's impending purchase of The Wall Street Journal in the US.