Sparks fly as French pull plug on pirate radio stations

France's battle of the airwaves continues. While President Valery Giscard d'Estaing resolutely persists in his attempts to keep independent broadcasting media outlawed, pirate radio stations throughout the country are equally determined to defy the ban.

In a warning to scores of pirate outfits illegally broadcasting anything from ecological messages to hard rock-and-roll, the French Ministry of Justice last week ordered raids against three of France's most popular independent stations. One of the swoops, launched against Radio Quinquin, a workers' public-service station operated by the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) communist trade union, particularly shocked Frenchmen because of the harsh manner in which it was carried out.

More befitting to a wartime raid than a peacetime judicial operation, 12 companies of helmeted riot police descended on the small town of Auby in northern France shortly after dawn on June 4. Roads were blocked, while telephone and electricity lines were cut.

Brusquely shoving aside a small handful of protesting radio supporters, the authorities, citing a 1978 parliamentary decree reinforcing state monopoly of the broadcasting media, broke down the barred doors of the station and began carrying off its transmitting equipment. Outside, police ordered workmen to dismantle a powerful antenna.

Similarly, in the French capital, police carted away turntables, transmitters , microphones, and cables from another highly successful pirate station, Radio Paris 80. And in Nancy, riot police clashed with demonstrators before silencing Radio Lorraine-Coeur d'Acier (radio heart of steel), like Radio Quinquin, a CGT station.

Whereas the two communist stations said they would come back on the air as soon as new equipment could be installed, Radio Paris 80 began rebroadcasting the same afternoon with a hurriedly assembled transmitter and antenna. "We knew this would happen sometime," said a station operator, "so we kept three different [transmitting] sets on hand." To transmit to a city the size of Paris, pirate broadcasters say they can set up shop with as little as $2,000 worth of equipment.

The police returned that afternoon, but station organizers appealed over the air to listeners for help. Within minutes, several hundred supporters had gathered outside its doors in the 13th Arrondissement of Paris to mock the police. This time the authorities, who had been surprised by the speed with which the pirates came back on the air, had not brought technicians with them to dismantle the equipment. They did not try to force their way in.

Antimonopoly critics, who include autonomists, communists, socialists, rock enthusiasts, and even members of the government, immediately protested the raids. "This is making the administration appear totally ridiculous," commented lawyer Francois Chassaign, a co-founder of banned Radio Fil Bleu, a pirate radio station ironically run by young Giscardiens (supporters of President Giscard d'Estaing). "It will encourage more radio stations to challenge state control."

The government is not the only political body to favor state monopoly. Even the Communists and the Socialists, despite their present criticism of the administration's tactics, are partisans of government control as long as it does not go against them. Privately, the opposition parties one day expect to take power and therefore also wish to have the broadcasting media to manipulate.

It is with bizarre aversion that politicians tend to regard independent broadcasting, like some slimy outer-space creature. "The phenomenon of local radio stations can hold the seeds of powerful anarchy," Prime Minister Raymond Barre announced last year.

Fearing a mushrooming of independent stations such as in Italy or the United States, the government has traditionally regarded the media as its private domain, particularly during the de Gaulle era. The influx of pirate stations, some of which have already popped out of dormancy since last week's raids, are therefore considered a serious threat. With many serving as political and social mouthpieces, they are even harder to digest with the 1981 presidential electioneering already in full swing.

Not only has government pressure galvanized public opinion, but "it's given us amazing publicity," according to one station operator. "People who never knew we existed are now tuning in.

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