The French media circus continues

The French presidential TV debates would cause de Gaulle to turn in his grave.

Seventy-year-old Jacques Cheminade, a man with close ties to the controversial American conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed political activist Lyndon LaRouche, is running for president in the French election this month. He believes, among other things, that violent video games should be outlawed; that the industrialisation of the moon is an economic imperative; that Queen Elizabeth II's fortune is partly predicated on a worldwide drug-smuggling ring; and that it is not ridiculous to compare Barack Obama to Hitler, as Lyndon LaRouche has done on several occasions.

On 9 April, the official presidential campaign was launched, meaning that all ten candidates must be given equal air time in the media. Prior to this, the Solidarité and Progres candidate, who is credited with less than 0.5 per cent of votes in current polls for the first round of the election on 22 April, had only been given 0.4 per cent of the total media coverage of the presidential election since January.

Last Thursday evening, in front of 4.2m viewers, Cheminade was quizzed by four prominent journalists on prime-time French public television. An eloquent speaker, he defended his desire to uncover the truth behind the 9/11 bombings and to reduce the travel time between Earth and Mars down to 10-15 days. He was also asked by one of the panel experts whether he wasnt more of an absent-minded Professor Calculus figure than a serious politician.

The occasion for this grilling was a two-part public debate under conditions of strict equality, whereby the ten presidential candidates - from Nicolas Sarkozy to the affable Trotskyist Philippe Poutou  - each took their turn in defending their ideas in front of a bemused post-adolescent studio audience on Wednesday and Thursday night. Each contender was given an arbitrary 16 minutes 34 seconds speaking time, discounted only when they spoke. Three panel experts joined David Pujadas, a younger and smugger French version of Paxman, in this public inquisition: Francois Lenglet, an economic expert; Fabien Namias, on politics; and Nathalie Saint-Cricq, whose indeterminate role seemed to involve destabilising the candidates with personalised piques.

The show was bizarrely produced in a pseudo-relaxed style, in spite of the palpable tension, borrowing at once from the conventional chat-show formula and live sports broadcasting. Each candidate was introduced to the tune of "Woman in Blue" by Pepe Deluxe. A backstage journalist, as if reporting on the players fitness on the sidelines of a football match, periodically updated viewers on the to-ings and fro-ings of the candidates and their interactions (only the Green candidate Eva Joly and hot favourite François Hollande deigned to salute each other). A cinema-sized screen towered above the panel, broadcasting mute behind-the-scenes footage of other usually more prominent candidates going through make-up in their dressing rooms. Poor Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, an insignificant far-right candidate with Le Penian leanings, had to endure a good five minutes of footage of the National Front candidate arriving in the building while attempting to defend his anti-Euro protectionist economic policy. All the candidates knew they were being filmed at all times; all acted accordingly: smiling, shaking many hands, attempting to look presidential.

The conditions of strict equality, however, were trampled underfoot by the journalists subjectivity and arrogance on both evenings. The smaller candidates were barely given a chance to extricate themselves from the occasional oddities of their proposed policies. Françcis Bayrou, the centrist candidate who came third in 2007 but is trailing both Marine Le Pen and the Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in this weeks polls, was practically ridiculed by the anchor Pujadas for evading a question on his proposed reduction of public spending. Mélenchon himself, who expounds a liberal view on immigration, was shown a video of ex-Communist Party leader George Marchais, who died in 1997, giving a speech against immigration. "Enough with George Marchais and declarations from twenty years ago," raged the new darling of the French radical left. This after he had been asked if he was not cultivating a personality cult in the Stalinist tradition.

The outgoing president, finally, made a typically boisterous appearance, playing, bizarrely, on his experience of "four years of crises". Quizzed on a recent Financial Times comment piece praising his rivals economic policy, he responded, not without a hint of chauvinism: "That newspaper has always defended the Anglo-Saxon model! They dont agree with me? I'm pleased, because I dont agree with them!" It is difficult to see how Sarkozy can overturn the odds and defeat Hollande now, in spite of his persistent fear-mongering on the economy and immigration. The Toulouse shootings briefly played in his favour as the security-conscious incumbent, but recent polls have seen Hollande rise above him again in the first round.

Will this television debate have changed anything? Not on the strength of the recent polls. Marine Le Pen will probably come third, trailing Sarkozy and Hollande by some ten points, and ahead of Mélenchon and Bayrou, a contender for next Prime Minister regardless of who wins the election. Sarkozy will come fighting into the second round, but, short of a major upset, he will get trounced. Cameron's Britain, like Thatcher's, will soon be dealing with a left-wing alliance in power in France. It is not improbable that radicals and Greens such as Joly find themselves in ministerial positions. For the time being, the media circus continues, and de Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand and co are doubtless turning in their graves.

Jacques Testard is co-founder and editor of the White Review.

Jacques Cheminade, Getty images

Jacques Testard is co-founder and editor of The White Review.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder