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28 July 2017

Emmanuel Macron’s businesslike media strategy is worrying the French press

The new president's media style is more reminiscent of corporate PR than traditional political briefings.

By Pauline Bock

This is the third in a series: “The Macron Con”, also called “Why Emmanuel Macron isn’t a liberal hero”. Each week, I’ll examine an area of the new French president’s politics that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

Emmanuel Macron had been elected for 11 days when the press first protested. The new French president was heading to Mali for his first diplomatic visit, and his press office announced they would start choosing the journalists who would be allowed to cover it. This did not go down well.

“Mr President, it is not up to the Elysée to choose its journalists,” was the headline of an open letter signed by a dozen journalists’ unions from France’s most prominent media outlets, including Le Monde, Liberation, Le Figaro, public radio and TV, and the organisation Reporters Without Borders. “None of your predecessors have used such a system,” the editorial read. “As defiance is weighing more and more on information, choosing the journalist who will report on your trips adds to confusion between communication and journalism, and harms democracy.”

According to the Elysée, the number of accredited journalists on the Mali trip – lower than normal – was due to security reasons (Mali has been engulfed in armed conflict since 2012). “We cannot organise a trip to Mali, especially in such short notice, with the military context and the risks, in improvised conditions,” said the government’s spokesman, Christophe Castaner. “We will give our preference for each trip, based by reporting beats.”

He added that the president wishes to have the “liberty of exchange with the French people” during trips, which a group of dozens of journalists and cameras could hamper. Macron’s press office later added: “Worried journalists can rest: the Elysée does not plan to do the newsrooms’ job.”

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But a month later, in June, an editorial in Le Monde newspaper called for vigilance again. “Does the new executive power have a problem with freedom of the press?” it asked, listing “extremely worrying signs” of the government’s “conception of media’s independence and source protection”. This included several cases of government ministers or En Marche! MPs filing complaints for “harassment” and “violation of professional confidentiality”. Reporters Without Borders’ Christophe Deloire said: “We wait for proof that limits will not be imposed on the press for storytelling needs. We are expecting Emmanuel Macron to defend the freedom of the press in France as well as abroad.”

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Independent news website Mediapart was one of three media organisations against which the Labour ministry filed a complaint, after it reported on the planned labour law reform. “They filed a complaint to know the journalists’ sources within the ministry, so that they could silence them [the sources],” Mediapart director Edwy Plenel says. Protestation forced the ministry to withdraw, he says, but the reflex illustrates the presidency’s “contrast between an seemingly liberal economic speech and the ancient French culture of personal power and vertical politics”.  

These incidents marked a sharp contrast from Macron’s campaign press stance. Before the election, on International Press Freedom day, his party’s spokesperson had praised the media, declaring: “Continue to irritate us – there lies freedom.”

A French journalist, who knows the Elysée well and who declined to be named, confirms that “it’s a permanent struggle” to liaise with the presidency, but adds that the situation is improving. “When the justice minister called the radio that was investigating him, when the Labour ministry filed a complaint against a newspaper, these were alerts,” she says. “But he [Macron] is starting to give more interviews. Difficulties are coming, and he will have to speak up to defend his policies.”

She reckons Macron’s relationship with the press will smooth with time, as all presidents want to “make their mark” when they arrive.

Shaking off old Elysée press rules is part of a bigger trend in Macron’s strategy. His campaign team and, since his election, his government, refer very often to the business model as a mode of government, media sociologist Jean-Marie Charon tells the New Statesman. “Private companies have a much more interventionist approach towards journalists,” he says. “For instance, by choosing which journalists will have access to which information, or will be accredited on a trip.”

French political journalists, who have long been used to close proximity with the country’s leaders even if this transparency was “often calculated”, are confused by this new way of dealing with the media, he says. “Now sometimes the press team closes the Elysée’s doors, they don’t take questions at press conferences or just don’t hold one.”

Socio-anthropologist Agnès Vandevelde-Rougale shares this analysis: the Elysée is handling the press like a company would, she says: “Journalists are told off [by Macron’s press team]. They are told that they don’t understand the real world, the pressure of productivity.”

The government uses blurry words and concepts, such as “responsibility” or “efficiency”, she says, just like a company would. “There is communication but very little information, a lack of exchange with journalists.” The French journalist agrees: “When we talk to the Elysée or En Marche! MPs, they sound like communication professionals, use English words.”

Read more: Episode 2: Emmanuel Macron’s “feminism”

During the campaign, Macron’s astonishing rise was facilitated by social media. “He embodies the web generation and intends to address directly his audience and voters,” Charon says. “There is a parallel with Charles de Gaulle, who was the first to use television, which he controlled and used to get his message across without the press. Macron follows the same logic: he is using a rising media, one the young professionals favour.”

Macron’s 1.6 million Twitter followers are often first to hear from the president, who has “rarified his appearances” – he even skipped the usual Bastille Day presidential TV interview  because his “complex thought process” didn’t lend itself well to the format. That, too, is from the private sector’s communication strategy. “Often, the CEO does not do interviews,” Vandevelde-Rougale says.

Would his own media suit, then? In July, Macron’s party En Marche! announced that it would “constitute itself as a media” to “make decentralised content” on local news. “If the media doesn’t go, we will,” they declared. It sparked more controversy, but to Charon, this is nothing new: “In the old French opinion press model, each political party had its newspaper. De Gaulle had La Nation.”

Most of these newspapers, with the exception of L’Humanite, have disappeared because, he says, “this is a completely out-of-date model.” To the French journalist, the party’s project will be “some kind of media, maybe, but not press.”

Although he draws inspiration from De Gaulle, Macron has been working hard to differentiate himself from his direct predecessors – Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) was prone to mentioning his private life in press briefings and Francois Hollande (2012-2017) shared a proximity, and even friendship, with numerous journalists that led his confidences to be published by two reporters under the title “A president shouldn’t be saying this”.

From the start, Macron made it crystal clear that his style was different. “I will take some distance from the media circle,” he said during the presidential campaign. “When one presides, one isn’t friends with journalists.” To Charon, the new president’s media strategy could mark his wish for a full break from the past, to allow him to define a new relationship with the press – but these harsh new rules could also be here to stay. 

This would be a worrying trend. If using the private sector’s practices to boost France’s efficacy may not be entirely irrelevant, Charon argues, adopting a business media strategy when the state has a duty of transparency and to report to the French people “is a lot more questionable”. The risk for Macron if he keeps serving journalists polished PR reports is that the press will double down to find news, the French journalist says. “It sends the press back to its fundamental role: close the door, we’ll enter by the window.”