In its 75-year history, Le Journal du Dimanche, France’s leading Sunday newspaper, has almost never missed a publication. But activity came to a halt this week after an editor with a far-right record was abruptly appointed just before French billionaire Vincent Bolloré’s takeover of the newspaper, sparking a massive strike by journalists and sparking a firestorm in the French media . and political circles.
Mr. Bolloré, an industrialist often described as France’s Rupert Murdoch, has steadily built a conservative media empire anchored by a Fox-esque news network, CNews. The appointment of the editor, Geoffroy Lejeune, who was formerly at a far-right magazine fined for racial slurs, raised concerns that one of France’s most prominent newspapers could be transformed into a right-wing platform.
“For the first time in France since liberation, major national media will be led by a far-right personality,” said an open letter published this week in Le Monde, France’s largest newspaper, signed by 400 academics, economists, cultural figures and left-wing politicians who support the JDD, as the newspaper is called. “This is a dangerous precedent that affects all of us,” the letter said.
Journalists from the JDD, known for its interviews with government leaders and largely centrist policy analysis, voted on Thursday to extend their strike to protest the hiring of Mr Lejeune, 34, who was sacked last year from the magazine Valeurs Actuelles amid a dispute with the owner over editorial management. The newspaper did not appear on Sunday, only for the second time since it was founded in 1948, and on Thursday evening the website was still at the top with last week’s news.
More than 1,000 people gathered at a theater in Paris this week at a rally organized by Reporters Without Borders, which condemned an attempt by Mr Bolloré to assert shareholder control over a newsroom.
The French Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, weighed in Twitter. “Legally, the JDD can be whatever it wants as long as it respects the law,” she wrote. “But as far as the values of our Republic are concerned, how can one not be alarmed?”
The episode has once again put the spotlight on Mr. Bolloré, a politically connected industrialist who hails from traditional Catholic circles in Brittany. His business empire includes global advertising agency Havas and he has a majority stake in media conglomerate Vivendi. He made his fortune in logistics and was known as the king of Africa for the huge business transactions that brought him wealth in former French colonies.
Following a corruption investigation into allegations that he propelled the presidents of two African countries into power in exchange for lucrative business contracts, in recent years Mr Bolloré has shifted the focus to his news media properties, which in France are often a high street for the very wealthy to influence political elections. More than four-fifths of private newspapers, TV and radio stations in France are owned by French or foreign billionaires or financiers. French state television and radio stations have dominant positions in the media landscape.
This summer, pending approval by the European Commission’s antitrust authorities, Mr Bolloré will secure his majority stake in Lagardère, a conglomerate that owns JDD magazine and Paris Match. It would make him head of one of the largest broadcasting and printing empires in France.
Arnaud Lagardère, the conglomerate’s CEO, who now essentially reports to Mr. Bolloré, tried this week to allay concerns about hiring Mr. Lejeune, who has made no public statements other than a short tweet say he was honored to take the helm. Mr Lagardère said the hiring decision, which he said was his alone, was purely a business choice and was not intended to change the editorial line.
“This fantasy of the far right making its way into the newspaper is not real,” he told Le Figaro newspaper. But he added: “The JDD also needs to know how to adapt to changes in the world.”
Mr Lejeune wrote on Twitter last week that his appointment was a “tremendous honour” and that he would “dedicate all my energy to succeeding in this challenge”. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Under Mr Bolloré, who typically avoids interviews and did not respond to a request for comment, several mainstream news outlets have been transformed into right-wing platforms that analysts say are in line with his political beliefs and a personal concern that France’s Christian culture is crumbling . . He recently bought a weak Christian newspaper with fewer than 10,000 subscribers, La France Catholique, with the aim of growing it.
The biggest shift came at CNews, once a 24-hour news network, where many journalists were ousted in protest or resigned when Mr Bolloré took ownership in 2015. Their replacements shifted focus to opinion segments and debates on hot-button issues, such as crime, immigration and the role of Islam in France.
The makeover propelled CNews into the top-rated TV ad in France, a country that has seen a steady rise in influence among right-wing and far-right politicians, especially during last year’s presidential election.
CNews gave a megaphone to figures like Éric Zemmour, a best-selling author known for his far-right nationalism, including the conspiracy theory of a “great replacement” of whites in France with immigrants from Africa. Inspired by Donald J. Trump, Mr. Zemmour became a TV star on CNews and ran against President Emmanuel Macron and Marine LePen in last year’s presidential election, in an ultimately unsuccessful bid.
Similar right-wing swings at Mr Bolloré’s other media companies, including a Canal Plus news channel and Europe 1, a top radio station, led to the departure of reporters and editors.
So when journalists in the JDD learned of Mr Lejeune’s appointment – not through an official announcement but through a news report – a riot broke out in the newsroom.
“Journalists are very concerned about media independence,” said Julia Cagé, a media economist at Sciences Po, a research university in Paris.
“If you look at what has happened in the last 10 years, Bolloré has destroyed the media he bought and used it to push a radical right, anti-minority rights and a Catholic perspective,” she said. “In that sense, he’s gotten worse than Rupert Murdoch.”
But in a country where right-wing candidates received more than 30 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election, Mr Bolloré’s platforms have filled what his supporters say is a political void in a French media landscape dominated by politically correct, left-wing journalists. .
“The media space in France is not neutral,” said Dominique Reynié, a professor at Sciences Po and founder of Fondapol, a right-wing think tank. “If you address issues like immigration or Islamism, which are really problems in France, you will be badly received by journalists who think you are right-wing or far-right.”
The appointment of Mr. Lejeune was a reflection of how the French media landscape is shifting towards “what is happening electorally in France, which is an increasing shift to the right,” added Mr. Reynie. “There’s a reader’s market on that side that doesn’t read the left press.”
That’s a bet Mr Bolloré seems happy to take.
“We have other media owned by industrialists who don’t interfere with the editorial line, which is not the case with Bolloré,” said Christian Delporte, a media historian at the University of Versailles.
“If he buys media, it’s because he has a desire to influence the political future of the country,” he said. “He is guiding the rise of the far right to power.”