Does the French media censor itself?

PARIS, France — Press reports speculating on the love lives of France’s president and first lady have raised eyebrows for a reason one might not expect: the possibility of government pressure on the press. 

Two journalists were fired after a story about the rumors of infidelity by the first couple was removed from the website of the weekly newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, which is owned by a friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The possibility of indirect pressures on the French press has in the past concerned advocacy groups, such as Reporters Without Borders, which ranks France 43rd in its index of press freedom in 175 countries.

But “there is something worse than censorship,” among journalists in France said Hicham Hamza. “It’s self-censorship.”

The 33-year-old freelance writer and video journalist who covers culture, politics and religious issues, said being a journalist in the current climate allowed him “to observe the mechanism of domination over the media” firsthand.

Such tensions are not new in France, where they provide fodder for a debate about the sometimes fraught relationship between politicians and the press. That relationship has come under particular strain during Sarkozy’s term. Bloggers have nicknamed the president, who has close personal ties to several French media magnates, “Czarkozy” and “Sarkosconi.”

Government influence on the press has been an issue in France since before the affair rumors. In November 2008 example, the newspaper Le Figaro doctored a photo to remove an ostentatious diamond ring from the finger of Rachida Dati, the former justice minister. Two other oft-cited examples involve the president’s former wife, Cecilia. A former Paris Match editor lost his job after his magazine published a photo of the ex-wife with her new partner, displeasing Sarkozy. And Le Journal du Dimanche decided to kill a potentially embarrassing story that revealed the president’s former wife didn’t vote in the second round of the 2007 presidential election. At the time, Reporters Without Borders voiced its concern.

In France, “press are seen as people trying to stir the mud, or as people who are close to power, eating with politicians, disconnected from the people,” said Pascal Riche, the editor-in-chief and one of the founders of the French news website Rue89.

According to a January survey conducted for the newspaper La Croix by TNS Sofres/Logica, 66 percent of the 1,000 people polled said they distrusted journalists because they were subject to political pressures, which stymied their independence. About 60 percent said they believe financial pressures play a role in coverage.

“The impression of collusion between journalists and government is firmly rooted in the public’s opinion: a challenge to a profession that is also questioning its own ethics,” the newspaper wrote in its analysis of the results.

The perception does no great favors for the media in a country where the government pays a huge chunk of the revenue — 40 percent by some estimates — of the nation’s largest international news agency, Agence France-Presse, even though it is an independent body; or where the president's personal address book reads like a whose who of influential industry and media leaders; or where many of the country’s newspapers survive thanks largely to government subsidies.

“No national newspaper today is profitable,” said Riche. Furthermore, “How can you engage in a big investigation if your boss is a big friend of Sarkozy?” 

The president, Hamza noted, has spent more than two decades in public life cultivating connections at all levels, including the media. Topics of little substance, such as the infidelity rumors, become a diversion for the public and allow the mainstream press to avoid discussing subjects that challenge the government or that really matter to French people. This “Sarkocissism,” Hamza said, is “a state of mind.”

A journalist can tow the line and be “Sarko-compatible” or choose not to at some personal risk to his career in a precarious job market, Hamza said. However, he sees an opportunity for “breathing new life into journalism,” for those who are willing, such as some fledgling online publications. Satirical publications like Le Canard Enchaine and Charlie Hebdo also exist to push the envelope regularly.

Broadcast media has taken its lumps too, especially with recent changes that will give Sarkozy a more prominent role in nominating the future president of France Televisions, the broadcasting umbrella for the nation’s public channels. 

A blurring of politicians’ private and public lives has also contributed to the press’ uncertainty about what to cover. The media’s restraint is tested when Sarkozy’s wife, a former supermodel with whom he canoodles in public, acts as a de facto spokeswoman, as she did recently when she took to the airwaves to diffuse the rumor stories.

For a lot of French citizens, it is the first time they have been so exposed to the personal life of their leader. And this has been a costly mistake for Sarkozy, who relinquished some of the privacy afforded past presidents by taking his personal life public. 

“The president in France is the Republican king; he’s the heir of a tradition in which we had a sacred king,” said Riche, whose site is currently involved in a lawsuit for publishing a leaked video showing an unscripted president in a public television studio before an on-air interview. “The line moves because of the politicians. Before it was much more clear, they didn’t put their private lives in the public sphere. Before it was much more discreet.”