Paris wants its
By Olivier Da Lage, Radio France
In a report submitted
to the prime minister on 29 September, French deputy Bernard Brochand recommended
that France's planned international news channel take the form of a joint venture
between the private broadcasting group TF1 and the public television group France
Televisions. According to the report, whose recommendations have been approved
by the prime minister, the new news channel, which hopes to compete with CNN and
BBC World, should be operational before the end of 2004.
The French government
is at present considering launching an international television news channel that
will compete with CNN, BBC World or Al Jazeera. This project, strongly backed
by President Jacques Chirac, should materialize in 2004. It aims at making a "French
voice" heard in the war of images in which international televisions are engaged.
There is a large consensus of opinion in France in favor of the project and it
is eagerly anticipated particularly in Africa and the Middle East. However, it
is facing numerous administrative and financial obstacles.
The plan to launch an
international French television service by satellite is not new. What is new is
the French president's determination to make this plan succeed at whatever cost
and without further delay. Speaking before the Higher Francophone Council in February
2002, Jacques Chirac asked, "Is it logical that year after year we continue to
deplore the consistent insufficiency of francophone news and broadcasting production
on the world scene? Everyone can see that we are far from having a full-scale
international news channel in French, one that is capable of competing with BBC
or CNN. The recent crises in Iraq have revealed the handicap suffered by a country-a
cultural domain-that does not have sufficient weight in the battle of images and
airwaves." During the electoral campaign in the spring of 2002, President Chirac,
at the time running reelection, referred to this issue as an "ardent commitment."
Once reelected, he gave very firm instructions that this project must not remain
on paper. France would have its "CNN, French-style".
What has reinforced the
French head of state's determination is no doubt the Iraqi crisis. France's special
position against a military intervention in Iraq outside the framework of the
United Nations, as opposed to Great Britain and the United States, made the absence
of a French equivalent of CNN or BBC World stand out glaringly. This is more especially
so as the spectacular breakthrough of Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV confirmed a
contrario that it was possible to break the Anglo-Saxon channels' apparent monopoly
of world TV pictures. The presidential resolve should not make us overlook the
fact that the project in itself is relatively old. CNN's role all through the
Kuwait crisis had already convinced the French authorities of the necessity of
establishing a counterbalance. Several personalities were entrusted with the task
of preparing reports on this subject but nothing was accomplished. In 1997, another
report, ordered by Jacques Chirac and the Gaullist Prime Minister during that
period Alain Juppé, detailed the modalities of such a project. However, the dissolution
of the National Assembly by Jacques Chirac and the ensuing change in the ruling
majority deferred its implementation to a later date.
A fragmented external
The French situation is
particularly complex. Contrary to Germany and Great Britain, the French public
broadcasting service is split into several companies. This took place in 1974
when President Giscard d'Estaing decided to divide the then existing radio-television
body into seven companies. Subsequently, each of these companies followed its
own logic and developed an independent corporate culture. The same situation prevailed
in the external broadcasting service, which is split between several radio stations
- Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Radio Monte-Carlo Moyen-Orient (RMC-MO),
as well as Radio-France's own independent external projects - and different television
operators - the interstate francophone channel TV5, the image bank CFI, AITV RFO
(television's overseas broadcasting pictures agency), etc.
This dispersal of strategies
and budgets is very expensive and does not necessarily achieve the efficiency
required, given the dispersal of effort and the bureaucratic and individual rivalries
existing among companies and the leaders concerned. This is why French leaders,
with a view to restricting the budget, have asked themselves whether it would
not be feasible to create the new international channel out of the existing ones.
In a way, such channels
already exist. TV5 was created in 1984 in partnership with the French, Belgian,
and Swiss public television stations. Two years later they were joined by Canadian
television stations. Programs became specialized and differentiated with the emergence
of a regional coverage of Africa (1991), Asia (1996), America (1998), and Europe
(1999). The constant improvement of the contents and coverage of TV5 did not however
dissolve its "federal" structure, which has public operators from several countries
as partners, and this complicates and slows down the decision-making process and
often gives the broadcast product the allure of a "patchwork" of French, Canadian,
Swiss, and Belgian newspapers, even though the news development specifically produced
in TV5 and the increasing number of news bulletins today give a more homogenous
character to the news content. Moreover, TV5's vocation as a francophone television
is not to limit itself to news but to cover all areas of culture, including music
and cinema. Although its headquarters is in Paris, TV5 is not and cannot be the
French international news channel.
The same definitely applies
to Euronews, a continuous European news channel created in 1993 by a consortium
of European public channels that are members of the ERU (European Radio Union).
Until spring 2003, 51% of the capital was owned by 20 public channels, and 49%
by private operators, particularly British, such as ITN and Reuters, which have
since withdrawn. Euronews is now owned 100% by 20 European public channels. Its
continuous news programs are broadcast simultaneously in English, French, German,
Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. At one time it also broadcast in Arabic;
news broadcasting in Arabic is currently under consideration again. Euronews is
based in Ecully, near Lyon in France. Some have considered that this could be
a potential base for international French television, particularly since the withdrawal
of the British. However, the simultaneous translation of all programs greatly
reduces the channel's capacity to react. Moreover, nothing indicates that France's
European partners would agree to make Euronews the envisaged international French
The same could be said
of Arte, a French-German cultural channel founded in Strasbourg in 1990. Other
than the fact that its objective was never to become a news channel, it was established
in accordance with a French-German treaty and the Germans are not in the least
interested in such a project, which according to them is not in keeping with Arte's
A lot more promising is
CFI (Canal France International), which cannot properly be called a television
channel and does not have its own production structure. It is rather an image
bank that, since its establishment in 1989, has transmitted magazines and broadcasts
produced by French operators, mainly to Africa, but also to other regions. However,
over the years, hotels and individuals in Africa have taken the habit of tuning
in to CFI as though it were in fact a full-fledged TV channel. However, CFI was
conceived from the very beginning as a T.V. "tube" channel for broadcasters. It
could possibly be envisaged as a direct broadcaster but in no way a producer of
In the private sector,
a news channel transmitted by satellite and by cable, has existed since 1994,
namely LCI, which belongs to the TF1-Bouygues group. Another channel, >i-television,
with more restricted distribution, was created a few years ago and belongs to
the Canal + group.
With regard to radio,
RFI (Radio France Internationale), which broadcasts news around the clock in twenty
languages and boasts of a significant network of correspondents abroad, has indisputable
know-how in the field of international news. But RFI lacks experience in television.
Agence France Presse (AFP), the only world news agency that is capable of competing
with Anglo-Saxon agencies, has an important network of offices abroad and very
good in-field knowledge of the five continents. However, the AFP statute is a
special one. It is neither a private company like Reuters or AP, nor a state public
service; in addition, its broadcasting experience is very limited.
A more simple approach
would certainly be to envisage a new news channel ex nihilo. However, taking
into consideration budgetary difficulties and the resolve expressed many times
by the government to cut back on external broadcasting expenses, this is simply
not possible. Total estimates to date show that the costs of operating such a
channel would be between 80 and 120 million euros annually. By way of comparison,
BBC News 24 operates with a private budget of 50 million sterling pounds annually,
to which should be added all the technical and editorial contributions provided
by the rest of the BBC group; Deutsche Welle-TV operates with a private
annual budget of 83 million euros, but a real budget of 121 million euros if we
include the services of the Deutsche Welle group; Euronews operates with
an independent annual budget of 30 million euros, but its pictures are put at
its disposal free of charge by its European share-holder channels.
The ideal "blank page"
solution being excluded for budgetary reasons, the only way left to proceed with
this project is to resort to existing facilities. As we have noted in the above-mentioned
synopsis, none of the companies likely to be interested in the project can take
it on alone. Hence, various operators must be encouraged to cooperate, overcoming
their differences of corporate culture and placing at the disposal of all synergies
without which the project will never see the day. At this stage of reflection,
several contrasting approaches are being considered by the government.
Some believe that the
state can not allow itself to spend more than it already does for external broadcasting
production, and that in any case, a private news channel, LCI, already exists.
It would therefore be sufficient to provide this channel with additional and relatively
modest financing, to allow it to fulfill the objectives assigned by the president
of the republic to an international channel.
This approach has come
up against the mistrust of those who, whether in the majority party or the opposition,
believe that it is dangerous to entrust such a mission-a "mission affecting sovereignty"-to
the main private broadcasting group, which is also number one in the world for
building and public works (Bouygues). This attitude has prevailed in particular
at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This project, supported by the head of state,
has also brought to the forefront the silent rivalries existing among influential
circles opposing the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
each believing that they should be the department to pilot the project. Those
who support this approach recommend that this international television obtain
support from the public broadcasting sector, particularly France Television and
RFI. In April 2003, the Prime Minister's office offered an invitation to tender
to the operators. Three proposals were submitted: two originating from the two
private television channels LCI and >i-television, the other submitted jointly
by France Television and RFI. The government took some time to consider these
proposals before announcing its choice while entrusting yet one more mission to
Deputy Bernard Brochand, who submitted his report on September 29, arguing for
a fifty-fifty partnership between the private television group TF1 and the public-owned
France-Televisions, with the purpose of putting the new channel in operation before
the end of 2004.
In the event, the government
has decided to request the various operators, both private and public, to merge
their projects, which is also what the Parliamentary Commission working on the
file, recommended. In its interim report published in March, the Commission recommended
that public and private operators put together their resources in a new structure
of a cooperative character that will be split in two: on the one side there will
be the image bank which could be CFI, and on the other side there will be the
broadcaster who will take the name of CFI-24. The Deputies evaluate the operation
costs of this structure at 80 to 100 million euros in addition to the contributions
of the channel's shareholding operators. Even though no definite decision has
yet been reached, broadcasting professionals express a certain skepticism regarding
the capacity of many operators, of such varying backgrounds and corporate cultures,
to overcome these difficulties and be able to run a well-oiled machine. The problem
is that that there is no economically viable alternative and no one has any doubts
regarding President Chirac's resolve to see this project materialize without further
The most important factor
remains: what will be the content of the transmission and at whom will it be targeted?
Over and above ministerial declarations, the articles and conditions published
in the invitation to tender in April gives valuable indications concerning this
The State wishes to promote
the development of an international news channel. Broadcast mainly in the French
language, this service's function will be to ensure a more important and more
visible French presence in the world battle of images and to contribute to the
pluralism of international news by offering TV viewers the choice of a different
outlook on news, marked by the particular viewpoint of our country regarding world
affairs, by its culture, and its individual spirit, and casting a favorable light
on its special historic and geographic ties. The international news channel should
also contribute towards a durable strategy of assuring French influence in the
- The transmission zone
will at first mainly target the Arab world, Africa, and Europe.
- The gradual extension
to North America, the Far East (particularly China and Japan), and Central and
South America should be envisaged in the proposals, the specific costs of each
being set out separately.
- The international news channel will be broadcast primarily in the French language.
- The transmission of English, Arabic, and Spanish versions should be envisaged
while specifying clearly the consequences for the editorial content and the cost
of the project.
- The channel's format shall be that of news channels comprising the handling
of daily international news, while reserving an important place for short magazines
related to cultural and economic news.
- The targeted audience should be as large as possible while at the same time
priority should be given to the political, economic, and cultural decision-makers
of the above-mentioned transmission zones. Young adults should also be given particular
attention as a target.
- The international news channel should blend into the broadcasting landscape,
particularly with regard to external broadcasting production.
- Possible synergies with societies belonging to public broadcasting sectors and
the existing private news channels should be carefully studied.
- Partnerships could be envisaged with foreign television operators.
- The project may benefit from public support, as far as its start-up investment
and operation are concerned.
- The project should be able to develop according to a schedule that takes into
consideration the available resources. It should have a step-by-step, modular
- The actual launching of the channel must be possible during 2004.
Thus drawn up, the invitation
to tender presents an ambitious project capable of a very modest start-up.
What editorial policy
should be adopted for "CNN French-Style"?
In the course of their
work, the deputies devoted a good part of their time to debating the editorial
policy of the new channel. This policy must certainly permit the introduction
of a French vision into the battle of images that international news channels
are engaged in. The Deputies note that for the moment the world image market is
overwhelmingly dominated by Anglo-Saxon productions such as CNN, BBC, and Reuters.
Therefore, it is very important that the future channel be equipped with an autonomous
production capacity usable by other television channels. The international news
channel should also make France's diplomatic positions known. How can this be
done without the channel appearing as a simple governmental propaganda organ?
In an op-ed article in the newspaper Libération, European Representative
for External Affairs Chris Patten wrote on May 22, 2003 of the extent to which,
in his opinion, it was essential that a French voice express itself: "World
pluralism needs more voices to make itself heard, and one of these voices should
be French." But Patten also warns the French government against the temptation
of wanting to exercise a political tutelage over this channel: "Some plead
for a public management of this French world channel to avoid any embarrassing
divergences from government policy; this would be a kind of natural compensation
for the public subsidies that this service will need to survive My reply for what
it is worth is clear: if this is your objective, it is useless to envisage the
launching of a competitor to CNN."
Obviously perplexed by
this dilemma, the deputies finally reached the same conclusion:
The purpose of the future
channel should be to broadcast to the world a French vision of world affairs and
also to contribute to information pluralism on the international scene. The necessity
of such a channel for our country is justified by the two following observations:
communications have become an established component of power in the contemporary
world, and a country that concentrates all its assets of power (economic, military,
cultural, and media) will be tempted to adopt a unilateral approach towards problems
arising on the international scene. CFI-24 should, therefore, bring a different
view to that of existing international news channels. It should also reflect the
diversity of opinions existing in the world and favor a multilateral approach
to resolving international crises.
Furthermore, this channel
should not be conceived as an instrument serving exclusively French diplomacy.
Nothing would be more open to criticism than the creation of an ORTF with a planetary
mandate, as, such a channel, conceived of as the "voice of France" would in all
likelihood go purely and simply unheard. Members of the Joint Commission consider
that the independence and professionalism of CFI-24 are two essential conditions
for its success. Its objective is in effect to be viewed throughout the whole
world by a large public, but also by professionals in the media field. A too official
or unbalanced handling of news by this channel will undeniably deprive it very
quickly of all credibility, especially given that our country has the reputation,
and in part justifiably so, of being interventionist in all sectors, including
For CFI-24 to become one
of the international reference channels its independence from the State is thus
indispensable, and this should be guaranteed - as we have said - by its statute.
In a few months time,
CNN, BBC World, Al Jazeera and others will without doubt be joined on satellite
by a little French sister. The "French difference" that Paris is clamoring for,
particularly in its independent diplomatic line and cultural policy, should therefore
be able to find its voice on the world's air waves. For this to happen, the State's
political will (another very French characteristic) should be able to triumph
over that other much less glorious French peculiarity-the technocratic vision
of France's higher bureaucracy, which, more often than not, prevails over a strictly
professional vision where broadcasting is concerned. TBS
Olivier Da Lage is
a journalist at Radio France Internationale (RFI) and editor-in-chief of the RFI
website. A graduate of the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (1978) and the
Centre de journalisme de Paris (1979), he worked as a Bahrain-based free-lance
correspondent for French media in the Gulf (1979-1982) before joining RFI in 1983.
He has written several books on the Middle East.