The Billionaire ‘French Murdoch’ Normalizing Le Pen’s Politics

(Bloomberg) -- The rise of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally to front runner in Sunday’s French election is closely intertwined with the emergence of a powerful conservative media machine backed by billionaire Vincent Bolloré, dubbed the “French Murdoch.”

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Since he started building his French media empire eight years ago, the platforms controlled by the Bolloré family through Vivendi SE have reeled in a growing audience by focusing on the far-right issues espoused by Le Pen and her party: crime and immigration. In doing so, they have pulled those concerns into the mainstream, according to academics who have studied the National Rally movement and French media.

It’s hard to say how far Le Pen’s ascent is down to Bolloré’s coverage — both may have benefitted from voters’ growing dissatisfaction with France’s established political parties. But what is clear, the academics say, is that Vivendi’s CNews television channel and related radio and print outlets have normalized and amplified her political message — though they caution it’s hard to draw a direct link between the content and voter behavior.

“Their choice of guests and the way content is framed can serve to legitimize a certain vision of the world,” said Safia Dahani, a post-doctoral fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, who studies the far right.

Le Pen’s party won the biggest share in the first round of voting on Sunday, beating both an alliance of the left and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist group. Macron dissolved the National Assembly and called for snap legislative vote following his party’s crushing defeat in the European Parliament election.

With a chance the July 7 second round will deliver a far-right majority in the lower house of parliament, the role played by the media is drawing greater scrutiny. In the past, most mainstream news outlets characterized the views pushed by Le Pen and her party, including a “French First” policy on employment, healthcare and public housing — giving citizens priority over non-citizens — as extreme. That guardrail has since weakened as platforms like Bolloré’s have echoed the party’s positions or even endorsed them.

Vivendi Chairman and Vincent’s son, Yannick Bolloré, 44, dismisses the notion that his father is pushing far-right politics, saying in an interview on the sidelines of the Cannes Lions conference in June that he’s a “Christian-democrat.” The younger Bolloré shrugged off a report in Le Monde that his father had a direct hand in the splintering of the mainstream conservative party over whether to join forces with Le Pen.

“I don’t know who he’s meeting, but he is not pulling the strings on anything, and he is not pushing one party or another,” Yannick said. “He is not far right.”

Still, in the weeks since Macron called the snap election, the Bolloré-linked media have gone into overdrive, increasing content sharing across platforms. A cover story in the influential weekly Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, or JDD — that the group acquired last year — featured a sympathetic interview with the president of the National Rally, Jordan Bardella, with the headline “My ambition for France.” Quotes from the interview were amplified by CNews and radio station Europe 1.

The star anchor of a talk show on Vivendi’s C8 channel, Cyril Hanouna, was given a special daily two-hour political show on the group’s Europe 1 radio. On CNews, a presenter praised the National Rally’s platform that grants the presumption of self-defense to police officers.

Bolloré-linked media are among factors contributing to the rising popularity of Le Pen’s party, said Julien Labarre, author of a study on CNews published in January as part of his doctoral thesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The study found that CNews attracts viewers — even if they only tune in once a week — who are much more likely to be National Rally voters. It concluded that as the most right wing of all French media and the one most supportive of far-right candidates, CNews is directly comparable to Rupert Murdoch-controlled News Corp.’s Fox News in the US. The channel “has the most ideologically radical news audience within the French media ecosystem, and that the pattern is more pronounced with higher frequency of use,” it said.

“(They) have an ideological purpose and a financial purpose,” Labarre said. “What better way to make money than to capture a segment of the population along ideological lines?”

Daily shows on CNews routinely feature political pundits promoting ultra-conservative talking points, with an emphasis on crime and insecurity, especially targeting immigrants, and attacks on Islam. The time spent on such themes gets the channel and other Vivendi media outlets frequent raps on the knuckles from the country’s media regulator.

In the most recent complaint, the watchdog on Friday sent out a formal notice, saying Europe 1 radio treated the left-wing alliance in a critical and pejorative manner, and that the platform lacked “honesty.” In February, France’s highest court asked CNews to respect plurality on the channel, including its commentators. Vivendi’s latest annual report describes incidents of sanctions, proceedings or fines against CNews from the regulator, including for comments “considered to encourage discrimination on religious grounds.”

For Labarre, French media laws — dating back to the 1980s and meant to promote political pluralism — are both obsolete and toothless.

“The fines are laughable,” he said.

For instance, Vivendi’s annual report says CNews was fined €200,000 ($215,000) in 2021 for comments about unaccompanied migrant minors. It lost an appeal in France and is now going to the European Court of Human Rights. In January this year the regulator fined the channel €50,000 for breach of honesty and accuracy about urban safety.

Vivendi declined to comment for this story.

Bolloré started building his French media empire in 2016, a year before Le Pen lost to Macron in the presidential election. He acquired what would become CNews that year, adding Europe 1 and JDD last year.

The rightward slant of these platforms appears to have boosted their audiences. CNews, which lost money for years, has started to turn a profit and by one measure beat its main competitor BFMTV in May for the first time, with a 2.8% market share, up from 0.7% in 2017. Europe 1, which got declining ratings for years, is seeing its audience growing with the addition of new shows hosted by CNews stars.

The news outlets make up only a small fraction of Vivendi’s globe-spanning media and publishing business, which served to diversify the Bolloré group away from logistics and shipping. The tycoon has a net worth of $8.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index — with the family holding company owning about 30% of Vivendi.

Bolloré entered the same segments that at one point gave News Corp. its media breadth. He dived into everything from film production and distribution, TV and broadcasting, advertising, newspapers and magazines to books and music. With his outlets’ tendency to support right-wing ideologies and promote conservative ideas, there has been an active tilt toward “God and country.”

His son Yannick says the direction taken by the group’s media units has been good for business. For instance, the younger Bolloré praised the strategy of CNews, whose editorial line he refused to qualify.

“It’s become the No. 1 news channel in France and is now profitable; as a shareholder it is the only metric that you look at,” he said.

--With assistance from Alberto Nardelli.

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