Emmanuel Macron Does TV Battle With French Billionaires

A revolution in French capitalism is taking place amid the pandemic. The country’s media landscape is being reshaped as influential broadcasters, newspapers and magazines change hands, triggering a race for influence among billionaire investors.

This big bang will inevitably cause sleepless nights for President Emmanuel Macron as he wages an uphill battle for reelection against far-right foe Marine Le Pen — whose first-round poll lead speaks to a falling trust in traditional institutions, including the media. But there’s opportunity for him, too.

These are politically sensitive deals, not just because they’re happening in the run-up to next year’s presidential vote but because of the ownership concentration they’d entail. This week’s proposed sale of Bertelsmann’s stake in television station M6 to billionaire Martin Bouygues’s conglomerate would bring 75% of the TV advertising market effectively under one roof. Bouygues already owns the TF1 television channel.

The bidding war for M6, which reportedly drew in Le Monde’s billionaire Czech investor Daniel Kretinsky and Vivendi’s Vincent Bollore, comes soon after another fight for influence at publisher Lagardere. Family scion Arnaud Lagardere is losing his grip on the company, while Bollore is tightening his hold on the publisher with the help of activist allies. Lagardere assets such as the glossy magazine Paris Match and radio station Europe 1 could end up controlled by the Vivendi mogul.

Macron is likely to play a key role in how this game of thrones plays out — and not just because of the traditional close ties between politics and business in Paris, or Macron’s fascination with the media after his own rapid rise to power five years ago.

There are multiple challenges for the president. Pushing back against consolidation would do nothing to help a fragmented media sector that suffers from unprofitable business models and Google’s and Facebook’s dominance of digital advertising. The current rules on ownership concentration speak to values that go back to World War II, according to consultant Jean-Clement Texier, and entrench the image of media brands as unprofitable tools of domestic influence.

But encouraging the creation of bigger media empires ahead of the election won’t thrill the Elysee Palace either. Vivendi’s Bollore has rattled the political establishment with the popularity of his channel CNews, praised by Le Pen as a place for “open debate” during lockdown. Labeled by Le Monde as France’s answer to Fox News, CNews hosts have played down Covid-19 and one has been fined for inciting racial hatred. Giving them a bigger platform would justifiably stoke fears of a “Trumpification” of French media.

CNews’s rise does, however, work in Bouygues’s favor. It will probably make Macron better disposed toward the combination of TF1-M6 as a “national TV champion” and bulwark against more populist channels. Nodding through the deal by taking a more relaxed view of antitrust rules would keep the likes of Bollore in check and help strengthen French media assets against the might of Silicon Valley. 

The pandemic has amplified the French state’s interventionist urge, including the recent defense of Carrefour as a strategic supermarket. As seen with Veolia’s swoop on waste-management rival Suez, once unthinkable domestic deals have become possible since the pandemic.

There’s a risk that this kind of concentration will make the playing field uneven for those without political backing. Still, cobbling together state-backed media companies doesn’t mean France is drifting into Soviet-style censorship, or going back to the 1960s when ministers had a row of buzzers at their desks to summon media bosses, as historian Alexis Levrier writes. It’s still possible to launch profitable, online media startups that influence French politics. 

Look at Loopsider, whose scoop revealing the police beating of music producer Michel Zecler galvanized protests against a flagship security law. Loopsider cofounder Bernard Mourad, a former investment banker and Macron adviser, tells me there are opportunities, even as the media sector is “veering to the right.”

Still, in an ideal world, lowering the barriers to consolidation would be accompanied by broader reform. Better regulation would ensure advertising prices remain fair, and force companies to remove extremist content more quickly. Generous state subsidies should be overhauled, as Sciences Po professor Julia Cage suggests. And public-sector TV assets could be used to start consolidation across Europe. If France can change its attitude toward domestic M&A so profoundly, why not consider international deals?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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