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How Far-Right Billionaires are Destroying French Politics – and What the UK Must Learn

The French media have boosted the far-right National Rally party. Are the British media doing the same in the UK?

National Rally’s Marine Le Pen. Photo: Ajax News & Feature Service / Alamy Stock Photo

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In the song La Puissance du port du Havre, French-Algerian rapper Médine sings about growing up in the working-class northern port city of Le Havre.

The experiences he lists include learning that the people of Le Havre resisted the Nazis, that marijuana was actually trafficked by some customs officers, and that the B in OCB – the famous brand of French cigarette papers, stood for Bolloré.

Médine was writing about the 1990s. But the sense he describes then – that the billionaires of the Bolloré family are lurking in the background of French culture – extends beyond cigarette papers to today.

Vincent Bolloré is one of the richest men in France and owner of the Vivendi group, a media conglomerate which includes television channels under the Canal umbrella as well as CNews the far-right television station that is France’s answer to Fox, and dozens of other properties.

French billionaire media baron Vincent Bollore. Photo: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Bolloré, often described as the French Rupert Murdoch, is arguably, though by no means single-handedly, responsible for the descent of French political discourse into a mire of reactionary invective, racism and conspiracy theorising around “Islamo-leftism” and replacement migration.

As other oligarchs have also consolidated their hold on French media, Bolloré’s name, used as the noun “bollorisation” has become a metonym for the reactionary turn taken by French media in general, and broadcast journalism in particular.  

This was particularly evident in the European elections, and the news that Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party leads in the first round of French parliament elections on Sunday.

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During the European elections, all the TV channels seemed to be saying was: Bardella, Bardella, Bardella. President of the National Front Jordan Bardella. Even the left-wing press got suckered in.

Serious left-wing outlets like Mediapart were covering the far-right candidate in enormous detail in an effort to counterbalance the propaganda from CNews and the other channels.

A quantitive study from the media monitoring platform Tagaday showed the scale of coverage of the head of the RN list Jordan Bardella, which far outstripped coverage of the head of every other list.

In second place, presumably as balance, was the Parti Socialiste/Place Publique’s Raphael Glucksmann, a Macron clone who has since joined the New Popular Front.

This Bollorisation can also be seen if you look at the figures of Arcom, the regulator of broadcast news that is meant to ensure parity among the different parties/lists. Nine out of the nine generalist channels that showed political content gave the most airtime to representatives of the Rassemblement National, sometimes by a factor of hours, between the 15th of April and the 7th of June.

Of the news-only channels, five out of six gave the most time to the Rassemblement National, with only EuroNews, whose coverage from June to April consisted of just 52 minutes of candidates speaking, giving a party other than the RN the most speaking time.

Unfortunately, the party they allocated the most time to was Reconquete, the party to the RN’s right, led by Eric Zemmour, France’s answer to Douglas Murray.

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The results from CNews, that they gave the RN six hours, two hours more than the centrist Modem list to whom they were the second most generous, are unsurprising. This is the jewel in the crown of Bolloré’s empire of reaction after all.

But the state-owned France 5 shows what it means that the media has been ‘Bollorisé’. The general purpose channel gave the RN two hours and 37 minutes, the centrist Modem list one hour 39 minutes, and the Glucksmann Place Publique/PS list 58 minutes.

The other left wing parties, who at the last set of elections commanded more votes than the large Socialist Party, were left in the dust by the channel.

It is hardly surprising then the far-right stomped every other party in the EU elections in France. This is not to downplay the real popularity of the RN in some sections of French society, but it is notable that CNews reached the critical momentum it needed for its ideology to dominate the French television landscape during the pandemic, when it had a captive audience of locked down viewers.

The success of the RN in our times of social atomisation and media saturation recalls Peter Mair’s work of political science Ruling the Void, in which he described the disconnection, towards the end of the twentieth century, of political parties across the European continent from the day to day lives of the citizenry.

Rather than engaging in politics through trade unions, labour clubs, churches or other forms of association, in which people at least knew people who had some kind of active political involvement, he described how politics became a spectator sport engaged with from the sofa, if at all. And it is managed via polling, focus groups and of course, media.

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There are warnings here for Britain. If the public remains passive consumers of political content as their only engagement with politics, oligarchs can step into the void. They can buy up the debate, the outlets that provide the final link between governors and governed.

The media’s obsession with Nigel Farage predates GB News. But take a look at the candidates put forward by Reform UK, a party polling as high as 17% according to some estimates. Take their ideologies – conspiracies about the World Economic Forum, musings on the Great Replacement, vaccine scepticism – which are heavily GB News inflected.

Indeed, Zemmour launched his political career off the back of his CNews pulpit, just as Farage has turbocharged his from the deliberately shabby studio in the high-tech Paddington office that hosts the channel.

Farage and Reform have been the beneficiaries of an undue boosterism throughout the UK election. Meanwhile the Green Party which has actual representatives sitting in local governments has struggled to get a word in.

Bolloré has fundamentally remade French politics with his media influence helping to normalise the far-right, and break down the cordon sanitaire.

Might Paul Marshall of GB News do the same? 


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