In its 543,965 square kilometers and some overseas dependencies, France has a population of 63 million. Currently under its Fifth Republic, a semi-presidential, semi parliamentary political system, and a founding member of the European Union, it is a democracy of long standing. As early as 1789, freedom of speech was one of the main claims of the French Revolution, with its famous article 11: “Freedom of speech and opinions is one of the most precious Human Rights; any citizen may then freely speak, write, print, unless he has to answer for an abuse of that freedom in the specific cases determined by Law.” Nevertheless, the French media system’s independence from the state came only at the end of the twentieth century. As a consequence, nowadays, the French media system is sometimes still unbalanced by its new freedom.
Print media – mainly the printed press, but also posters, etc. – have been ruled by a set of laws and government decrees based on the law of July 29, 1881, which established freedom of the press and printed material as a principle. The only limits are set by specific laws protecting minors or protecting individuals from defamation. For the audiovisual media, the case is different: freedom of radio and television is not a very natural state of affairs in France. Television and radio were a state monopoly for most of the twentieth century. The system started to come apart in the 1960s, when these media were reorganized under the sole aegis of the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF), which was nevertheless still subject to the Ministry of Information.
The end of the state monopoly, and the appearance of private radio and television stations, came when socialist politician François Mitterrand became president in 1981. After several short-lived and controversial reforms at the beginning of the eighties, the regulation of audiovisual media reached some level of stability with the September 30, 1986, law on freedom of communication. This established a fully independent regulating body for the audiovisual media, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). Its area of competence is very extensive: it may issue rules, enact them, and even sit as an administrative court.
Its control is very thorough, though sometimes criticized as being more or less politically minded, since its nine members are designated by the president of the Republic and the presidents of the two chambers of the French Parliament, with some inevitable side-effects.
French audiovisual media regulations are currently facing two main problems. First, the increasing use of the Internet in many new kinds of ways is establishing it more and more clearly as a competitor to the “classical” audiovisual media. Second, there are frequent conflicts of competence between the French legal system and the decisions coming from the European Union authorities.
Taking the Internet first, it was initially understood that it would be ruled by the body of laws and regulations specifically intended for telecommunications, namely the July 26, 1996, law on telecommunications regulation. This established an independent authority in charge of that field, the Autorité de Régulation des Télécommunications (ART), which in 2005 became the Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes (ARCEP). But the increasing use of broadband to convey television is generating a conflict of legal competence yet to be resolved: in this area, should the CSA or the ART/ ARCEP decide?
The second main problem comes from the discrepancies between the French and the European Union legal systems. One of the cornerstones of the European Union regulations on media, the Television without Borders Directive, is a particularly frequent source of conflict, because it throws the French legal system into disarray: it stipulates that a television channel legally authorized in any country of the European Union is then automatically authorized in the rest of the Union. This means that while the owners of a new channel need to go through a severe screening by the French CSA, they may seek an authorization to another less demanding country of the Union, and then be retransmitted in France through cable, Internet, or satellite.
The French printed press is split into two main kinds, which follow quite different paths: daily papers on one side, magazines and other non-dailies on the other. National and regional daily papers are rather weak and have trouble staying in existence. French dailies’ circulation (about 2.6 million copies) is very small compared with that in other similar countries, with a ratio in proportion to the population about half that in Germany or the UK, for instance.
Two of the dozen or so remaining French national daily papers (out of more than 80 a century ago), Le Figaro and Libération, have recently been bought by wealthy industrialists seeking influence and ready to take on their debts. In 2006, in spite of this help, Libération was put into receivership. The renowned evening daily Le Monde has been in a chronically difficult financial situation for some years, as have two smallercirculation, narrowly focused newspapers, the Communist L’Humanité and the businessoriented La Tribune de l’Économie (with sales of under 100,000 each). Three profitable morning national dailies are L’Équipe, a successful sports daily with sales over 366,000; Les Échos, another business paper, selling around 100,000; and the Catholic La Croix, again with a rather small circulation of around 100,000 copies. (Le Monde and Le Figaro average 350,000 copies.) As for the formerly popular evening daily France-Soir, it is on the verge of closing, while the tabloid Aujourd’hui en France is in fact a barely different version of the regional paper Le Parisien.
The situation of French national dailies has grown even worse recently with the launch of two free morning papers, Métro and 20 minutes, as successful here as everywhere else. Both seem to have become profitable after only a few years and have taken away a considerable share of the advertising market from the traditional dailies. In 2006, another French businessman, Vincent Bolloré, launched the first free evening daily, the tabloid Direct Soir, and intends to launch a free morning daily, associated with Le Monde. French regional dailies have also had some difficulties. Ouest France, prevalent in the western part of the country, is the most important, and is profitable, with about 780,000 copies a day. This is not the case for many other regional dailies. Le Monde has been forging alliances with a few of them, in order to try and obtain financial and industrial synergies. In contrast to the dailies, French weekly and monthly magazines benefit from a stronger readership and from steady profits, even if advertising is slowly declining here in favor of the Internet.
Television magazines have had the highest circulation for decades: here, Télé 7 Jours has traditionally been the leader since the 1960s, with 1.7 millions copies a week sold in 2005 – about the same as pocket-sized Télé Z. But the free TV program guides included as supplements with some national and regional dailies at the weekend are threatening them: the highest circulation figure (4.5 million copies) is that of the weekend giveaway TV Magazine.
The new trend in recent years has been gossip magazines, with the successful launch of Closer coming after the success of Voici, Public, and Gala (with a circulation of 300,000– 500,000 copies). Women’s magazines are also very strong, with trendsetter Elle and also Marie-Claire (300,000 – 400,000 copies), but the leader is again an end-of-the-week giveaway common to several national and regional dailies, Version Femina, with a circulation peak of more than 3.6 million copies. Femme Actuelle is the biggest-selling regular popular women’s magazine, with a circulation of more than 1.1 million copies.
The leading magazine publishers is Hachette Filipachi Media (HFM), a subsidiary of the Lagardere group, with its internationally known titles such as Elle or Premiere. Its main challenger is the German-origin Prisma group, created by expatriate Axel Ganz with considerable success. A third main publisher of French magazines, British-origin Emap/ France, has recently sold its assets to Italian-bred Mondadori.
The economics of radio in France are still very much a consequence of its longstanding situation as a state monopoly. Of the four biggest radio groups, three remain the same as before the 1980s. First, there is state-owned Radio France, inheritor of the radio holdings of the former ORTF (i.e., the generalist France Inter, cultural France Culture, classical France Musique, etc.). Then there are two private radio groups, RTL and the Lagardere-owned Europe 1 group, that have been in existence since the 1950s: they were initially tolerated because they had been incorporated and were broadcasting in neighboring countries.
Their only recent contender is the NRJ Group, a popular radio station which arose from the hundreds of so-called “free radio” stations authorized in 1981, when the Socialists won the elections. Most of the other newly founded stations did not survive, remained local, or did not manage to form a media group going much further than their main station. To compensate for their weakness, several so-called “independent” radio and television stations have formed a lobbying structure, the Syndicat Interprofessionnel des Radios et Televisions Indépendantes (SIRTI).
The structure of French television has changed considerably since the mid-eighties, although state-owned France Television is still a major player. But it is the TF1 group that is dominant, with its main asset, TF1, bought by industrialist Francis Bouygues when the 1986 conservative government decided to open television up to competition by privatizing the leading channel. The TF1 group is by far the most profitable television group, with TF1 audience market share steadily at between 30 percent and 40 percent, and its share of the advertising revenues at over 50 percent.
The two other major players in television are M6, initially dedicated to music but now a strong generalist channel, and Canal Plus, the first and dominant pay-TV channel. There is strong competition among these groups. State-owned France Television, TF1, and M6 even formed an alliance to build up a satellite pay-TV service, TPS, against Canal Plus’s satellite pay-TV programs, Canal Satellite. But in 2006, when the newly arrived free digital transmissions started to put satellite pay-TV in the shade, the three private groups, TF1, M6, and Canal Plus, formed an alliance, unifying their satellite and pay-TV subsidiaries under the banner of Canal Plus. They were joined by the Lagardere group; France Television had already left the alliance two years earlier.
Here, the leader in terms of subscriptions is still Orange/France Telecom, the former monopoly in telecommunications, now privatized through its Internet subsidiary, also called Orange. An independent Internet player, Free, is a vigorous challenger, inventing a multimedia terminal, the Freebox, which is the first that can deliver ADSL broadband Internet and television (and now also Wi-Fi and phone) simultaneously, and for a much lower price than its competitors. Tiscali and Cegetel Internet subsidiaries are other important contenders in the market, while AOL’s French subsidiary completely misfired, and sold its operations in 2006 to Cegetel.
Thanks to the strong competition among Internet providers in price as in service, about 11.1 millions homes had broadband access at mid-2006, a figure more than 40 percent higher than a year earlier.
Less developed than in other countries, the cable providers have now all merged under the banner of UPC-Noos, but remain a minor player (about 6 percent of Internet access).
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